Baseball Teams Clutch at Closers

Article excerpt

A few weeks ago, Jonathan Papelbon, a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, had a dramatic change of heart. Previously a closer - a specialist brought in for the final innings of a game - Papelbon announced at the end of the 2006 season that he would become a starter. Then he reversed course. In late March he told The Boston Globe, "I felt that there was always that feeling deep down in my heart that I wanted to close."

When Papelbon decided to return to the bullpen, analysts cited his return as a key to Boston's playoff hopes. Like so many teams this season, the Sox have devoted much of the off-season to finding reliable closers who can slam the door on the opposition. The key: hurlers with a mental attitude as resilient as their fastball.

"In this era of specialty, you need a guy who can get that ninth inning for you," says Steve Phillips, a former New York Mets general manager and current ESPN baseball analyst. "If a closer is unsettled, everybody else [on the pitching staff] is unsettled. You need a closer more today than ever before."

Just ask the Kansas City Royals. Last year, the team blew 31 saves. Result: Manager Buddy Bell ripped apart the bullpen and signed new pitchers, including free agent Octavio Dotel.

The importance of relief pitchers, particularly closers, started to grow during the 1970s. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Oakland A's dominated behind the short-stint appearances of Dennis Eckersley, closers had become essential. Today, most teams carefully monitor their stoppers, whose success often depends as much on mind-set as pitch quality.

For the Sox, Papelbon's decision may have catapulted the Red Sox back into the conversation as a serious playoff contender. Last season, Papelbon, in just his second major league season, posted a 0.92 earned run average - he surrendered just seven earned runs in 68.1 innings - while collecting 35 saves. He isn't alone. Experts say every legitimate playoff contender must have a tried-and-true stopper in its ranks.

"They're groomed to throw 15 pitches," says Don Sutton, a Hall of Fame starting pitcher who now serves as a Washington Nationals broadcaster. "Never [pitch] three days in a row and never in a game when there isn't a chance to pick up a save. …