Consider this: in both the 2012 and 2013 American League Division Series, the Oakland Athletics could have avoided a Game Five against Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers both times, if the bullpen had just been able to hold late-inning leads.
In 2012, it was Game Two in Detroit, when the A's relief corps blew leads in both the seventh and the eighth innings on the way to a 5-4 loss that left Oakland in an 0-2 ALDS hole against the eventual AL champions. Sean Doolittle blew a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the seventh by giving up two runs, and after the Tigers handed the two runs right back in the top of the eighth, it was Ryan Cook who surrendered a run in the bottom of the eighth to blow another lead.
Grant Balfour eventually lost the game in the bottom of the ninth, meaning the A's top three relievers were unable to close the door -- and cost Oakland a chance to win that series in four games.
Fast forward to Game Four in 2013, when the A's could have eliminated the Tigers at Comerica Park. But nursing a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the seventh, Doolittle again gave up two runs, and when Cook gave up two more in the eighth, Oakland's best shot to win the series was gone.
Now, it's 2014, and the bullpen is once again creaky, despite offseason efforts to shore it up. Jim Johnson has been a disaster in the closer role, but after blown saves on Tuesday night for Doolittle and Wednesday night for newly-acquired Luke Gregerson -- both against the Los Angeles Angels on the road -- one has to wonder just what the problem is with the A's bullpen, still.
Doolittle gave up a two-run home run to Mike Trout in the bottom of the ninth Tuesday, and the A's recovered to win in extra innings. Surely, there is no shame in giving up a HR to Trout, but Doolittle clearly has trouble closing games.
Last night, Gregerson couldn't get Howie Kendrick to ground into a double play, as Trout again got on base and scored the tying run. Oakland eventually lost in the 12th inning, to complete a 7-2 road trip.
But throw in Johnson's earlier challenges in the late innings, and this is why Oakland currently leads the majors with five blown saves -- and the club has only played 15 games so far this season. That's not a good sign for things to come, even if the A's still have the AL's best record at 10-5.
Oakland has a lot of good arms in the bullpen, but if they can't figure out how to save close games in the late innings, the A's could be looking at another frustrating end to a season -- just like 2012 and 2013, when "simply" preserving a late lead would have given the team a great chance at advancing to the World Series.
You don't get that many chances in the postseason, and to fumble away the last two has to hurt Billy Beane and the A's organization.
If the bullpen can't get itself sorted out, nothing is going to change in 2014.