Baseball's best closers don't feel pressure of situation
Andrew Astleford talked to some of the game's best (past and present) on the challenges closers face.
By ANDREW ASTLEFORDFS Florida
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Fernando Rodney walks in the Tampa Bay
Rays clubhouse, upbeat and eager to forget. It is a recent Sunday, more than 12 hours since his fifth blown save of the season. The closer is prepared to move on.
He arrives at Tropicana Field about 2 1/2 hours before the Rays’ series finale against the
New York Yankees, fist-bumping teammates as he approaches his stall. The night before, he allowed the Yankees to rally from a two-run deficit in the ninth inning to tie the score at 3, before New York won in the 11th after Lyle Overbay’s home run to right field off reliever Josh Lueke.
A year after Rodney set a historic standard — 48 saves in 50 chances, a record-setting 0.60 ERA in 74 2/3 innings — he has lived a different existence this season. He has blown consecutive saves for the first time since Sept. 8 and 10, 2010, when he played for the Los Angeles Angels. His 19 walks are four more than he had last year, and he is on pace to surpass the career-high 41 he allowed with the Detroit Tigers in 2009.
“I’ve got my confidence,” Rodney says. “That’s more important, to try to be myself. That happened. That’s fine. I know tomorrow it’s another day. I know I’ve got my stuff.”
The mentality of a successful closer can be difficult to describe. Each brings his own approach to the mound in the game’s most dramatic inning, but each must hone other traits as well: Focus and patience, an ability to forget and block static inherent in pressure situations during that search for those three final outs.
Rodney, who made his major league debut with Detroit in 2002, is no stranger to these realities. As a disappointing season for him continues, with his faults enhanced because he is compared to his 2012 campaign, he has no choice but to continue the only way he knows how.
“It’s about the game,” Rodney says, standing in the clearing room. “Every day, you do something right, you learn something. … Last night, I probably just hit a bad spot.”
There is no secret. That is the opinion shared by some of the majors’ best closers of all -time. While the final three outs present a stage, a chance to either succeed or fail when the spotlight is brightest, some of the game’s greatest minds in the ninth avoid thinking about the pressure.
“All the work you have done for eight or nine innings, the last three outs are the end of it,” says New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who leads the majors with 626 career saves (as of May 28). “You have to be prepared for that. I never thought of (the pressure) like that. I don’t think about it.”
Rivera sat in the visitors dugout at Tropicana Field on a recent Friday, a man at the top of his craft. This season will be his last in a respected 19-year career, a tenure that has included 12 All-Star Game appearances and five World Series titles.
To Rivera, closing is more about demeanor and personality than anything else: Be even, but aggressive, and a closer enjoys success. Meanwhile, if a closer struggles with command on the mound and in his mind, trying to gain those last three outs can become a torment.
“Have a short memory within what you do — good or bad,” Rivera advises. “And just forget it and move on to the next day, because the next day brings a different challenge. To me, that’s what it is.
“You either have it or not. … I’ve always approached the game in the same way, always like this, since I was young. I hated to lose. Therefore, I found a way to win and get things done.”
Trevor Hoffman found a way as well. Hoffman, who finished with 601 career saves (second all-time), says he thrived late in his career because he was “allowed to go out and fail” early after making his major league debut with the Florida Marlins in 1993. He says freedom to learn through experience — positive and negative — gave him peace of mind that he could develop free of pressure.
In time, Hoffman matured into one of the majors’ best at his role, before announcing his retirement in January 2011. When he left the game, he held the major league record for saves.
“I don’t feel like the guys who are in there the last part of the game feel like they’re the hardest outs, even though they might be,” says Hoffman, who spent 18 season in the majors, most with the San Diego Padres (from 1993 to 2008). “They find routines. They find consistency in their work, and they find a slot that they can rise to the occasion each and every night when needed. It’s the external factors that bring attention to the situation.
“I think we’ve gotten into a situation where the role has evolved. The game hasn’t changed any over 100 years, but the role has evolved over the last 30-40 years.”
Hoffman says expectations play a part too. In Rodney’s case, Hoffman says, the Rays’ closer made others expect more from him after the 2012 season. A strong showing for the Dominican Republic at the World Baseball Classic in March (an event-high seven saves) also increased Rodney’s profile.
“We’ve got to cut him some slack for the amount of workload he had there,” Hoffman says. “He’s still going to be a feared gentleman in the postseason, because they’re going to be in contention, just with the way (Rays manager) Joe (Maddon) runs his show. I think we expect such great things out of the guys who come in at the end of the games.
“The minute you go out and you stick your stick in the ground and say, ‘I’m capable of doing great things,’ then the expectation level of those around you certainly changes. It’s always hard to rise up and continue to meet that level.”
Dennis Eckersley understands the challenges involved. The former closer, who had 390 saves (sixth all-time) when he retired in December 1998, says attention after a successful year only makes a closer’s fall more severe if it occurs.
Consequently, blown saves magnify what can be many issues present in a closer’s slide. As in Rodney’s case, sporadic command becomes more noticeable each time he walks another batter, each time he struggles to finish off an opponent.
“If you do them (blown saves) in clumps, you’re in trouble, because all the attention comes right at you,” says Eckersley, who spent 24 seasons in the majors, most with the Oakland Athletics (1987-1995) and Boston Red Sox (1978-1984, 1998). “And because of what he did last year, it’s inevitable that something is going to go wrong.”
Rodney speaks with a smile on the recent Sunday, his frustration from the night before seemingly gone. He left without talking to reporters after the most recent blown save, a rare instance for him, but he says he has placed the memory in the past.
“It’s hard, because when you have a two-run lead in the ninth, you try to win the game,” Rodney says. “You’ve got a chance a win the game — you can keep the scoreboard like that, 3-1. The next day you have to try again and refresh and get ready to play.”
Recently, Rays coaches and players have voiced their confidence in Rodney. It is little surprise, given how Tampa Bay has few other options for the role. Reliever Joel Peralta, used in the eighth to setup Rodney most of the season, appears the most capable should a change happen. But Maddon has said he refuses to consider an adjustment, though he admits his closer’s recent failed outings are “awkward to watch.”
So the Rays will continue to observe Rodney. Will he find his 2012 form, when he made “shooting the moon” nearly a given when he took the mound? Or will the rest of the summer include more walks, more tense moments, more blown saves?
“It’s just confidence,” Peralta says. “Get his confidence back, knowing that he can get guys out, that he has great stuff and challenge hitters — get ahead in the count and try to finish up with the changeup he’s got. … I think that’s all he needs right now.”
Says outfielder Matt Joyce: “He’s extremely talented. His velocity is there. Whatever the case may be with his control, he’ll get it figured out for sure, and we have 100-percent confidence in him.”
That confidence from teammates and Maddon comforts Rodney. Still, it is unknown where he will go from here.
Despite recent hardship, though, the pull of the ninth draws him back. This is his life. He would never have it any other way.
“The ninth inning, I think, is the best inning in the game,” Rodney says with a grin, before walking toward the field. “Everybody wants to see the last three outs. … In the ninth, you want to try something for the fans, for your ballclub. And I’m trying, and I’m going to try today.”