College baseball: Shutdown bullpens you don't want to face with the game on the line
Fireballing starters and home run-bashing sluggers steal most of the headlines, but having a reliable bullpen is also key to moving on in the postseason.
That was part of the equation last year in Coastal Carolina's run to the national title that included consecutive one-run victories in Games 2 and 3. In that three-game series, the Chanticleers pen tossed 8.1 innings and allowed just three earned runs en route to the championship.
So which bullpens line up to make an impact in this year's tournament? Here are some of the top units who are pitching lights out:
The No. 1 Beavers are blessed with arguably the top duo in the nation, as far as bullpen arms go.
Redshirt senior Max Engelbrekt has continued to improve in his second year as closer with a 2-0 record, 0.82 ERA and five saves in 11 innings. Providing the bridge to Engelbrekt is freshman Jake Mulholland, who's quickly stepped into a big setup role for Oregon State with four wins, three saves and a 0.59 ERA in 30.2 innings. Both are lefties with a similar build and each have a fastball ranging in the 86-90 mile per hour zone.
Mulholland showed he can eat innings as well, pitching a season-high 6.2 frames in relief in last Saturday's 16-inning victory over Utah. The Washington native picked up the win while allowing one run on two hits in the extended outing.
He went 2-0 last week with a save in 10 2/3 innings of relief.— Oregon St. Baseball (@BeaverBaseball) April 10, 2017
For that, Jake Mulholland has been named the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Week. pic.twitter.com/gwZTAYZ0Rw
Brandon Eisert (2.57 ERA; 21 innings) and Grant Gambrell (3.38 ERA; 8.0 innings pitched) provide additional steady arms for a pitching staff that leads the nation with a 1.81 ERA.
Like Mulholland, TCU's Durbin Feltman wasted little time carving his role into TCU's bullpen last year as a freshman. The 6-foot, 190-pound righty was 9-for-9 on saves and stranded 13-of-14 inherited runners in his debut 2016 season.
He's been just as good this season, already picking up eight saves and two wins in 13 outings for the No. 3 Horned Frogs. Owning a 1.32 ERA so far this season, Feltman has yet to blow a save in his college career.
TCU has five other relivers with at least 12 innings on their ledger this year, all boasting ERAs of 3.30 or less. Sophomore Sean Wymer can reach 90s on his fastball and has struck out 36 batters in 25.2 innings.
The Horned Frogs are 8-1 so far in games decided by two or less runs. They've got an arsenal of arms who can hold down leads, and that bodes well for a program aiming for its fourth consecutive College World Series appearance.
When you're scoring more than seven runs per game — and averaging a whopping 17 over the last four games — there won't be quite as many nailbiters to sweat through. But when the Tar Heels relief corps was called upon, they've answered.
At the backend, redshirt freshman Josh Hiatt is tied for the ACC lead with 10 saves. Listed at only 5-11, the first-year closer can still fire fastballs in at the lower 90s, striking out 32 batters in 24 innings.
Hiatt is supported by Taylor Sugg (8.1 innings, zero runs allowed) and Brett Daniels (3-0, 2.01 ERA in 22.1 innings) among others. Before UNC's four-game offensive explosion, the Tar Heels battled to four straight victories of three runs or less. During that span, the bullpen went 3-0 while allowing just two runs in 21.2 innings pitched.
The Gamecocks' unit lost one of the nation's top closers in Tyler Johnson when the reliable righty exited a game in early March due to arm soreness. Now he's back and looking to add to his four saves as South Carolina gears up for what will be a thrilling SEC title race.
The feeling when you get cleared. See you Tuesday. pic.twitter.com/r3DDV5hqmv— Tyler Johnson (@TyJohnson_21) April 8, 2017
In Johnson's absence, others have stepped up admirably. Four additional Gamecocks have picked up saves, led by seniors Colie Bowers (0.83 ERA, three saves) and Josh Reagan (2.70, two saves).
Sure, there were some hiccups without Johnson — the day after his injury, Clemson's Seth Beer hit a game-tying homer in the ninth inning in an eventual 11-inning Tigers comeback victory. Altogether, Bowers and Reagan blew three saves while Johnson recovered. But with those two returning to supporting roles, where they've both been effective, South Carolina's bullpen shapes up to be one of the better ones in the SEC.
Lincoln Henzman is averaging nearly a strikeout per innining and has 10 saves for the No. 2 Cardinals. He was virtually untouchable through the first month of the season, going seven straight appearances without a run and allowing just three hits during that stretch to start the year.
Henzman is often stretched past one inning, doing so in seven of his 12 appearances. He's gone three innings twice. Meanwhile, a pair of teammates are off to even better starts in front of him. Sam Bordner and Adam Elliot have yet to allow a run in 31.1 combined innings.
Louisville's five main relievers, all with at least 10 appearances, have limited opponents to a .159 combined batting average against this season. There's plenty of firepower in the Cardinals pen.