May 18, 2024

The Dodgers relief corps was reeling in mid-June, with back-to-back shellackings at the hands of the San Francisco Giants exacerbating the struggles of an already ailing bullpen.

There was a Friday night meltdown in the wake of Emmet Sheehan’s brilliant big league debut, the bullpen following the right-hander’s six no-hit innings by giving up six earned runs in five innings of a 7-5, 11-inning loss on June 16.

And a Saturday night beatdown in which relievers were torched for six earned runs in 3⅓ innings of a 15-0 loss that dropped the Dodgers four games back in the National League West.

That Sunday, as San Francisco completed a three-game sweep of the Dodgers with a 7-3 win, setup man Brusdar Graterol initiated a relievers-only meeting in which a relatively young and inexperienced group aired its thoughts and concerns and beefs.

“I think we were looking for a voice,” closer Evan Phillips said of the gathering. “We needed to hold each other accountable a bit more, and understand that each role is valuable and each out is valuable, and to build off that each time you go out there.”

The Dodgers were off that Monday. When they arrived at Angel Stadium on Tuesday with a 4.98 bullpen ERA, the second-worst mark in baseball ahead of only Oakland, a new face — and an improbable new voice — joined them in the visiting clubhouse.

Ryan Brasier didn’t fit the mold of bullpen savior. The 36-year-old right-hander went 1-0 with a 7.29 ERA in 20 games for the Boston Red Sox before being designated for assignment on May 15. He signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers on June 4 and pitched only twice for triple-A Oklahoma City before being recalled on June 20.

But Brasier could still run his fastball up to 98 mph, he had a new cut-fastball to neutralize left-handed hitters and a track record of postseason success, having set up Craig Kimbrel in Boston’s run to the 2018 World Series title.

The soft-spoken, unassuming native of Wichita Falls, Texas, also had an easygoing personality that his new teammates immediately gravitated toward and a backlog of stories from 17 professional baseball seasons to entertain them with.

“Oh man, Brase … I’ve never clicked with somebody as quickly as I have with him,” left-hander Alex Vesia said. “He came into the bullpen and we started chatting it up. Just his presence has been phenomenal. He’s a super cool guy, right? He gets along with everybody. I mean, he’s got some pretty awesome stories. And his stuff is even better.”

Dodgers' Evan Phillips, right, celebrates with Will Smith after a win against the Arizona Diamondbacks on April 6.

Evan Phillips, right, celebrating a Dodgers victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks with Will Smith on April 6, converted 24 of 27 save opportunities this season.

(Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

The Dodgers didn’t know it at the time, but a bullpen revival had begun. They swept a two-game series from the Angels by identical 2-0 scores, with left-hander Caleb Ferguson and Phillips each retiring the side in order with two strikeouts in the final two innings to back Clayton Kershaw’s seven scoreless innings in the June 20 opener.

The following night, in a planned bullpen game, seven Dodgers relievers combined on a two-hit shutout to offset Angels ace Shohei Ohtani’s seven innings of one-run, five-hit, 12-strikeout ball, with Brasier recording four straight outs in his Dodgers debut.

The bullpen, bolstered by the trade-deadline acquisitions of hard-throwing right-hander Joe Kelly and crafty left-hander Ryan Yarbrough and right-hander Shelby Miller’s late-August return from a neck injury, has been the best in baseball ever since, its depth and versatility playing a key role in the team’s 10th division title in 11 years.

And leading the way has been Brasier, who has gone 2-0 with an 0.70 ERA in 39 games for the Dodgers, striking out 38 and walking 10 in 38⅔ innings and holding batters to a .140 average and a .397 on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

Brasier’s dominance allowed manager Dave Roberts to move Phillips to a traditional ninth-inning role and Brasier to assume the “fireman” role — dousing hot spots in any of the three final innings — that Phillips held for three months. The rest of the relievers fell in line, slotted into more defined high-leverage, middle- and long-relief roles.

“I think the arrival of Ryan Brasier and with Brusdar doing his thing, me settling into the ninth inning, has allowed guys to pitch in their most advantageous spots and flourish,” Phillips said. “Earlier this year, we were kind of searching for what matchup works best, and day to day was a bit of a mishmash of what we were going to get.”

Brasier deflects any credit for the bullpen transformation. “Guys have been filling up the strike zone since I’ve been here,” he said, “and they’re being used in every situation, whether we’re up or down in a game.” But his arrival serves as a distinct line of demarcation for the group.

Before Brasier’s promotion, relievers went 14-14 with a 4.98 ERA and 15 saves in 23 chances. Their 9.46 strikeouts-per-nine-inning and 3.33 walks-per-nine-inning rates were among the top 11 teams in baseball, but they ranked 26th with 1.25 homers allowed per nine innings and 29th with a .257 batting average against.

After Brasier’s arrival, relievers went 24-11 with a 2.28 ERA — the next-best mark was Milwaukee’s 2.85 ERA — and 29 saves in 37 chances. Their strikeout rate slipped to 9.13 per nine innings, but they lowered their walk-rate to 2.78 per nine innings, second-best in the league, their home run rate to a major league-best 0.73 per nine innings and their batting average against to an MLB-best .197.

The Dodgers moved from 29th place to third place with a full-season bullpen ERA of 3.42 entering the National League Division Series against the Brewers or Arizona Diamondbacks, and they allowed only 53 of 203 inherited baserunners (26%) to score, tied for the third-best mark in baseball.

“They’ve just really found themselves, and they’re available whenever needed,” Roberts said. “They fill up the strike zone, there’s swing-and-miss when there needs to be, there’s not a lot of walk in there. In the second half, I think we’ve been as good as anybody in baseball.”

The bullpen eased the stress on an injury-ravaged and youth-filled rotation that also lost Julio Urías to a domestic violence arrest in September, and it will play a much bigger role this October for a team that has traditionally leaned heavily on its rotation.

Kelly (40 games), Graterol (20) and Brasier (16) have considerable postseason experience. Vesia (10), Yarbrough (eight), Ferguson (six), Phillips (five) and Miller (five) have less. But if the last three months are any indication, this group has the stuff, durability and track record to shorten games considerably in the playoffs.

Phillips, who combines a big-breaking, 85-mph sweeper with a 93-mph cutter, 96.5-mph four-seam fastball and 95.5-mph sinker; Graterol, who features a 98.5-mph sinker, 88.5-mph slider and 95.5-mph cutter; and Ferguson, who relies on a 96-mph fastball and 86.5-mph cutter, have been full-season constants.

Phillips, 29, went 2-4 with a 2.05 ERA and 24 saves in 62 games, with 66 strikeouts and 13 walks in 61 ⅓ innings. Graterol, 25, went 4-2 with a 1.20 ERA and seven saves in 68 games, with 48 strikeouts and 12 walks in 67⅓ innings, and closed with a 25-inning scoreless streak. Ferguson, 27, is 7-4 with a 3.43 ERA in 68 games, with 70 strikeouts and 23 walks in 60⅓ innings.

Dodgers' Joe Kelly pitches against the Cincinnati Reds on July 29, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Joe Kelly “adds a layer of intimidation to our bullpen,” says Dodgers assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness. Kelly has appeared in 40 postseason games in his career.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Vesia, 27, went 8-1 with a 2.19 ERA in 104 games in 2021 and 2022, but he lost the command of his slider and some life on his 94.5-mph fastball in April and was optioned to triple-A in early May.

He returned in late-May and struggled in early June, his ERA a bloated 8.00 in 22 games through June 17, but he has gone 2-1 with a 2.27 ERA in 34 games since, lowering his season ERA to 4.35.

Kelly, acquired from the Chicago White Sox on July 28, was limited by an elbow injury to just 11 games, but the fearless 35-year-old right-hander with a blazing 99-mph sinking fastball and nasty 89-mph curve, “adds a layer of intimidation to our bullpen, which is really nice to have,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said.

The sidearm-throwing Yarbrough, 31, is 4-2 with a 4.89 ERA in 11 games since his Aug. 1 trade from Kansas City, his ERA jumping after last week’s four-inning, nine-run thumping at Colorado, and can throw as many as four innings in a game. Miller, 32, is 3-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 36 games and can throw two or three innings.

“I think we’ve got a great mixture of righties and lefties and a bunch of different arms,” Miller said. “Yarbs is a lefty who’s different from the others and can go multiple innings. Fergy throws gas, and Vesia is electric.

“Brasier has been phenomenal, and Joe has one of the most electric arms in the game. Most of us can get lefties and righties out. I think we have a pretty good idea of what it’s gonna look like in October.”

If it looks anything like it has for the last 3½ months, the Dodgers just might have enough pitching to make a World Series run.

“The bullpen is shaping up to be a pretty solid part of our team,” Brasier said. “Obviously, we have the arms. Everybody down there has good stuff. You get to the meat of the game and run the guys out there that we have, and I think everybody feels confident in getting wins.”

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