‘He’s not afraid’: Sandlin exudes confidence in pitches in fireman role

4:23 AM UTC

ARLINGTON — There’s a reason Guardians manager Stephen Vogt referred to righty reliever Nick Sandlin as his “pacifier” earlier this season.

The purpose of a pacifier is to ignite a soothing effect on an infant, even in a moment of distress. And when Sandlin is on the mound, everyone in the dugout can take a deep breath, knowing that despite the jam he’s been thrust into, he’ll somehow dance his way out of it.

That’s exactly what the righty did against the Rangers, escaping a one-out, bases-loaded jam to help the Guardians secure a 7-0 victory at Globe Life Field on Monday evening.

“What Nick is doing this year is truly impressive,” Vogt said. “Whether it’s coming in with people on, whether it’s a clean inning, he’s just been so consistent for us versus right, versus left, it hasn’t mattered.”

The bases were loaded with just one out in the sixth inning as Guardians starter Tanner Bibee handed the ball over to the righty Sandlin. The game was scoreless at the time and the Rangers were knocking on the door to blow it open.

But Sandlin was there to make sure momentum didn’t shift in the Rangers’ favor. The righty pounded the zone with two four-seamers that cleanup hitter Adolis García fouled off. On the third pitch, Sandlin turned to a splitter below the zone that García chased, resulting in the second out of the inning.

“[That’s] a strikeout situation for us there,” Sandlin said. “Once I got ahead, we could expand and use the offspeed after that.”

Not only did Sandlin turn to his offspeed stuff, but he used his splitter against a right-handed batter — something that’s as unconventional as seeing a righty pitcher throw a changeup to a righty hitter (as we saw Bibee do on Monday night, too), further demonstrating his confidence on the rubber.

“I mean, he went right-on-right [splitter] to Adolis tonight and none of us saw that coming either,” Vogt said. “He’s not afraid.”

“You don’t see it too much,” Guardians catcher Bo Naylor said. “It just adds another pitch that a hitter on the same side has to kind of worry about. When you have multiple pitches that a hitter feels like he has to cover, it just makes the pitcher that much more effective.”

The next at-bat was a nine-pitch battle that ended in a broken-bat groundout to second base to escape the inning unscathed.

“I think over the past couple years I’ve gotten used to that being like my role to come in and sometimes get out of jams,” Sandlin said. “I think just knowing who’s coming to the plate and having a good plan of attack, getting ahead and then kind of expanding from there.”

But what is it about Sandlin that makes him so effective? His velocity isn’t overpowering and he doesn’t have a ridiculously high chase rate, but his whiff percentage is through the roof. The sidearmer has pounded the strike zone this year and has been rewarded with a 1.74 ERA in a Major League-leading 22 appearances.

“I think there’s a little deception from his arm angle,” Vogt said. “The ball has some life to it, too. It plays up from the velocity. [He also has] the sweeper and now that split. … The arm angle, the stuff, the deception, I think all of that plays into it.”

The one thing that’s held this team together is the bullpen, no matter if the bats or starters are hot or cold. The Guardians entered the day leading the Majors with a 2.43 bullpen ERA. Add another scoreless 3 2/3 innings and this group is only getting better.

If you have good pitching, you can always remain competitive. Usually this is in regard to a starting staff, but it also applies to a bullpen. Closer Emmanuel Clase has stolen the spotlight by permitting just one earned run so far this year. Hunter Gaddis has emerged as the reliable eighth-inning man, despite some challenges he faced against the Braves and Astros. Scott Barlow has been consistent.

But it’s Sandlin who has quietly been the unsung hero of this team so far — or the “pacifier,” if you will.

“I haven’t heard that before,” Sandlin said with a laugh. “As a ‘pen, I think we’ve done a good job, we’ve been prepared for the teams we’ve faced and we’ve limited a lot of damage and free passes and I think that’s been the key for us a group.”