MILWAUKEE -- When J.J. Putz signed on as the D-backs' closer last winter, he knew he was signing on for much more than just three outs in the ninth inning. After a 2010 season that saw the D-backs' bullpen hit rock bottom, Putz would have to deliver more than just clutch pitches to do his job. It was made clear to him in a long phone conversation with D-backs manager Kirk Gibson that he'd have to be a mentor to younger pitchers, and he'd have to set a winning tone in the bullpen. "That was one of their pitches to me, that they needed someone to come in and embrace that type of role, and I had no problem with that," said Putz, who signed as a free agent on Dec. 7.
To say Putz has delivered what the D-backs needed is an understatement. Putz converted his last 24 opportunities to post a career-high 45 saves, one off the National League lead. And the D-backs' much-improved bullpen emerged as a key element to the team's rise to a division title and its appearance in the NL Division Series against the Brewers, starting with Saturday's Game 1. Signing Putz was one of the first moves Kevin Towers made upon taking over as general manager of the D-backs -- one day after he'd acquired right-hander David Hernandez in a deal with the Orioles that moved slugger Mark Reynolds. The 26-year-old Hernandez has been a lights-out setup man for Putz and filled in perfectly when the veteran was on the disabled list with shoulder stiffness. For Hernandez, Putz has balanced mentoring and doing his job on the field more than admirably. "He's just a very easy guy to walk up and talk to, not just about pitching but about anything," Hernandez said. "He's always out there keeping things light. But there's a certain point in the game where you have to find your focus, and he understands that. "It makes it a lot easier on us when you give him the ball and it's pretty much game over." Of course, the improvement in the bullpen has been a team effort. The D-backs have used rookies like lefty Joe Paterson to make strides in the late innings, and they acquired veteran sidearmer Brad Ziegler to bolster the relief crew. But a good bullpen figuratively begins and literally ends with a quality closer. Having had Trevor Hoffman as his team's closer for years while he was GM in San Diego, Towers knew the value of having a veteran who not only could sit opponents down but also set a tone with his teammates. "I think the intangibles that [Putz] possesses are a huge plus," Towers said. "He's been the guy who keeps things loose in the clubhouse, and then he's been Mr. Consistency in the ninth inning, too. "He's one of those guys who we all have confidence in. When you hand the ball from David to him, more often than not the end result's going to be a positive one." In a sense, the end result was always a positive one this year. The D-backs didn't lose a single game they were leading after eight innings, and that's obviously a reflection on the closer. Putz's numbers say a lot about his season, the first of a two-year, $10 million deal the 34-year-old signed with the D-backs. His 24-save streak is the longest in franchise history, and he has held opponents scoreless in his last 16 outings and 48 of his 60 overall. His 2.17 ERA is impressive, but his 0.36 ERA on the road is uncanny, having allowed just one run away from Chase Field all year. Putz doesn't say a lot about the numbers, except one. "I've never been one to be too worried about numbers. I'm just worried about the 27th out," Putz said. The way Putz has gone about being a leader on and off the field came as no surprise to Willie Bloomquist, the D-backs' veteran infielder who played alongside Putz from 2003-08 when they were both in Seattle. "He's really been a cornerstone of our team, because if you've got a lead going in the seventh or eighth inning, there's a pretty good chance we're getting a W," Bloomquist said. "What he's done not only himself but getting the rest of the guys down in the bullpen prepared to do their jobs, it's just been exceptional. He's been a huge part of this success. "He may joke around and be a team prankster of sorts before the game or sometimes even early in the game. But when it starts getting to the late innings and we have a lead, it turns all business with him. When he gets into a game, it's fun to see that switch." For Putz, it's been fun earning his first trip to the postseason. He has put in eight full seasons and made 457 appearances in the Majors, and now he's finally on a team that reached the postseason, after a few close calls with Seattle and last year with the White Sox. "To finally be able to celebrate in the clubhouse and be a part of it, especially with the group we have right here, it's a dream come true to be here," Putz said. Putz's part in the team arriving on the October stage is unquestioned. But he says the mentorship element of his job this year wasn't all that challenging, really. Said Putz: "It's a great group of guys, so it hasn't been hard. ... It's not a greedy ballclub. It's just a bunch of guys who like to grind it out." Right down to out No. 27, the only number Putz cares about.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.