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Cleveland's bullpen blues keeping the AL Central in play

Two years ago, the Cleveland bullpen led the way when the Indians overcame significant injuries in their starting rotation and won the American League pennant.

Now, the fickle nature of relief pitching is holding the AL Central favorites back.

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After Sunday night's 3-1 loss at Houston, Cleveland's relievers are 3-11 with an AL-worst 5.72 ERA. It has been a precipitous drop for a team that had the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball while storming to 102 wins a season ago. In fact, the Indians ranked in the top seven in that category every year from 2014-2017.

In 2016, Cleveland reliever Andrew Miller was the MVP of the AL Championship Series against Toronto. In Game 3, starter Trevor Bauer had to leave in the first inning, and the bullpen pieced together the final 25 outs of a 4-2 victory.

Closer Cody Allen has blown only one save this season, and Miller remains a force — although he has already walked nine hitters in 11 2/3 innings. Those two are the only Cleveland relievers who have been remotely reliable in 2018. Zach McAllister and Dan Otero have combined for 32 innings. Their ERAs are 7.16 and 7.47. Nick Goody (6.94) and Tyler Olson (6.08) have had similar problems.

So Cleveland is a game under .500 at 22-23. That's still good enough for a 1 ½-game lead atop the forgiving AL Central, but the Indians would probably be running away with the division already if their relievers were pitching as expected.

There's plenty of time to turn it around — and the team can certainly acquire more help if its in-house options don't improve — but these early struggles have been startling.

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