Putz, Hernandez a dynamic back of bullpen
PHOENIX --- There's a legacy that D-backs general manager Kevin Towers will leave when he's finished with baseball. The man knows how to build a bullpen with an epic closer and at least one lights-out setup guy to take the team sailing into the ninth inning.
During the end of his San Diego era, it was Trevor Hoffman-Scott Linebrink, Hoffman-Heath Bell and Bell-Mike Adams. In Arizona, it's J.J. Putz-David Hernandez.
"I've always worked in markets where the bullpen was one area I could focus on," Towers said Saturday after the D-backs held on for a 5-4 victory over the Giants at Chase Field, their second by that identical score in as many days. "I've never been in a market where I could go after the No. 1 starters or the regular players, so I've always targeted the bench and the bullpen."
Towers insisted that rebuilding the bullpen would be a priority when he took over the D-backs near the end of the 2010 season. Without a pure closer, the Arizona 'pen saved just 35 games that season as the team lost 97. He went out and signed the often erratic and injured Putz to close and traded slugging third baseman Mark Reynolds to Baltimore in the deal that netted Hernandez, who had been a starter but was quickly moved into the setup role.
Last year, the D-backs' bullpen saved 58 games. Look no further than that for the reason why they jumped from worst to first in the National League West, recording a 94-68 record.
"We're winning the close games," Towers said. "Two years ago, that's where they struggled. They gave away leads late in games."
Not anymore. With the new season only two games old, Putz-Hernandez are back at it again. Putz has two saves and Hernandez a pair of holds. The Giants have scored a single run on three hits and struck out six times in the two innings against them.
When the Giants had a chance to tie the score with a runner on second and two out in the ninth inning Friday, Putz threw a nasty cutter to Buster Posey, who pounded the pitch to short. End of game. Putz didn't have a cutter last year when he saved a career-high 45 games in 49 attempts. He said he worked on that pitch all winter and unveiled it Friday. On Saturday, he threw no cutters and relied on his splitter. He whiffed two and the Giants didn't hit the ball out of the infield.
"They're tough," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy about Putz-Hernandez. "That's a pretty good one-two punch. That's why the D-backs had tremendous success last year. You have your work cut out for you when you're down and you have to go up against those two."
Bochy spent 11 years of his career as manager of the Padres, working with the bullpen Towers provided for him. Together they won four division titles and were swept in the 1998 World Series by the Yankees. Bochy took over on the field for Jim Riggleman in 1995. Towers replaced Randy Smith in 1996. Bochy left on his own volition for the Giants in 2007 and Towers was dismissed after the 2009 season.
Towers sat out most of 2010 as the Padres paid off the final year of his contract and he scouted for the Yankees. He took over the D-backs on Sept. 22 of that year. In his meetings with then-interim manager Kirk Gibson, Towers made it plain where he was heading. After all, Towers was a pitcher himself.
"K.T.'s philosophy is that he believes in pitching," said Gibson, who very quickly had the interim tag taken off his title. "He believes in building a staff from the back forward. So we got J.J. We got David. You've got to give K.T. a lot of credit, though. He forecasted David Hernandez, who was basically a starter. We put him in the eighth-inning role and he's been phenomenal. He threw the ball better today than he did yesterday."
The key for Towers has always been scouting and footwork. He inherited Hoffman, who was acquired by Smith from the Marlins as a lesser light in the 1993 fire-sale deal that sent Gary Sheffield to Florida. Hoffman was a converted infielder who had only saved two games when he arrived in San Diego. He finished his career in 2010 with 601, second only to Mariano Rivera.
Likewise, Towers plucked Linebrink off waivers from the Astros a decade later. Adams was traded to the Padres during the 2006 season a week after the Indians picked him up on waivers from the Mets. And Bell was acquired after that season in a minor trade with the Mets.
Towers had little money to work with near the end in San Diego and took that same ethos with him to Arizona. Hernandez was another tiny gem found in a haystack.
"He reminded me a lot of Bell, who was also a starter when we got him in San Diego," Towers said. "When Baltimore moved him to the 'pen at the end of the 2010 season, they saw his velocity spike. He's a big, strong durable guy with a power arm."
Towers couldn't afford a big-time closer, so he signed Putz, who had saved only five games over the previous two seasons, to a two-year contract, guaranteeing him $11.5 million. The genius was the $6.5 million club option for 2013 with a $1.5 million buyout. If Putz stays healthy, consider that option exercised. And so far he's only had one stint on the disabled list this past July because of right shoulder tendinitis. In his absence, Hernandez saved 11 games.
Towers called the Putz deal one of "low risk and high reward." He should know. He's done it a few times before. And again he has a bullpen tandem for the ages.
"It's hard to compare anyone to Hoffy," Towers said. "But these guys are solid back-end-of-the-bullpen guys who are very consistent. We feel very comfortable each and every time they go out there."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.