There is the story the numbers tell and the story the eyes tell. When it comes to the Buffalo Bisons' bullpen, the eyes should have it more often than not. They did Sunday.
Justin Hampson, Manny Acosta and Fernando Cabrera pitched two-hit, shutout ball over the final 4 1/3 innings of the Herd's 4-2 win over the Norfolk Tides in Coca-Cola Field. The trio struck out six, walked one and retired 13 of the 16 men it faced, including the final eight.
The pen has been a strength for the Bisons all season. It has covered 21 of 27 save chances (International League leader Cabrera is 14 for 14), and stranded 58 of 83 inherited runners. The pen's earned-run average was 2.64 in April and 3.16 in May. But in June, a couple major blowups had the figure at 5.35 entering Sunday.
This was a day reminiscent of earlier in the season. Hampson's cutter produced three strikeouts and Acosta, just down from the New York Mets, produced a pop up and a fly ball in the seventh after he slipped into a first-and-third jam with one out. He pitched a 1-2-3 eighth and Cabrera did likewise in the ninth, fanning the final two.
"We've got guys in the back end now who have really good stuff," said Hampson, who dropped his ERA to 2.10. "Certainly Manny would rather not be here but he's got really good stuff and he's a boost for our bullpen. And Fernando has been great all year."
Even though they lost lights-out setup man Elvin Ramirez to the Mets, the Bisons still have hard-throwing Pedro Beato (who has 10 2/3 scoreless innings over his last six outings) and just got Jack Egbert and his 1.88 ERA back after he cleared waivers from New York. Josh Edgin has been tough on lefties, who hit .207 against him.
And manager Wally Backman confirmed Sunday that hard-throwing Jenrry Mejia, who has been starting here on rehab from Tommy John surgery, will move to the pen later this week.
"Our bullpen is really strong," added catcher Rob Johnson. "Manny obviously has got big-league time, Beato, Cabrera, Hampson, all of them big-league time. These guys are tough to face, keeping guys off balance and hitting spots."
Hampson, a 32-year-old left-hander, got the win Sunday and continues to be a very intriguing piece. He made 74 relief appearances with San Diego in 2007 and 2008, posting a 2.79 ERA, but shoulder troubles eventually landed him in independent leagues by 2010. Last year, he was Buffalo's Comeback Player of the Year winner by going 3-3, 3.41 in 52 games and this year he's been even better.
"You want to come in and and throw strikes right away," Hampson said. "With runners in scoring position, you want guys to hit your best pitch and try to get off the field and get the guys back up to the plate."
That's what happened Sunday. Bill Hall's solo homer off Herd starter Dylan Owen leading off the fifth forged a 2-2 tie and Hampson came on with two outs and a runner on second to retire rehabbing Baltimore All-Star Brian Roberts on a liner to center field.
Corey Wimberly's RBI double in the bottom of the inning gave the Bisons the lead for good and Johnson added a solo homer in the sixth.
"He's got that cutter on both sides of the plate and then he's got the big curveball to change speeds more," Johnson said. "He's got deception on the fastball the way it runs down, all that. You stay down in the zone and you'll get outs."
Hampson's four wins are already a career high as a reliever and lefties are just 8 for 40 at the plate against him.
"Hampson has done the job all year for us," said Backman. "He's a guy that can get major-league hitters out, especially left-handed ones."
Bisons 4, Tides 2
The Pitch: Wimberly RBI double in fifth snaps 2-2 tie. Bullpen combines for 4 1/3 innings of two-hit shutout ball. Former AL MVP Tejada drives in Tides' first run with RBI single.
Fast Fact: Johnson's homer was his third of the season and first since May 3.
Next game: Tonight vs. Norfolk, 7 p.m. (Markdown Monday/$7 tickets/$1 concession specials)