SAN FRANCISCO – For the first time since the Cincinnati Reds traded Raisel Iglesias following the 2020 season, they may have settled on a full-time closer.
Hunter Strickland picked up his third save of the season during Friday’s 4-2 victory against the San Francisco Giants and he’s expected to remain in the closer’s role for at least the foreseeable future.
Strickland became the top option for save situations after Alexis Díaz, Tony Santillan and Lucas Sims all went on the injured list. Díaz had a bullpen session Sunday in San Francisco and he's scheduled to throw again Wednesday before he’s eligible to return Friday.
“Hunter is definitely somebody that likes it,” Reds Manager David Bell said. “He thrives on it. In some ways, I think the bigger the situation, the better pitcher he’s going to be. It may not always be the ninth, but I’m definitely aware of that and it works in his favor to keep getting those opportunities.”
Strickland, who recorded 14 saves for the Giants in 2018, has rebounded from a poor April when he struggled with walks. Since the start of May, Strickland has a 3.12 ERA across 17 1/3 innings with 19 strikeouts and seven walks.
“I'm just grateful to take the ball in any spot,” said Strickland, who does have contract incentives for the number of games finished. “The first month or so was pretty rough, all together, especially on my end. To build from that and just to continue moving forward is encouraging.”
Bell thought Strickland’s struggles at the beginning of the season could be attributed to the shortened spring training. Strickland signed with the Reds after spring training began, so he had only a couple of weeks to ramp up for the season.
“He came to some realizations along the way that he was maybe trying to do too much,” Bell said. “He got back to who he was as far as just being on the attack, being aggressive and trusting his pitches, stuff we talk about all the time. No matter what part of your career it’s in, you always have to go back to that and remind yourself of it. He shared that with me actually. He’s been really good since then. Just that awareness has helped him a lot.”
There are instances where Strickland could pitch in the eighth inning, which he did in last Thursday’s 10-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers. He hadn’t pitched in six days, so Bell was committed to using him anyway, but he entered with two runners on base to face Will Smith and Zach McKinstry. Strickland stranded both runners and did not return for the ninth inning.
“We got to a part of the lineup that we had to keep the game right there, might as well use him there because that’s kind of the game,” Bell said. “If that inning got away from us, it was for sure out of reach. That kind of situation could come up in a reverse situation where we have a lead too, but for the most part, right now where we are, he’s comfortable in that situation. From playing here and playing in big games, he knows how to channel that adrenaline for those late-inning situations, so it’s important.”
There was a one-month stretch last season when Heath Hembree served as the Reds’ primary closer because of injuries, but he fell out of the role after a few blown saves and the club added three relievers at the trade deadline. Mychal Givens and Michael Lorenzen shared closing duties to end the 2021 season.
The Reds had 10 separate relievers record at least one save during the 2021 season and six relievers have at least one save this year.
Iglesias, when he was closer during Bell’s first year as a manager in 2019, struggled when he was used in non-save situations and spoke out about his frustration from pitching in a nontraditional closer’s role.
Bell, from his own playing experience, recognizes there are unique challenges from pitching in the ninth inning, but he still likes having the flexibility to use top relievers against the toughest parts of lineups in any inning.
“When the game is on the line, it is different,” Bell said. ‘It’s just that it’s not always on the line in the ninth. It may be on the line in the eighth and the good players recognize that too. I think to only define it as the ninth, that probably hasn’t changed for me. I definitely respect it and always have.”
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Hunter Strickland moves to Cincinnati Reds closer role in bullpen