An impromptu hair inspection and a strong quintet: bullpen keeps Guardians in first

Cleveland Guardians relief pitcher Sam Hentges throws during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Cleveland Guardians relief pitcher Sam Hentges throws during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The Guardians and Minnesota Twins featured opposite trade-deadline experiences.

The Guardians mostly leaned into their in-house, young talent and the Twins got aggressive on the veteran trade market to bolster their pitching staff. And, since that time, both clubs have experienced very different results.

The Guardians' inactivity at the deadline doesn't necessarily mean there weren't trade-related goals. With any deal in general, it takes two to tango, and asking prices or differing needs can derail the best-laid plans. Plus, the Guardians' stocked 40-man roster that features many of the club's top prospects made any marginal improvement a costly move that could have a domino effect elsewhere.

The Guardians front office has long remained adamant that it will at least answer the phone on any possibility. But in large part, and regardless of the road that led them there, the Guardians doubled down on their youthful roster, making no meaningful additions in terms of veterans, while the Twins added starting pitcher Tyler Mahle, All-Star closer Jorge Lopez and reliever Michael Fulmer.

In the six weeks since, the Guardians' kids have held off the Twins' veterans. The latest example: Sunday's 4-1 win in Minneapolis, which capped a series sweep on the road and plunged the reeling Twins, 2-8 in their past 10 games, to below .500 at 69-70.

The Guardians (73-65) increased their lead in the American League Central to two games with the Chicago White Sox losing to the Oakland Athletics.

At the center of it all for the Guardians has been the bullpen, which had an effective but bizarre weekend. It began with Twins manager Rocco Baldelli asking umpire Ted Barrett to inspect Guardians reliever James Karinchak in the middle of an at-bat Friday night. Umpires often check a pitcher's hand, fingers, belt and glove, but never during an at-bat. Baldelli was also focused on Karinchak's hair.

Karinchak, while on the mound, fidgets about as much as any pitcher in baseball, spinning the ball into his glove a few times, touching the hair on the back of his head that sticks out under his hat, going to the rosin bag, on and on. Baldelli wanted the umpires to investigate Karinchak's hair for any banned substances.

It led to the odd scene of Barrett running his fingers through Karinchak's hair on the field, which probably isn't taught at umpire school.

The weekend ended with Karinchak securing the save in Sunday's game, albeit in a messy inning, to complete the sweep. It further strengthened the Guardians' standing as having the best bullpen in baseball in the second half of the season. During that time, the bullpen ranks first with 3.2 FWAR, first with a 2.34 ERA and tied for first (along with the Houston Astros) with a 2.82 FIP.

Guardians manager Terry Francona said a few weeks ago that the bullpen had begun to fit together a little better, with All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase (1.27 ERA in the second half), James Karinchak (0.83), Trevor Stephan (1.89) and Nick Sandlin (0.63) all surging at the same time.

Sam Hentges, a little more recently, has joined that quartet. Since July 24, he has allowed just one run and eight hits and struck out 25 in 21⅔ innings. Earlier this season, he credited the addition of a more effective two-seamer to his success as he garnered a larger role in the Guardians bullpen.

After a slow stretch, Hentges has again played a key part in what has been a lockdown group since the All-Star break. It also hasn't all been the two-seamer, as Hentges hasn't thrown it as often lately, instead relying on his curveball and sinker.

"Sam's been really making a difference, especially lately," Francona told reporters in Minneapolis. "The ability to pitch him late in the game and have him doing what he's doing, it's really helped."

Ryan Lewis can be reached at rlewis@thebeaconjournal.com. Read more about the Guardians at www.beaconjournal.com/sports/cleveland-guardians. Follow him on Twitter at @ByRyanLewis.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Guardians bullpen remains torrid despite odd weekend in Minnesota