Diamondbacks bullpen filled with underdogs becomes World Series-level unit

Oct 27, 2023, 2:33 PM

Paul Sewald, Arizona Diamonbacks closer...

Paul Sewald #38 of the Arizona Diamondbacks delivers a pitch against the Minnesota Twins in the ninth inning at Target Field on August 06, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Diamondbacks 5-3. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — Anyone in Major League Baseball could have picked up reliever Kevin Ginkel after the Arizona Diamondbacks removed him from the 40-man roster in 2021.

Paul Sewald was in the minor leagues at 30 years old after an up and down tenure with the New York Mets.

Ryan Thompson was released in the middle of this season by the Tampa Bay Rays, who acquired the side-armer in the Rule 5 Draft after the Houston Astros left him unprotected.

Despite the lack of solid ground in the majors they have withstood, the three now make up the back end of a championship-level bullpen in Arizona, one that manager Torey Lovullo called a significant reason the D-backs reached the World Series against the Texas Rangers. The three have a combined 0.98 ERA in 27.2 innings this postseason.

Starting pitcher Zac Gallen broke down what they’ve done to get here in detail:

“Those guys are fearless, really,” Gallen said. “Ryan Thompson gets (released) in the middle of this year, and we pick him up. He’s had adversity. Coming into the game he’s unfazed by that, he’s fearless. Kevin Ginkel comes up in 2019 and is looking like maybe the next closer of the Diamondbacks. He struggles in ’20 and has some struggles in ’21. And even in ’23 he’s down in Reno — maybe not necessarily deserving but he was the odd man out in terms of numbers. Another guy that has had adversity and is fearless, has found what he’s done really well.

“Then you have Paul Sewald. He gets traded by a playoff contender, and I know that Paul spent some time in New York before, and it was just like — I think you see these guys with adversity that, coming into a game with runners on base in a big spot in the season, they’ve had some legit life adversity that trying to get outs in a baseball game to them is like, ‘I’m going to make pitches. I know what I do well.'”

Arizona relievers pitched 29.2 innings — including a bullpen Game 4 victory — compared to 31.1 frames by starters Gallen, Merrill Kelly and Brandon Pfaadt in the NLCS against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Taking out Game 2, a 10-0 Phillies win that got away late, the D-backs’ bullpen produced a 1.65 ERA in the series against a lineup with 16 combined All-Star Games and four $20 million players.

The unit held true in the final two wins at Citizens Bank Park with no runs over nine innings, including five shutout frames in Game 7. Ginkel recorded five of those outs, stranding two runners with Trea Turner and Bryce Harper up in the seventh inning before he struck out the side in the eighth to set up Sewald for the save.

“We did have a lot of blown saves prior to getting Paul to come in,” Lovullo said on Thursday. “Going back to last year, it was a number of blown saves. It was the same thing for a portion of this year. Once we got Paul, it sewed up that ninth inning, allowed everybody to fall backwards, gave Kevin Ginkel an opportunity to be a better version of himself and we took off.”

Sewald found his legs with the Seattle Mariners in 2021 and 2022 before getting traded to Arizona this season to be the closer.

Ginkel was sent down in June for two weeks before coming back up and dominating the second half of the year. From his recall on June 27 on, he ranked No. 9 among MLB relievers in strikeout rate (35%), No. 14 in FIP (2.50) and No. 7 in fWAR (0.8). Thompson was released by the Rays in August and had suitors for the final push. He saw the opportunity in Arizona and signed a minor-league deal, making his D-backs debut on Aug. 27.

Clearly the bullpen depth goes deeper than the trio, and there are plenty other underdog stories to tell there. Joe Mantiply was waived, traded and designated for assignment by three teams before landing with Arizona in 2020 and making the All-Star Game in 2022. This year, he had two injured list stints and was optioned before coming out the other side over the final six weeks.

The D-backs designated Luis Frias for assignment in 2021 and now he has a 2.45 ERA this postseason. Kyle Nelson was designated for assignment by Cleveland in 2021. Andrew Saalfrank overcame Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2021 season, but he came back and reached the majors this year.

The D-backs have needed that depth down the stretch of the regular season and into October, as they only have three starting pitchers reared up. In the World Series against the top scoring offense in the American League, the bullpen will continue to be a key element of every game.

Kevin Ginkel breaks out

D-backs general manager Mike Hazen singled out Ginkel’s importance to Arizona Sports’ Wolf & Luke on Tuesday, saying he has taken a role once occupied by Archie Bradley during the 2017 run.

“Torey is making a choice when to put Ginkel in,” Hazen said. “‘Where are the toughest hitters? Ginkel is going to get those guys.’ In some ways that is going to be the harder job (than the closer).”

Game 7 was a prime example of that, and Sewald credited Ginkel after the game of making the closer’s job easier.

Had Ginkel allowed one base runner, the Phillies would have had Kyle Schwarber come up again. Instead, Sewald left the top of the order on deck when he recorded the final out.

Ginkel’s fastball-slider combination has been lethal, and that has translated to the postseason. His slider this season has had elite vertical movement at 3.9 inches better than average. It falls off the table nearly 10 mph slower than his fastball. His slider had the Phillies whiffing to end all three strikeouts in the eighth inning.

“My slider, I kind of found it probably like my second year of pro ball. I’ve had a lot of pitching coaches help me tinker with it and get that feel for it,” Ginkel said. “Now what you’re seeing is a level of consistency where I feel I can use it in certain spots, throw for strikes, throw it as a put-away pitch and it’s helped me give the hitter something to think about.”

Ginkel had no scholarship offers out of high school in Southern California and went the JuCo route at Southwestern College. There, he was drafted twice but opted to attend the University of Arizona in 2016.

After the Wildcats reached the College World Series, Ginkel was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 22nd round of the MLB Draft, which doesn’t even go that many rounds anymore.

“It’s just the will to keep going and never quit that’s kind of gotten me into this position,” Ginkel said.

Ryan Thompson finding his feel

Thompson came up in 2020 and stepped up in Tampa Bay’s bullpen during a run to the World Series — which was played at Globe Life Field in Arlington due to COVID-19 alterations.

The 6-foot-5 right-hander had thoracic outlet surgery in 2021 which ended his season early. He said during the NLCS that he went the next couple seasons searching to feel like himself on the mound after compensating for an injury he didn’t know the specifics of.

“Coming back from that, I felt like I could still throw strikes and I could still be effective, but it just wasn’t the same,” Thompson said. “So this year, that was my mission, and it was a grueling process at times. But every outing you go out there — and especially the bad ones — are the times when you can really address where you can go to get better and take a step forward.”

He credited the coaching staff in Arizona for providing different perspectives from bullpen coach Mike Fetters and pitching coaches Brent Strom, Barry Enright and Dan Carlson.

Thompson, like Ginkel, started playing college ball in community college and went to Campbell before he got drafted in 2014 by the Astros.

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