In the eighth inning Saturday, as the standing ovation for starter Martin Perez still echoed in the night air, we looked out at the mound and there he was again.
Neal Cotts, the Lazarus lefty of the Texas Rangers’ bullpen.
Back in the big leagues, his career revived after three seasons of recovering from elbow surgery, Cotts has been the most valuable surprise of the Rangers’ season.
His relief appearance Saturday was his 39th of the season. Right-hander Jason Frasor has pitched in 45 games; Tanner Scheppers has worked in 54.
Too much? The manager certainly doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think they’ve been used a whole lot lately,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said, swiftly dismissing the question. “Since we came out of the break, I think the load has been spread around pretty good.”
A baseball team can win a lot of games with stout, steady starting pitching.
Managers win pennants, though, with a dependable, rested and ready bullpen.
Through 123 contests this season, counting Saturday night’s 15-3 rout of the Seattle Mariners, Rangers pitchers have thrown three complete games.
A year ago, the Rangers had only seven complete games for the entire season.
As Washington visited with the media before Saturday’s game, he turned the question over to an old ex-pitcher who was in the room. Rangers TV announcer Steve Busby, who threw two no-hitters in his brilliant-but-brief major league career, had 20 complete games in 1974, 18 more in ’75.
Seven complete games for the Rangers in 2012? Nolan Ryan alone had six in 1989 at age 42.
“Did that ever happen to you, Buzz?” Washington playfully asked Busby. “When you gave one up, was it because you were being overused?”
Washington giggled at the thought. So much for my otherwise well-intentioned question.
Against the Mariners on Friday, Cotts and Scheppers were touched for homers in a 3-1 loss. It marked the first time in more than two weeks that the Rangers’ bullpen had allowed multiple runs to score.
Don’t read anything into it, Washington said Saturday.
“I think if anyone is trying to make something of them not getting something done, I think it’s somebody making an excuse,” Washington said.
“Cotts has been nails. He gave up one last night. Overused? No. He threw a ball in the wrong spot.
“Scheppers? He hasn’t been used a whole lot this second half. Overused because he gave up a bomb? I’m not going with that one. He threw a ball in the wrong spot.”
Earlier in the season, as the Rangers struggled to plug injury voids in their starting rotation with rookies Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm, the argument could well have been made that the pace was going to tax the bullpen. Both Grimm and Tepesch averaged less than six innings per outing over their combined 33 starts.
But as the season moves into its final six weeks, Rangers relievers seem to have comfortably returned to normal. By contrast, heading into the weekend, the Dodgers had three relievers with at least 58 appearances, including Ronald Belisario with 61.
Washington doesn’t dwell on the disappointing end to the 2012 season, but there is no doubt he is sensitive to the issue of having a well-rested team for the September stretch.
Cotts’ workload is being closely monitored, the manager assured.
As we were reminded Saturday, don’t try to suggest otherwise.