A lot has been said about how Tony LaRussa revolutionized the closer role by making Dennis Eckersley a one inning closer for the 9th and giving everyone else assigned roles.
I think another aspect of the genius of how he assembled his bullpens was taking starting pitchers at the end of the line and using them as relievers.
Eckersley was a washed up starter who became a Hall of Famer under his watch. Rick Honeycutt was a former All Star starter who was picked up from the Dodgers, stuck in the bullpen and became an irreplaceable set up man who actually clinched the 1990 ALCS for the A’s.
And not as famous but still valuable and effective was Gene Nelson.
His real name is Wayland Eugene Nelson, which is an awesome name. That name alone would get to number 8 on the country charts, even if he is just blowing a kazoo.
Nelson was picked in the 30th round of the 1978 draft by the Rangers. He never saw a day as a Ranger as he was packaged off to the Yankees in a complex deal that involved Oscar Gamble and Mickey Rivers.
Nelson made 7 starts and a relief appearance for the 1981 AL Champs but was not included on the post season roster. In 1982, he was in Seattle after a deal involving Shane Rawley.
His pitching coach was Dave Duncan that season and there were glimmers of hope for the Mariners, who started pitching a little better than expected.
Between May 22 and June 12, he went on a terrific streak, throwing 2 complete games and going into the 9th another time and going 8 innings in another start. He won player of the week honors and looked like a stud for the Mariners.
Injuries derailed his season and at the end of the year, Duncan left the Mariners to join Tony LaRussa with the White Sox.
Nelson pitched one more year in Seattle and it was a lost season. In 1984, he was traded to the White Sox and reunited with Duncan. He had a pair of rocky seasons as a starter and in 1986, he was moved to the bullpen. He began to pitch more effectively out of the pen. Then, at mid season, in one of the worst moves every made by any front office, GM Ken Harrleson fired Tony LaRussa.
Within seconds of the firing (OK, maybe a little longer) LaRussa and his staff set up shop in Oakland. By 1987, Nelson joined them. Eckersley was picked up in spring training from the Cubs. Rick Honeycutt was picked up at midseason.
LaRussa was putting together his team. Once Jay Howell was dealt to Los Angeles and Greg Cadaret and Eric Plunk were put into their roles, the bullpen was assembled.
Nelson gave LaRussa 111 2/3 innings of solid relief. He got only 3 saves, picked up 9 relief wins and was a steady bridge to Eckersley.
In the 1988 ALCS, he went 2-0, setting up series MVP Eckersley.
As the A’s won the Pennant in 1988, the World Series in 1989 and another pennant in 1990, Nelson was steady. He posted a 1.57 ERA in 1990 and picked up 5 saves along the way.
By 1992 he had run out of gas and after comeback attempts with the Angels and Rangers, called it a career, one that featured a World Series title and multiple trip to the post season, a fate that would not have fallen upon a washed up starter in Seattle.
That should be part of any bullpen construction plan. Find that starting pitcher with stuff but can’t quite make it work and give them a new role to shine.
Meanwhile look at the majesty that is the Fleer 1982 series. Fleer had bad printing on their cards so all the pictures looked a little blurry. Plus it was their first year with major league cards, so all the pics look like they were taken from a surveillance crew.
A thing of beauty. Come to think of it, how do we really know that IS Gene Nelson in that pic?
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