They each require different keys and triggers, short messages that come from the mouth of Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland.
For the closer, Eiland needs just three words: “Stay on line.” For the setup man, the instruction is positional: “Stay on the rubber and drive the ball downhill.” For the seventh-inning electrician, it’s a piece of psychology: “Stay within yourself.”
Each message is different, Eiland says, but when the words have their desired effect, the result is bullpen harmony.
This is the story of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera. When looked at as singular entities, they are each shutdown relievers. When grouped together as power right-handers, they are arguably the most dominant closing force in baseball history.
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“The best we’ve seen in a long time,” Royals left-hander Danny Duffy says.
“It shortens games,” Eiland says.
“There’s no better weapon than that bullpen,” manager Ned Yost says.
During the month of October, the Royals’ three-bladed bullpen guillotine has wiped out the Angels and shut down the Orioles. On the eve of the Royals’ first World Series appearance in 29 years, three relievers waited for their next mission: the San Francisco Giants in game one on Tuesday night at Kauffman Stadium.
“We’ve got a chance to win a World Series,” Holland says.
On Monday. Davis sat at a table inside the Royals’ Hall of Fame. The story of a dominant bullpen is one of solid scouting, a blockbuster trade and an unexpected injury.
Perhaps best to start with Davis. One year ago he was a failing starter, scuffling through his first season in Kansas City after being acquired in a deal that was usually referred to as “The James Shields trade.” As Davis worked through his struggles, he clutched onto a memory from his final season in Tampa Bay in 2012. As the Rays faced the Royals that year, Davis watched as the Royals paraded out a bullpen that featured Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins and Greg Holland.
“You’re like, ‘My goodness,’” Davis says. “Every single one of them comes in blowing doors off … This is ridiculous.”
Davis never forgot that image. But he had no desire to join it. When he returned to his home in Florida after the 2013 season, he enlisted a personal trainer to put him through the most rigorous offseason of his career. He focused on becoming more powerful, more explosive, on the mound.
Even after posting a 5.67 ERA in 24 starts, he still believed he could be a factor in the Royals’ rotation.
“I pushed myself more than I ever had my entire life,” Davis says.
It was only after Luke Hochevar — the Royals’ starter-turned-dominant setup man — underwent Tommy John surgery in March that Davis realized his 2014 season would probably be spent in the bullpen. During a conversation at spring training, Yost told Davis he wanted him ready to go for two-inning bursts out of the bullpen. Davis preferred the max-effort style of one-inning appearances.
“We’ve got a couple (other) guys,” Davis told Yost. “If I can work on going one … I’ll be able to recover faster and throw two or three days in a row.”
Davis’ pitch arsenal — a high 90s fastball with powerful breaking stuff — blended seamlessly into the setup role, providing the bridge to Holland in the ninth. When Herrera began to reach his potential in the early summer months, the Royals’ bullpen duties were set.
The results — and the numbers — have been historic.
No team in baseball history had ever had two relievers throw at least 60 innings with an ERA under 1.50. The Royals had three, with Herrera (1.00 ERA), Davis (1.41) and Holland (1.44) turning games into a six-inning affair.
“End the sixth with a lead,” Duffy says, “you’re probably going to get a win.”
In the postseason, the Royals’ closing machine — “HDH” for short — has been even better. Together, the three relievers have recorded a 1.05 ERA and recorded 30 strikeouts over 25 2/3 innings. Holland closed out all four games of the American League Championship Series, matching Dennis Eckersley’s record.
“Power arms,” Eiland says, pointing out that both Holland and Herrera are homegrown players. “And that Shields trade was huge. A lot of people didn’t think it was at the time, and it’s kind of shut some people up now.”
On Monday, Holland, Herrera and Davis each sat within earshot of each other as the Royals met reporters in advance of game one. Each has taken a different approach in the time leading up to the World Series. Davis spent a few days unwinding and watching some TV coverage of the playoffs before zoning back in on Sunday. Holland has attempted to block out most of the outside noise.
“None of us buy into that whole three-headed monster thing,” Holland says. “It’s almost ridiculous to me.”
On the day before the World Series, it was back to the keys.
Stay on line. Drive the ball downhill. Stay within yourself.
“Once you get a guy to be able to command that power stuff,” Eiland says, “this is what you’re going to get.”
The next Nasty Boys?
There have been many dominant bullpen combinations in playoff history.
In 1998, the Yankees rolled to a World Series title behind a bullpen of closer Mariano Rivera, Ramiro Mendoza and Jeff Nelson.
In 2002, the Angels edged the Giants in seven games with rookie Francisco Rodriguez and closer Troy Percival providing power at the back end.
But few bullpen combos have been as clutch as “The Nasty Boys,” the three-headed relief monster that propelled the Cincinnati Reds to the World Series championship in 1990. In 24 1/3 innings over two series, Rob Dibble, Norm Charlton and Randy Myers combined to allow just one run.
During the Royals’ postseason run thus far, the Royals’ Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera have allowed three earned runs in 25 2/3 innings.