Whitecaps Bullpen Lives Under the Radar

In baseball, it's easy to identify the players who have an immense impact on their team—the home run hitters, the ace starting pitcher, the base stealer—and the list goes on and on. Less noticed—though equally essential—are the players that come out when the game is at least half way over; that is, the pitchers that comprise the bullpen.

For West Michigan, the bullpen has been a linchpin in the team's success this season, highlighted by All Star closer Bruce Rondon (2-1, 1.80, 13 SV).

For Rondon, the family element that he's noticed in West Michigan has played a huge role in the bullpen's success.

"It's not hard to leave your family and come to a different country, because when you come to the ballpark with the guys it feels like family," Rondon, who is a native of Venezuela, said.

Rondon, who's only given up four hits and one run in his last ten outings, was named to the 2011 Midwest League All Star Game roster, which is created by Midwest League coaches.

"I was really excited to go," he said on the opportunity to go to the Midwest League's version of the midsummer classic. "I didn't think I'd have the opportunity."

Rondon isn't the only one impressing fans and scouts out of the bullpen, though. Reliever Ramon Lebron (2-1, 1.97, 1 SV), who struggled with hitting the strike zone last season as a starter, has thrived in the bullpen so far this season, and has provided another solid option out of the pen for the 'Caps.

Lebron said that his adjustment wasn't a difficult one.

"For me, it's simple: just throw strikes," he said. "We're just trying to throw a lot of strikes and keep the number of balls we throw down."

So far, Lebron has been able to do just that, accruing forty-two strikeouts with only fifteen walks.

Like Lebron, pitcher Patrick Cooper (3-4, 3.29) played part of a season in West Michigan in 2010. Unlike Lebron, though, Cooper was with the team during their impressive run to the post season, in which they won twelve games in a row to clinch a wild card spot in the playoffs.

Cooper thinks that—at least for the returning players—last season's run to the playoffs provided a decent amount of motivation going into this season.

"Last year—when we made that run—we really had a lot of energy and confidence about us," he said. "It definitely helped coming into this year by letting that energy and confidence carry over."

He said that the starters have been a great contributing factor to the bullpen's success, as well.

"Our starters have done a really good job," Cooper said. "Any time your starters do a good job and put you in a position to have success then that helps out the bullpen, and allows us to go into the game with good momentum."

Furthermore, Cooper said that having basically the same bullpen throughout the season—a rarity in low-A baseball—has played a large part in their success.

"Having the same unit really helps a lot. We have really good chemistry down there," he said. "Everyone knows each other really well, and each player knows how the other works. You kind of know what to expect when each pitcher goes out there. You know what he's good at, and you know what kind of situations that he should throw in."

"Whenever you get to know each other, you can have a feel for who's going into a game next when you're down in the pen," Cooper continued. "It helps to be able to pick each other up, too. When you know each other well, you can communicate better without being as shy."

For Cooper, his goals for the end of the season—both personally and in terms of the team as a whole—are simple.

"I'd like to keep improving, and I'd like to see my numbers get better. Towards the end of the year, instead of wearing down, I'd like to stay strong and keep getting better," he said. "We'd love to be in the playoffs, and we'd love to win a championship. That's what it's all about, and that's what we come out here every day to do."

Pitching coach Mark Johnson thinks that the success his bullpen has seen is due to how versatile West Michigan's pitchers are.

"I think that, for the most part, any of our guys can pitch at any point in any game," Johnson said. "Some guys have had more opportunities later in the game, but we're not afraid to use anybody late. And having that option has given strength and confidence to our pitchers that they can do their job in any role."

Like Cooper, Johnson thinks that the team dynamic that encompasses this bullpen has helped the unit move forward.

"I think that being a team is important. You can pull for each other, and understand where to help each other," Johnson said. "Maybe one pitcher has a great breaking ball and the other has a great changeup. They can help each other and make great conversation. It's about being teammates and helping each other get to the big leagues."

One of the pitchers that Johnson is most impressed with is Lebron.

"As a starter or a reliever, Ramon has made great strides in controlling his emotions," Johnson said. "He goes out there taking it one batter at a time. That for me is his biggest change from last year to this year, no matter what role he's in."

Johnson said that, while many people view Rondon as the set-in-stone closer, the team isn't necessarily committed to anyone being in that role.

"The way that I look at it is that one guy may get more opportunities, but he may not get it every time," Johnson said. "To have a defined closer means that you're getting the opportunity every time. And that's not going to happen, because what happens when that guy gets moved up? Now you have nobody. So you have to give other guys opportunities. Yes, Bruce gets the majority of the opportunities, and he deserves that. And he's going to get the majority if Ernie chooses to go that way. But I think it's important that other guys get those opportunities."

While the outlook continues to be a good one for the pitching staff—the starting rotation is improving, as well—Johnson is keeping his goals for the staff as simple as possible.

"My goal for them is to do whatever they need to do to keep their team in the game," Johnson said. "Hopefully they can look back and say 'I did my job.'"

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