Smoking Cubans Saving Phillies Bullpen
It's part of their daily routine, and part of Baez's returning a favor from 17 years ago.
The only time the Phillies' two relievers -- teammates for the first time since they were on the Cuban national team -- are separated are when one is in the game.
And when that happens, it has been a good thing for the Phillies.
In the absence of Philadelphia's closer, Brad Lidge and main setup man Ryan Madson, the signings of Baez and Contreras in January have turned out to be quite important.
In recent years, the Phillies had middle relievers who "pitched to contact" rather than featuring a swing-and-miss pitch. So general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. went after Contreras and Baez.
This month, with the closer and substitute closer on the disabled list, the two have combined to allow one earned run in 18 innings, with 12 strikeouts. Baez is 2-0, and Contreras has two saves.
"They've both got tremendous personalities," bullpen coach Mike Billmeyer said. "They're with each other constantly. It's not like one of them sits over here and one of them sits here. They're sitting right beside each other, chirping."
Baez, 32, leads the team in appearances and has gone 6 1/3 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
"Baez is getting to where we kind of want him," said manager Charlie Manuel, who also managed Baez in Cleveland in 2001-02. "At the start of spring training, we was hoping that Baez could be a two-inning guy for us. Right now I think he's more suited to a one-inning role. I think his stuff plays up better."
Contreras, listed at 38, has taken over as closer since Lidge went back on the DL. Contreras earned his first career save on May 15 and has 11 straight scoreless appearances. Overall, he has held opponents to a .163 average -- .000 (0-for-16) with men in scoring position.
According to FanGraphs.com, Contreras and Baez are both in the majors' top 33 in average fastball velocity.
If the Phillies ever get Madson and Lidge back to join Contreras and Baez, they will have quite a collection of power arms late in the game.
"You're going to have three or four guys to throw [the final] three innings," Baez said. "It's going to be good for the team."
When the White Sox traded Contreras to the Rockies last Aug. 31, he had not relieved since 2003 with the Yankees. But the shorter outings allowed him to air it out more, and his fastball velocity has taken a jump up.
"Contreras has done a super job for us," Manuel said.
Baez was nicknamed "El Niño" when he made the Cuban national team at 16. At the time, the ace of the national team was Contreras, who was also from the Western end of the island.
"He helped me a lot," Baez said. "I was a rookie back then. He was a big help for me. Now I have the chance to help him, teaching him how to work in the bullpen.
"It's the first time for him in the bullpen after 20 years as a starter. For me it's a pleasure to help the guy, teach him how the bullpen works, and how you have to be ready physically and mentally.
"He's a good pitcher. He doesn't need too much help."
So every day, the pair go to the bullpen to do drills intended to help them maintain their deliveries. Using a towel instead of a ball, to save wear on their arms, they work on their mechanics.
Starters have side days to iron out flaws. Relievers have to do things like this, which Baez has known for a while and is passing on to his one-time mentor.
Baez defected in 1999 and signed with Cleveland. After spending most of his second big-league season as a starter, Baez became a closer for the Indians and then the Devil Rays. He spent 2007-09 with Baltimore before the Phillies gave him $5.25 million for two years.
Contreras defected three years later, signing with the Yankees. After he failed to live up to the hype in New York, he was traded to the White Sox. The Phillies signed him for one year and $1.5 million.
"It's been big, yeah," Manuel said of the signings. "Very big."
Amaro's father, the former big-league infielder, was the son of a Cuban-born Mexican League star.
So did being one-quarter Cuban help Amaro Jr. sign the two players who have turned out to be key pieces?
Said Amaro, "I don't think it hurt."