A day in the life of a reliever

What's a day in the life of a reliever like? Ask Burke Badenhop. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

Guest bloggers are stepping in for Buster Olney this week to write the lead item, while Buster still has his news and notes below that. Today's guest blogger is Boston Red Sox reliever Burke Badenhop.

“What time’s the national anthem?”

I always have to ask because I know I’m going to be late getting ready. Punctuality is something I’m working on. But missing the anthem is breaking a team rule and results in an earful from my teammate Craig Breslow. It's certainly not how I wish to start a game. After honoring America, a rookie grabs the candy bag and we head off to the pen.

At the onset of the game, every reliever hopes the starter is sharp, settles into the game and is economical with his pitch count. No one likes early phone calls down here. Short starts will wreak havoc on a pen. The wear and tear of today's game can easily haunt you for the better part of a week. On the other hand, a spectacular start or a complete game can put all the pieces back in place for a bullpen. So we all sit, sipping our energy drinks during the early innings, willing the starter to find his rhythm.

Somewhere between the third and fifth innings, the back end of the bullpen shows up. We seven pitchers assembled comprise the Red Sox's bullpen. The setup guys, the closer and other bullpen veterans greet everyone and find their places. These guys have earned their late arrival. They’re the ones the team leans on in the tight spots, when we need to get out of a jam, when tonight’s game is on the line. They get some extra time to prepare and relax in the clubhouse, knowing they won't be called upon in the early innings.

Although a team might have the same seven relievers from the night before, a manager's bullpen could be different every night depending on who's available. Some relievers might be “down,” meaning not available that night under any circumstance. A "down" guy could be nursing a sore arm or simply shouldn’t pitch because of his recent workload.

Others "could use a day" -- meaning they are available but hopefully won't be called upon. A day of rest would do them a world of good, but if the right situation occurs, they’ll pitch. Some guys are available for multiple innings because they’re fully rested, while others have enough gas in the tank for only a hitter or two. Every manager must take his relievers' availability into consideration and works with what they have that night.

There’s a saying that holds true for a reliever: "You’re pitching either too much or not enough." When you pitch, you tend to pitch a lot. When you don’t pitch, you tend to sit a lot. It’s these peaks and valleys that I believe lead to so much variability in reliever performances from year to year. The guys who can manage it the best are the ones who stay in this game the longest.

As the night progresses and our starter begins to tire and lose effectiveness, the phone calls start. Eventually bullpen phones are going to be the only land lines left in America. I usually have a pretty good idea who is going to be called on after assessing the situation on the field. Even if I don’t think my name is going to be called, I prepare like it will be. It’s best to always be prepared to pitch and be surprised when you don’t. The last thing I want is to be caught unprepared -- physically or mentally.

But it is my name that's called.

Whenever my name is called, I take a deep breath, blow it out and take a couple of seconds to “turn it on.” Turning it on is getting focused, getting a bit weird, getting my mind on the only thing that matters: making pitches.

I take my jacket off and grab a baseball. Most baseball players are completely different people on the field than they are off it. If I have to be ready quickly, I frantically fire fastballs and hope to get a slider or two in before being called into the game. If I have time and am preparing for a certain hitter two or three batters away, I pace myself more. All the while I’m taking inventory of how I feel. Am I staying tall? Am I on top of my sinker? Is my slider worth throwing today? Am I locating my changeup? As I loosen, I also try to make adjustments to get the most out of what I have that day. Maybe I need to loosen my grip on my changeup.

I might have to really focus on keeping pressure with my middle finger for my slider. Maybe my sinker is running too much that day and I need to pick a different spot to aim when throwing it away to a lefty. When the umpire signals for me, I chuck one last sinker, low and away, hopefully, and blow through the bullpen door to the outfield grass and toward the mound.

If the phone rings and someone else is called upon, I will continue to stretch and try to stay out of the way while they warm up. I certainly don’t take my jacket off at this point. If my jacket is on, I’m anonymous. No one knows who I am if they can’t see my name or number on the back of my jersey. As soon as someone takes his coat off, the fans loitering around the pen reach for their phones. Google is awesome, but not when you're sitting in the bullpen. Fans quickly discover many things about a player -- all providing ammunition for the local heckler. We hear all sorts of taunts and jeers while someone's warming up.

Some unoriginal fan yells, “My grandma throws harder than you!”

“Does she have an agent?” I reply.

The phone will ring some more. Some guys will warm up and get into the game. Others might warm up two or three times and never be called upon. We will protect a lead or do our best to keep our team close for a late-inning comeback. A win will lead to a happy clubhouse after the game. Everyone who pitched this night lines up to high-five the players coming in from the dugout. I’ll take care of a few things postgame to help me prepare for tomorrow. That might involve an arm stretch, icing or jumping in the cold/hot tub. It won't be long before I'll be asking what time the anthem is. And I swear I won’t be late this time.

And now we return to Buster's regularly scheduled news and notes …