Part 4: There Has to Be a Closer
by Timothy Malcolm
But for Jim Thome to win his first world championship, and for Phillies fans to recover from a heartbreaking 2011 season, and for fate to be denied as justification for failure, somebody has to pitch the ninth inning. At least that’s the plot. There has to be a closer. One man worthy enough to throw the final pitch.
Transport yourself to Yankee Stadium, 1978. It’s late in the game and the Yankees lead. Maybe on a Reggie Jackson home run, maybe on a Craig Nettles double. Catfish Hunter is gassed. Or maybe Ed Figueroa. Whatever. The Yankees need to win. So Billy Martin creeps out from the dugout, takes the ball from the starter and motions to the bullpen. In years past, the starter wouldn’t be lifted unless he was really struggling. Six runs, seven runs, maybe that much. But now that’s not the case, not with that guy out there.
A couple years before this, Sparky Anderson, that white-haired shrew that bounced about the Cincinnati Reds dugout, started fiddling with his bullpen rotation. Starters were removed at the first sign of weakness. A reliever entered but rarely stayed. And Sparky liked certain guys, the ones who got the outs all the time. Those guys pitched the big innings, usually the last one, the one that needed closing. They all became closers.
Back to 1978. That guy, the one walking in from the Yankees bullpen, is brawny and boldfaced. He has this mustache – you have to see it – the thing reaches down to his chin, as if it’s threatening the rest of the face. Nobody is doing this. The White Sox used him like this in 1976, finishing forty-nine games, pissing off rubber-armed comic book villains like Clay Carroll and Wilbur Wood. Then, thinking he could be better starting games, the Sox moved him to the front of games. He didn’t do so well. So off he went to Pittsburgh, finishing fifty-five games with an earned run average under two. Then, free agency, and the big boys came calling. George Steinbrenner’s Bronx Bombers, one championship under their belts, wanted another. They already had Catfish, and Guidry, and Sparky Lyle, and Reggie, Thurman Munson, Nettles, Willie Randolph. But they wanted the most imposing figure in the game, the one with that mustache. So they got Goose, and here he is, stepping onto the hill, receiving the ball from Billy, hurling fastballs at nearly one-hundred miles per hour, thrilling the throngs at the House that Ruth Built, the House that Reggie Renovated.
Goose Gossage finished fifty-five Yankee games in 1978, tops in the league. His earned run average barely rose above two. He threw more than one-hundred and thirty-four innings and – here is the statistic that mattered – saved twenty-seven games, also tops in the league. The statistic mattered because it told folks which pitchers could effectively finish games already in hand. It meant that in twenty-seven of the fifty-five games Gossage pitched in 1978, he entered with a lead of three or less and left with a team victory. And since Gossage normally threw two innings, maybe three, that statistic mattered quite a bit. Like a good starter, Gossage could keep other teams from scoring over multiple innings. And Gossage would save more than twenty games each season through 1986, proving relentlessly reliable, almost always pitching more than one inning, sometimes two, maybe three. Other teams wanted their own Goose Gossages. So brawny, boldfaced men with mustaches and wild hair became late-game stoppers, throwing wild fastballs and screwy breaking balls, earning the moniker “firemen” for putting out rallies with hoses for arms.
The year Goose Gossage last recorded twenty saves, a thirty-one-year-old starter for the Cubs was flat lining. Earning a 4.57 earned run average in thirty-two starts, Dennis Eckersley had fallen far from the top-line starter he had been in the 1970s. Traded to the Oakland Athletics, Eckersley found an entirely new life. His manager, a middle-aged and experimenting Tony LaRussa, moved Eckersley from the rotation to the bullpen, from a five-pitch over-thinker to a two-pitch fireballer with no sense of order. In 1987 he threw over one-hundred and fifteen innings, pitching multiple innings in many appearances, but finished thirty-three games and recorded sixteen saves. With those first steps, LaRussa saw more in Eckersley. He saw a man capable of completely shutting down opposing teams for one solid inning – the final inning. The formula: Get the starter through six, maybe seven, and grab a lead; throw into the game relievers who can match up well against the opposition; if all is good, in the ninth, give the ball to Dennis Eckersley. In 1987, Eckersley pitched in sixty games. He threw seventy-two innings. He finished fifty-three games and saved forty-five of them. There was no hot hand anymore. There was no multiple-inning specialist. Just one man capable of throwing one perfect final inning. And Eckersley, with his wickedly loose black hair flopping out from his green hat, and a thin mustache that intimidated more than anything Goose could have imagined, simply dominated. And like with Goose, the other teams followed suit, looking for wild and wacky pitchers who could throw one perfect final inning. The modern-day closer was born. Lee Smith did it extremely well. John Franco was efficient. Trevor Hoffman perfected the dropping changeup. And Mariano Rivera perfected the zipping cutter. Truthfully, nobody did it as well as Rivera, who settled into the Yankees ninth inning plans in 1997 and never left. His cutter never lost an inch. His guile never faded a minute. Get the starter through six, maybe seven, grab a lead, juggle the relievers but damnit, get to the ninth and give that ball to Mariano. One-thousand forty-two career games. Six-hundred and three career saves, the most ever. Simply, Rivera was – and is – the best to ever assume the role of closer, but truthfully, if the man started, he would have been one of the best there. It just so happened that the Yankees always kept him closer, so every other team kept suit, rotating new fireballers and one-pitch wonders into the closer spot. If one stuck, he’d stay there for a while. Billy Wagner, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan – there are really only a few every couple years. Some are good but possess a fatal flaw ready to implode at any moment, like the man who knelt and embraced the heavens after closing game five of the 2008 World Series: Brad Lidge.
The Phillies nabbed Lidge from the Houston Astros before the 2008 season. They traded speedy outfielder Michael Bourn, weak reliever Geoff Geary and filler minor leaguer Michael Costanzo for infielder Eric Bruntlett and Lidge, the Astros’ closer, who threw a mid-nineties fastball and devastating slider, and was reeling despite a few solid seasons finishing games down south. Lidge produced a miracle in Philadelphia in 2008, throwing sixty-nine innings, finishing sixty-one games and saving forty-one games, never failing to close a game victoriously. He also was perfect in the postseason, delivering that final strike to win the Phillies’ second world championship, forever fitting him deep into the hearts of fans.
Sort of. After signing a three-year contract worth $12 million each season, Lidge recorded a terrible 7.21 earned run average in 2009. Despite injuries, he rebounded slightly in 2010 to throw up a respectably bad 4.66 earned run average. Revamped with a high-eighties fastball and multiple variations of the slider, Lidge pieced together a 3.52 earned run average in 2011, reclaiming some form, and helping more than hurting. But the golden days had long left Lidge. Like the hundreds of relievers before him, Brad Lidge was just a solid, respectable pitcher who had a couple solid, respectable years in the modern-day role of closer. But he was not Billy Wagner, and he was not Francisco Rodriguez, and he was not Joe Nathan. Brad Lidge, like many before, was just a guy thrown into a role vaulted to unfairly high aspirations, simply because a guy like Mariano Rivera, and a guy like Trevor Hoffman, and a guy like Dennis Eckersley, and a guy like Goose Gossage were simply great pitchers.
While Brad Lidge stuttered through a revamped repertoire in 2011, the Phillies relied on longtime reliever Ryan Madson to be the closer. He certainly succeeded, throwing sixty innings in sixty-two games, saving thirty-two games and finishing with a 2.37 earned run average. It was Madson’s finest hour as a closer, an apex of a career that felt like the career of scores of other closers over the years. Madson started in the bullpen, flourishing in middle relief as a flame-throwing right-hander, then moved to the starting rotation and failed tremendously. A return to the bullpen made more sense for Madson, who possessed a low-nineties fastball and a changeup that many hitters believed was the best in baseball. Each year he improved, raising his fastball velocity near one-hundred miles per hour while retaining arguably the game’s best off-speed pitch. By the time he was forced into being the Phillies’ permanent closer, Madson had grown into one of baseball’s most efficient and seasoned relievers, a two-trick pony not unlike Trevor Hoffman. So when Madson’s neatly square three-year contract ended after 2011, it seemed obvious that the Phillies would want to retain their homegrown relief talent, turn him into a true superstar and ride his superior changeup to glossy trading cards, bedroom posters, bobbleheads and another world championship trophy. On November 7, 2011, multiple journalists reported the Phillies reached a pact with Madson – four years, $44 million. A little higher than hoped, to be sure, but at least the Phillies locked up their man, the guy they would ride to that third title. Sure, spending big money for a closer might be a big risk, but Madson felt like Hoffman. He wasn’t like those wild-hair closers, those crazy-head closers. He kept a short haircut, a straight face and an easygoing personality. Maybe he kicked a chair once, injuring his toe, but everyone has one moment of imploding frustration. No worry – we knew Ryan Madson, we liked Ryan Madson. Pending a physical, he was still ours.
A day passed. There was no physical. Then, the journalists reported, there was no deal. Reportedly, team president David Montgomery disapproved the contract. A rift in the organization, over a guy nurtured in the organization – this was bad news.
Another day passed. Still no physical. And the journalists now reported a deal was never even offered. The four-year, $44 million pact must have been plucked from the clouds. A fool made it up, then. Or maybe Madson’s agent, the controversial Scott Boras, played some games with Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. What a heel. Whatever the case – no Ryan Madson.
A third day passed. Not only was there no physical, but the journalists were reporting that the Phillies were inching closer to securing a deal with Jonathan Papelbon, a thirty-year-old flamethrower who had played the role of closer for the Boston Red Sox since 2006. His was a solid, if spectacular, six-year run finishing games for one of baseball’s best teams in, arguably, baseball’s most stressful environment, the shoebox of human loathing known as Fenway Park. This was no Madson, the next maybe-Hoffman. This was the second guy after Mariano Rivera. This was Billy Wagner. This was Lee Smith. This was also a rumored headcase. But no worry – at least Papelbon is really good at being a closer.
On the fourth day after that failed Madson deal, the journalists reported the Phillies reaching a deal with Papelbon. The terms: four years, $50 million, a fifth-year option, potentially $60 million overall. Fans weren’t sure how to respond. Most expressed frustration at Amaro’s ability to pay a one-inning pitcher a significant amount of money, while a few others simply reveled in the moment, impressed that the Phillies could land one of baseball’s top closers, and appreciative of this new, still fresh era of big spending. Whichever way fans landed on the Papelbon contract, one truth remained: The Phillies were spending big bucks on a closer, a man responsible for one inning, and in less than half of the team’s games. A few Phillies relievers could notch more innings, and it is likely some of their innings will be more important than some of Papelbon’s innings. Charlie Manuel doesn’t believe in forcing his best reliever into the game during its highest moment of tension. He likes the formula, the one that everyone else follows, the one that Tony LaRussa created for Dennis Eckersley and Dennis Eckersley only: Get the starter through six, maybe seven, grab a lead, juggle the relievers but damnit, get to the ninth and give that ball to Papelbon.
And so, because there must be a closer, Jonathan Papelbon will get that ball. And it might be with the world championship on the line. (Even though he loves throwing up in the strike zone.) The fans at the ballpark will be shaking. (And his fastball could start losing velocity at any moment.) The boys in the dugout will be sweating. (And he is known to get a little too feisty out on the mound.) Jim Thome will be praying. (But hey, live and die with the guy.) And the eyes of the world will be staring, all at once, at Jonathan Papelbon, a Philadelphia Phillie, a closer. (The closer.)