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Diverse group of relievers ringing up outs for Travelers

by Mitchell Gladstone | May 30, 2021 at 2:18 a.m.

Ask Travelers pitching coach Alon Leichman about his bullpen and he'll tell you the relievers are a bunch of weirdos.

Then again, Leichman could care less whether or not the Travs' relievers are the most normal group of guys around. What matters to him is they're getting outs.

Nearly a month into the season, they're doing plenty of that. Excluding a 13th-inning outing from outfielder Connor Lien on Thursday night, the Travs' pen entered Saturday with a combined 2.94 ERA through 671/3 innings of work -- a mark that ranked second best in the Class AA Central.

Arkansas' impressive relief work wasn't up to snuff Saturday evening, however, with Jake Haberer giving up a pair of seventh-inning runs in a 5-2 defeat to the Tulsa Drillers.

It was the Travs' fourth loss in a row at Dickey-Stephens Park. Arkansas has logged six or fewer hits in each of those games, but the Travs' offense hasn't been able to take advantage of potential scoring opportunities -- they stranded 12 runners on base and finished Saturday 1 of 18 with runners in scoring position.

Even in this rough stretch at the plate, the Travelers' relievers have remained a steady presence that's kept Arkansas at .500 or better for nearly the entire season.

"They're ready to go every day," Leichman said of the bullpen. "Their mindsets are right. They each have their plan and they just attack that plan. It lets them be free out there to go out and compete because ... it's easy to go out there and know a few simple things they have to focus on."

The anchor of the group is Darin Gillies, a 28-year-old right-hander who's now in his fourth season with the Travs. In nine innings thus far, the 2015 10th-round pick of the Mariners has surrendered 1 earned run while striking out 15 and limiting his opponents to a .206 batting average.

He's the oldest of the six Travelers relievers who are 25 or older, with 27-year-old Jack Anderson not far behind. Though the pair are close in age, they're about as different as you get on the hill.

Gillies is more of your standard-fare reliever nowadays, pumping fastballs at 95 mph with a strong breaking pitch to keep batters off balance. Anderson is a submarine-style hurler, nearly grazing the mound on each delivery and just barely hitting 80 mph on his heater.

It hasn't stopped Anderson from building on a 2019 campaign in which he struck out 51 batters over 54 innings with a 1.50 ERA.

"Trying not to get outside yourself is the biggest thing, and embracing your role and who you are as a pitcher -- it just plays such a major factor in excelling," Anderson said. "I'm trying to get weak contact -- it's going to take three hits to beat me, to score a run -- and I'm trying to limit damage. I'm working with the deception, and that's the stuff that plays for me."

Gillies and Anderson, along with 26-year-old Collin Kober, share the Travs' lead in appearances at eight apiece. They've combined to compile a 1.76 ERA in 302/3 innings.

But there's also youth in the mix. Reid Morgan, 24, has been utilized as both a long reliever and a late-inning fireman with plenty of power to overwhelm opponents.

Friday night, 21-year-old Holden Laws made his Class AA debut, tossing two frames of shutout ball.

He was followed by Leon Hunter, 24, who arrived in North Little Rock just an hour before first pitch, and the righty was pumping gas. In 21/3 innings of work, Hunter held the Drillers to 1 run on 2 hits with 1 strikeout.

It's the variety that catcher Brian O'Keefe sees giving opponents trouble on a nightly basis.

"You've got so many different looks," O'Keefe said. "Collectively, we have an older group of guys here. They know what they're doing, they're pretty committed to their plan -- what they're trying to execute with their stuff."

That plan isn't the same for everyone. As Leichman explains, he's constantly looking at the data provided by TrackMan, which includes speed, spin rate and both vertical and horizontal movement.

The objective with all pitchers -- not just relievers -- is to identify which pitches are working and compare their numbers to those of pitchers at the major-league level.

"We're in the business of making big-leaguers, not Double-A All-Stars," Leichman said. "We're not really too concerned with their results in Double-A right now. ... If you need to go out there and work on something today that in the long-term will help make you a big-leaguer, I'm OK with you walking a guy because you can't locate the new slider you're working on.

"You have that freedom from us to work on something that you think will get you to the big leagues, so don't be afraid to show it in the game."

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