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Bullpen key to Team USA's success

3/6/2009

TORONTO -- When Jake Peavy starts for Team USA on Saturday against Canada in the World Baseball Classic, Marcel Lachemann may be the most nervous person in the ballpark.

That's because once Peavy hits 70 pitches, he must come out of the game, and whenever that happens, it's up to Lachemann -- the team's pitching coach -- and manager Davey Johnson to move into Phase 2, which is managing the bullpen. It might not seem like an ardent task, but with strict 30-pitch limits for all relievers, it takes on an added significance.

"I'm going to be sitting on pins and needles," Lachemann said.

Lachemann has good reason. On Thursday, his worst nightmare came true when Team USA ran out of relievers in its exhibition game against the Phillies, who didn't want to stop playing and actually lent them a reliever. Lachemann knows Venezuela, Italy and Canada -- the other teams in Pool C -- won't be swinging open their bullpen doors to help out the opponent.

"The games get stretched long, it can get scary," Lachemann said.

Compounding matters is that this week B.J. Ryan, Brian Fuentes and Joe Nathan, three All-Star closers, had to pull out of the tournament. LaTroy Hawkins, Heath Bell and Joel Hanrahan helped fill their place. But none of those pitchers has a résumé anywhere near as stellar as those of Ryan, Fuentes and Nathan.

How the bullpen is managed during this first round, in particular, will be vital to Team USA's success. The coaching staff is in a bit of a Catch-22: It's early March and players can't be overused, but they also need to get their work in while being allowed to throw no more than 30 pitches per outing. Relievers also aren't allowed to throw on consecutive days; that's why a Phillies pitcher made a guest appearance for Team USA.

"It does put a little bit of pressure on you as a coach here," said Mel Stottlemyre, the bullpen coach for Team USA. "We have an obligation to their [major league team] and their pitching coach to try and do the right thing. For them, it's still spring training -- and for us, we're in a position we're trying to win."

In light of Team USA's failure in 2006 -- when it couldn't even advance to the semifinals -- the significance of winning seems to have amped up everybody. Stottlemyre said he has noticed the relievers already have been trying "to do a little bit more." While in the bullpen, Stottlemyre has seen them squeeze the ball a little harder, their adrenaline causing them to overthrow. Johnson also saw that in the first three exhibition games, and said that the relievers so far "have had a really rough spring." Team USA relievers have a 7.41 ERA, while the starters' ERA is 2.79.

"I think in 2006 the USA team was embarrassed that they didn't go farther," Stottlemyre said. "They invented baseball in our country; we're supposed to finish higher. The mindset of guys here isn't win at all costs; it's win with a certain amount of caution. But they're all geared up and they want to be as far along as they possibly can be."

That likely strikes fear into these players' respective pitching coaches, who all consult daily with Lachemann. Since both he and Stottlemyre have been successful pitching coaches at the big league level, they are approaching the staff's use with care and with their colleagues in mind.

"We've got a responsibility to try and keep them healthy," Lachemann said. "We're trying to win games and we have pitch counts, so it's a real balancing act as to making sure they get enough work, but not too much."

The bullpen is made of up 11 relievers, and all of them are one-inning guys, except for one or two.

"Scot Shields is one," Lachemann said, referring to the Angels' set-up man. When pressed who the others are, he said, "That's pretty much it, really."

As for who the closer will be, take your pick. Johnson said he couldn't answer the question until after meeting with his coaches. The likely candidate for the first game is J.J. Putz, who was the Mariners' closer last year and now is the Mets' set-up man. Bell, Hanrahan and Matt Lindstrom all are options, as is Oakland's Brad Ziegler, whom Stottlemyre called a "wild card."

"Based on the other guys we have in the 'pen, I would guess I'd be one of the first guys out," Ziegler said. "Most of the guys here are one-inning guys."

Stottlemyre added that Ziegler "seems like he's pretty much ready to go every day and in every situation."

At this stage of the year, it's likely that most of the other pitchers can make no such claim. So Team USA's hopes could come down to Johnson and Lachemann's deft handling of their pitchers. If not, then this year's team could be facing early elimination once again.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.