GARY | As is the case in many professional bullpens, laughter, reminiscence, encouragement, tutelage and constant preparation fill the time.
Although stories and sunflower seeds spew all night, when duty calls, it’s been no laughing matter.
The RailCats entered Saturday’s doubleheader against visiting Winnipeg at U.S. Steel Yard with a record of 16-0 when the starting pitcher exits the game with a lead.
“That’s our job,” right-handed reliever Marco Gonzalez said. “Whether it be the seventh, eighth or ninth, we’re coming in to get that hold or that save and hand it on to the next guy.”
During a win streak that stood at eight entering Saturday’s extra-inning opener, four of the wins had come by one run. The 16-0 mark remained intact in the first game as starter Will Krout left with the game tied.
The first responders of the RailCats’ pitching staff have not required a fire extinguisher in close games with Gary already on top.
“That’s pretty much been our mindset all year -- don’t give up that lead, just shut it down, and don’t give them any chance to build any momentum,” said Gonzalez, who led the RailCats in saves with 10 last year in 41 appearances.
Gonzalez threw a scoreless seventh and into the eighth in Saturday’s first game. He allowed a runner to third in both the seventh and eighth innings, but Winnipeg failed to take the lead in both cases.
Friday’s rainout and Wednesday’s complete-game shutout by Morgan Coombs, who began the season as a reliever, exempted the bullpen from two nights of work. Not many could argue that it wasn’t necessary.
“The guys who benefit the most from (a rainout) are the guys in the bullpen who really need a night,” RailCats manager Greg Tagert said.
Closer Clay Zavada saved both games of a doubleheader June 18 in Wichita and earned wins for RailCats comebacks on June 21 and this past Tuesday. Since Tuesday, the former Tommy John surgery recipient barely touched a baseball and is relegated to emergency-only status.
Gonzalez, likewise, took a few days at the bottom of the priority list to “re-charge the batteries.”
Ian Durham, who appeared in Saturday’s first game, has warmed up or been used 12 times in the last 15 days.
Coombs was borrowed from the bullpen with 2012’s No. 1 starter Stephen Hiscock on the inactive list with an injury. James Adkins continues to sit on the disabled list, and one of last year’s top reliever, Estevan Uriegas, is hurt and inactive as well.
Fill-ins such as Boomer Potts have kept the bullpen strong, as have starters who routinely work into the sixth or seventh inning and Tagert.
“The least important skill for a manager is knowing when to hit and run or bunt,” Tagert said. “The most important thing a manager can do is keep that bullpen as fresh as possible to keep those starters strong and fresh each time out and make sure you’re getting the most out of that ‘pen each time out.”
Tagert also credits second-year pitching coach Jake Upwood with monitoring each pitcher closely and focusing on recovery.
Gonzalez has as many as eight years on some of his fellow relievers and has been a mentor to many of them.
“It’s been fun,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone’s been great. Everyone gets along and helps each other try to get better.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we’ve been so successful holding that lead -- because we take pride in our bullpen, and we want to get the job done. Getting our starters that win, that’s the most important thing.”