ATLANTA — The deep Braves bullpen is preparing for its biggest test.
There will be no off days in the best-of-five NL Division Series against the Miami Marlins, which begins Tuesday in Houston.
Manager Brian Snitker may have to maneuver his pitching staff through five games in five days. Braves starters failed to last five innings in more than half of the 60 regular-season games, but the strong bullpen helped Atlanta win its third straight NL East title.
Atlanta relievers threw nine scoreless innings in the two-game sweep of Cincinnati in the NL wild-card series and could be even more important against the Marlins.
“I think the bullpen depth helps us be equipped, but you know we’re not going to throw them five days in a row,” Snitker said Saturday. “That’s going to be the challenge, the lack of off days that normally in the playoffs you have where you exhaust all those guys.”
Will Smith, Chris Martin and Mark Melancon worked back-to-back days in the sweep of the Reds. Had there been a Game 3, all would have been available.
Snitker said he may have to use some relievers in as many as four of the five games against the Marlins. Smith said there will be no complaints from the bullpen.
“We’ve got a hard-working bullpen,” he said. “We show up every day and we get our work done. We’re all on that first bus. We all know we want to throw that night. ... We take pride in being up every single day. We don’t like days off. We don’t like to be down.”
Five of the seven outs Smith recorded in the wild-card series came on strikeouts. The left-hander who signed a $40 million, three-year contract in the offseason was shut down at the start of the delayed season following his positive test for the coronavirus.
After missing the summer camp before the shortened season, Smith was behind schedule when he joined the active roster. The two dominant appearances against the Reds, when he gave up no hits or walks, were the best sign that he has finally hit his top form.
“I felt toward the end of the season I was finally starting to click a little bit,” Smith said. “The past two outings obviously I finally felt fully back and like myself. I don’t know if it was the situation that kind of kicked me in gear or what it was, but it was nice to be able to be out there now and get strike one and strike two and go from there.”
In a normal season, Smith might have challenged Melancon for the closer’s role, as he did when the two were teammates in San Francisco. Instead, a healthy Smith has added length to an already deep bullpen.
If necessary, Snitker could have a bullpen game against the Marlins, following expected starts by Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright. Snitker said he could use a different reliever each inning “and feel good about all nine we put out there.”
Josh Tomlin might be the choice to start if there is a bullpen game. Tomlin started five games and pitched in relief in 12 games this season.
“They haven’t told me anything,” Tomlin said Saturday. “For now I’m just in the bullpen ready to pitch whenever they ask me to.”
Tomlin said the bullpen’s effort against the Reds “was one of the best pitching performances I’ve ever seen in the postseason. ... The poise they kept and how they went about their business was unbelievable.”