Bullpen contributes to Lions success

Junior pitcher Austin Carpenter throws a pitch against Miles College March 12. Carpenter is one of three relievers with an ERA under 1.94 and at least eight appearances for the Lions.

Anyone involved in sports knows this simple phrase as truth: The way you start is not as important as the way you finish.

For any baseball team to be successful, it has to have solid pitching from the bullpen to finish off close games. The baseball team has found success this season from its relievers.

“Any bullpen is important because they are coming in late to shut teams down,” said head coach Mike Keehn. “It’s one of the advantages we feel that we have over other teams because we are deeper in the bullpen than a lot of teams.”

UNA’s bullpen includes three right-handed pitchers with ERAs under 1.94. Senior closer Jacob Westerhouse has a 1.43 ERA in 17 appearances this season. Junior relievers Austin Carpenter and Todd Gibson have ERAs of 1.93 and 1.59, respectively, and have combined for 19 appearances.

“A lot of teams may have one guy or maybe two, but most don’t have three,” Keehn said.

Keehn said when building a bullpen, he looks for guys who are consistent on the mound under any situation.

“I think the biggest thing is the ability to handle the pressure and throw strikes,” he said. “The best closers that we’ve had in the history of this program are guys who didn’t necessarily throw over 90, but could locate the ball and throw strikes.”

Westerhouse has been the go-to closer for UNA. He is 5-0 on the season and has recorded three saves for the Lions.

“I love close games where we are up by a run,” Westerhouse said. “When it’s the ninth inning and we need three outs, the adrenaline you get with that is hard to replicate.”

Westerhouse said he credits most of his success this season to UNA’s pitching coach, Matt Hancock.

“He’s done a great job working with us,” Westerhouse said. “We feel like when we have a lead going into the seventh inning and you give us the ball, we are going to win the game.”

Although Westerhouse is considered a closer, but he said he does not mind coming into any situation he’s needed in.

“Whenever they need me I go out there,” he said. “Whether I’m needed to stop the bleeding or finish a game out, I’m there.”

Westerhouse has 34 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 37.2 innings pitched.

Carpenter has mostly been considered the set up guy in the bullpen for UNA this season. Carpenter has the lowest ERA among pitchers with at least two appearances.

“The success is all credited back to coach Hancock,” Carpenter said. “He is on us all the time to make sure we are handling our business and being responsible.”

Carpenter said Hancock’s “spot-up drills,” which involve pitching to hit certain spots, are what help spark his success on the mound in high-pressure situations.

“We are accountable for each other and we push each other,” Carpenter said. “We compete every day in spot-up drills and if we miss a spot, we have to run. Coach challenges us to throw strikes and get guys out, and we’ve done that so far this season.

“It’s extremely important to have a good bullpen. You look at the (Kansas City) Royals ­­– they had three guys out of the bullpen that helped them get through the post. You got to have somebody to come in and shut it down.”

Gibson has made eight appearances for the Lions this season, including a spot-start against Union University. Batters have a team-low .186 batting average when facing Gibson.

“Gibson is a guy that can start if we need him to,” Keehn said. “When (Riley) Sanderson was sick, he came in and started. His breaking ball has depth to it which plays to his advantage.”

The Lions face Mississippi College in a three-game series starting April 18 in Clinton, Mississippi.