Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Why Can Closers Only Close?

I'm not entirely sure what being a pitcher is like psychologically. I pitched a grand total of one season in Little League, so I'm completely unqualified to speak on what goes on in a pitcher's head. And also am pretty sure what I'm about to say isn't entirely accurate.

Having said that, why does it seem that Major League closers can only close out games, struggling in virtually all other situations?

Certainly, that isn't the case all the time. Many closer, hell probably all of them, have been successful coming into games that are not save situations or close-out situations. But it sure as hell feels like closer struggle in non-save situations virtually all the time. That was certainly the case last night for the Phillies, as Ryan Madson came in during a tie game in the 9th and proceeded to surrender three runs as the Phils lost for the first time in forever against the Reds, 6-3.

It truly is a mystery to me. I understand that a closer has to have a certain mind-set to be able to handle the pressure of getting the final three outs to secure a victory. But why does that mentality seem to change when a closer is thrust into a different situation? Suddenly, it seems like they aren't themselves unless a save is in order. It's really baffling to me. It seems like if closers approached every situation like a save, it would do them good. But like I said, I've never been a pitcher, so I don't know what's going through their heads and how messing with their routines affects them.

What I do know is that Ryan Madson is the type of guy who should be able to adapt, him being a set-up man the past few seasons and all. And I'm sure he can, actually. Madson has been brilliant this year, and he was bound to have a bad outing. Chalk it up to one bad game and move on.

Yet I still kind of question bringing in the closer in that situation last night. Not because it's the wrong move — as Chris Wheeler pointed out, lots of managers bring in their closer in the 9th in a tie game at home — but because of what transpired the inning before.

Antonio Bastardo took the mound in the 9th for the Phils and pitched an easy, effortless 1-2-3 inning, getting two weak pop-outs and a strike out against the bottom of Cincinnati's order. All three batters were right-handed.

When the Phils failed to score, I figured Charlie Manuel would be wise to leave Bastardo in the game and save Madson in case this thing went to extras. Or at least let Bastardo start the inning and bring in Madson in case he got in trouble.

I know the Reds brought in the right-handed Edgar Renteria to lead off the 9th, who was to be followed by Drew Stubbs and Brandon Phillips at the top of the order, both right-handed bats. So going to Madson wasn't the wrong move by the numbers at all. But I just liked the way Bastardo was throwing, he just three righties out, and right-handers are batting just .167 off him this season. I would have kept Bastardo in.

Manuel didn't, and his move certainly made sense. Madson was fresh, having not pitched the night before, the game was tied, he's been fantastic, and the Reds had plenty of right-handers up. It was a good move to make. But it wasn't a save situation, and the Phillies' newest closer struggled.

After getting Renteria, Drew Stubbs laid down a bunt. It wasn't that good of a bunt, bunting it a bit too hard toward third. I thought for sure Placido Polanco was going to come in and make the play. And he would have, except that Madson made the mistake of trying to field it himself instead of letting his third baseman, with all his momentum going toward first, field it and make a relatively easy throw. Conversely, Madson was moving away from first, couldn't get his footing and had to make a difficult throw across his body with no momentum. That turned into a bunt single and a throwing error by Madson, putting the winning run in scoring position.

It was a mental lapse by Madson. A hundred times out of a hundred, with the ball bunted that hard, you want the third baseman fielding that ball, not the pitcher. Polanco would have gotten Stubbs, or at least would have had a much better shot at getting him. And at worst, Stubbs is on first, not at second.

Still, Madson composed himself and got Brandon Phillips to line out, and then he intentionally walked reigning NL MVP Joey Votto to get to Scott Rolen, a no-brainer. But Rolen singled to load the bases to bring up the red-hot and dangerous Jay Bruce. Had Madson let Polanco field Stubbs' bunt, the inning would have already been over had Polly made that play, or Madson would not have intentionally walked Votto, because Stubbs would have been on first.

Now Madson had to face the left-handed power-hitting Bruce, a player who came into this series on a tear. And while Bruce was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts on the night prior to this at-bat, he's not exactly the guy you want to see in that spot. And Bruce delivered, tattooing a mistake by Madson to the wall to clear the bases.

That was all she wrote.

Another situation where a closer came in in a non-save situation and couldn't get the job done. And all I'm left to wonder is why? Why can closer seemingly only close in the majors? I just don't get it. I really don't.

P.S. Raul was awesome again, going 3-for-4 with a double, two runs and an RBI. Suddenly, he has a higher batting average than Ryan Howard and is creeping up on Carlos Ruiz. Rumors of his demise were vastly overstated. Raul is a streaky hitter. That's the facts. Oh, and Ryan Madson is still awesome. Just a bad outing.

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