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MLB.com Columnist

Lyle Spencer

Keys to championship run can be found in bullpen

Keys to championship run can be found in bullpen

That time of the year has arrived when games, divisions, pennants and championships are won and lost in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings -- or beyond.

If you are blessed with the vision and luck required to be stacked in the bullpen, your chances of navigating the October obstacle course are enhanced immeasurably.

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Champions invariably have found consistent relief along the way.

In spite of their weekend sweep at the hands of the Reds and supercharged closer Aroldis Chapman, the Dodgers have reason to believe they are well positioned for October. Their bullpen, since the midway point of the season, has been the best in baseball by a significant margin with a dominant Kenley Jansen moving into the closer's role.

Since July 1, the Dodgers lead the Majors in lowest team ERA by relief pitchers, highest percentage of saves, fewest inherited runners allowed to score and lowest batting average by opponents. These are revealing measures of the overall quality of a bullpen.

The Braves, Pirates and Reds all appear well fortified in the bullpen, while the American League contenders are too close to call in terms of relief efficiency. A blanket can be thrown over the Athletics, Rangers, Royals, Rays and Tigers.

A deal-breaker in each league might be found in Craig Kimbrel of the Braves and the Rangers' Joe Nathan, the most consistently effective closers all season long.

"The Rangers have a very nice mix in their bullpen," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, "and Nathan is doing a great job as their closer. They've had a good bullpen for a while now."

Chapman's 100-mph heat can be unhittable, but his 87.5 success rate in save situations is not on the level of Nathan's 95.1 and Kimbrel's 93.6 percent.

Jansen began the season setting up for Brandon League. The Dodgers were 11 games below .500 and in last place in the NL West, 9 ½ games out of first, when Jansen assumed the closer's role on June 23.

The soft-spoken, 25-year-old native of Curacao, who began his professional career as a catcher, has been successful in 22 of 23 save situations during the Dodgers' rise to the top of the division. Jansen has a string of 18 consecutive successful saves.

The arrival of Brian Wilson, the closer for the 2010 champion Giants, has provided the Dodgers with another quality setup arm to go with Ronald Belisario, J.P. Howell and rookies Paco Rodriguez and Chris Withrow.

Obscured by more celebrated teammates such as Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, Zack Greinke and Yasiel Puig, Jansen has had a comparable impact in his team's turnaround.

"Kenley has been lights out for us," manager Don Mattingly said. "Our bullpen has stabilized, and he's been a big part of that."

In 68 2/3 innings, Jansen -- going primarily with a Rivera-like cutter -- has registered 100 strikeouts against just 13 walks for a 7.69 ratio. With 42 hits allowed, his WHIP is a remarkable .801.

Kimbrel, bidding for his third consecutive NL saves title as the heir to Mariano Rivera as king of closers, has a .850 WHIP and 0.94 ERA in 58 appearances. Kimbrel has adapted to a new setup crew in the absence of Eric O'Flaherty and Jonny Venters. Luis Avilan, Jordan Walden, Scott Downs and David Carpenter have taken turns getting the ball in Kimbrel's capable hands.

The A's and Orioles were the surprise teams of 2012, reaching the postseason in large part because of the brilliance of their bullpens. Oakland's relievers have remained top shelf, ranking fourth in the Majors in ERA, but Baltimore has fallen to 17th -- between the Cardinals and Yankees.

Bullpens are in a constant state of flux, owing to the demanding nature of the job. Relievers, more than any other players, experience extreme performance swings.

"You have to have a short memory to do this," said the Blue Jays' Darren Oliver, one of the game's premier relievers since leaving behind the starter's life behind in 2004. "You have to be able to let it go and move on to the next game. You can't let one rough outing get inside your head."

The foundation of any club is its rotation. Your starters can keep you in games, keep you in races. But they can't do it alone. The work of your relief corps can be the difference between a parade and a long flight home for a premature winter vacation.

In this final season of Rivera, the greatest closer ever, the Yankees are hanging around, trying to replicate one last time the magic he and his relief associates have weaved through the years.

At 43, "The Sandman" was beaming like a 12-year-old Little Leaguer on Sunday, his team having taken a critical game from the Red Sox even though he'd surrendered a tying ninth-inning home run to Will Middlebrooks. His seventh blown save was of no consequence to a visibly delighted Rivera as Ichiro Suzuki brought home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth.

At this time of the year, the greater good takes precedence over personal matters.

Since July 1 and the start of the second half, the Dodgers own the Majors' most productive bullpen -- by far. Their 2.49 ERA is almost a full run better than the runner-up Braves' 3.23.

For the season, however, the Braves hold a slight bullpen ERA edge over the Dodgers. The Pirates, Reds, Cards, Royals, A's, Rangers, Tigers and Nationals round out a top 10 with something in common: winning records.

The Dodgers flaunt the highest saves percentage as a team since July 1, at 90.9 percent. The Giants -- whose bullpen was a major factor in their 2010 and '12 World Series titles -- are second, followed by the Braves, Padres and Pirates. Among contenders, the Reds, Tigers, Rays, Rangers, Royals and A's also have success rates of 75 percent or higher in the second half.

Cause for concern is found with the Orioles, Cardinals, Indians, Yankees, Red Sox and D-backs. Each club is below the 75 percent threshold in saves converted since July 1.

Dodgers relievers over this period have allowed just 9.9 percent of inherited runners to score, the best by a substantial margin over the Jays. The Braves lead for the season at 23 percent, with the Dodgers fourth, at 24.9 percent.

Dodgers relievers are holding hitters to a .228 batting average in the second half. The Reds, at .231, are second.

The emphasis on high-quality relief grows every year. Through 1969, the single-season saves record was 32 by Kansas City's Jack Aker. The Orioles' Francisco Rodriguez has held the record since 2008 with 62, secured for the Angels.

At the moment, there are 15 Major League relievers with 32 or more saves. That number could swell to 20 by the end of the season.

The most coveted save -- the last one -- comes in late October.

Lyle Spencer is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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