KANSAS CITY, Mo. — There’s no other job like it in professional sports.
No other job requires this much perfection with an entire team’s fate — and sometimes an entire city’s mood — on the line, 50 or 60 times a season.
Indeed, being a closer in baseball demands unreal expectations. No bad days, no slumps are allowed. Just get the job done, protect the precious victory, move on to the next day.
Nothing deflates a team’s spirit or a fan base more than a blown save, a seemingly certain victory snatched away.
Royals closer Greg Holland knows this, of course. He has been nothing but nails most of this season, saving 22 of 24 opportunities. And he has been utterly dominant of late. In his last 13 saves, he has not only brushed away the opponent, he has embarrassed them, averaging over two strikeouts per inning.
“He’s just overpowering people,” designated hitter Billy Butler says. “That’s hard to do at this level.”
But every Royals fan knows where they were the day Holland blew his last save. It was on May 6 in what turned out to be a devastating 2-1, 11-inning loss to the White Sox.
The game had numerous subplots: It became known throughout Royals land as the “Ned Game,” because manager Ned Yost pulled starter James Shields, who had thrown eight shutout innings, in favor of Holland, who did not protect a 1-0 lead.
It wasn’t just Holland’s failure, either. Second baseman Chris Getz did not make a play on a grounder over the bag with the tying run on third in the ninth. Kelvin Herrera then gave up a homer in the 11th to Jordan Danks (no longer in the big leagues), and the air seemed to be sucked out of Kauffman Stadium as well as Kansas City.
And the devastating loss turned the Royals’ season around in a nanosecond, it seemed, as the Royals went into a tailspin, losing 18 of 22 games.
That’s what can happen with just one blown save.
Holland, in his first full season as the Royals’ closer after taking over for the injured Joakim Soria in midseason last year, understands the consequences of such failure. But he loves the job nonetheless.
“Oh, yeah, I love it,” Holland says. “It’s a rush. That’s the only reason you do it. The rush when things go well.”
Holland knows the flip side, too. But he doesn’t like to think about it.
Did he realize the impact that one blown save in early May seemed to have on the city, the team?
“OK, now you’re making me nervous,” he says, forcing a smile. “I try not to even let that enter my mind. For this job, you have to have a short memory. You have to.”
Dealing with failure is No. 1 on the job training list for any closer. Unlike hitters who can sink into 2-for-35 slumps and keep their job, or starting pitchers who can be shaky for several starts and stay in the rotation, closers don’t have that luxury.
One blown save is a killer. Two straight blown saves and everyone is screaming on Twitter for a replacement.
Holland, who has a 1.80 ERA, handles the pressure by falling back on his work ethic.
“You prepare mentally and physically each day,” he says. “You rely on that preparation. You try to execute the very next pitch no matter what’s happened before. You give up two runs and you win by one, it’s still better than giving up three or four and losing.
“It’s all your mindset. You have to stay in the moment. If stuff starts rolling downhill, you just focus on the next pitch because you no longer have control over what already has happened. You have to have a short memory. If it’s a 3-0 count, go out and get back into the count and get the guy out.
“You’re always training your mind to think that way. That’s what gets you through the rough patches.”
A big part of the mental approach to being a closer is knowing that failure will occur, even to the great ones such as Mariano Rivera.
And Holland hasn’t failed much: He is fifth in the American League in saves with 22, tied with two others. But the four closers above him — Joe Nathan (30), Jim Johnson (30), Rivera (29) and Grant Balfour (24) — all play for teams with winning records that are at or near the top of their divisions.
Holland is getting fewer chances, working for a sub-.500 team.
“I think really it’s a fine line,” Holland says. “You hate to fail. But you learn to cope with it. You don’t accept it, but you cope with it. You wake up the next day ready to go win a game. You can’t let it stick with you.
“You rely on your preparation. That’s all you can really do. I don’t know. It’s something I learned because I have failed in the past. But I got up the next morning and tried to win that next day.”
Holland understands, too, that while failing once in a while is unavoidable, any prolonged slump means he’ll either be moved to a new a role, or to a new location, such as Triple-A Omaha.
“It doesn’t get to me, I guess, because I’ve always been a really competitive guy,” he says. “And I think if you know you’ve prepared and you’ve done all you could, then you can sleep at night.
“If you get down, you get up. If you suck four days in a row, you come back out for the fifth day and make it better. I don’t really know where that came from. It’s just inside me.”
Of course, there’s a reason closers put themselves through the agony — the thrill of blowing hitters away in the ninth as the crowd is on its feet may be an unmatched emotion in all of sports.
“That’s true, but I try to stay composed,” Holland says. “I know there will come a time when we’re in the playoffs and I’m out there and you can’t get too sucked up by the pressure. Stay calm and composed and do your job.
“It’s nice when we win, but it’s not just me. When we win and I get a save it’s because of a lot of guys, not just me.”
But when he blows a save, is it everyone’s blown save as well?
“It doesn’t cross my mind,” he says, straight-faced. “I never think that way.”
You can follow Jeffrey Flanagan on Twitter at @jflanagankc or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.