Closer’s Mentality

Last Three Outs Require Mental Toughness On The Part Of A Closer

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HE HAD LOADED THE BASES again, and the crowd was groaning again. Or panicking.

Or probably both.

Billy Koch always does that to White Sox fans. It was the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians in a game last April at U.S. Cellular Field, and in came Koch, who has raised the collective blood pressure of Sox fans all by himself. There was one out, and the Sox were just hanging on.

It was at that moment that Koch actually became a closer again. Technically, he had been one, of course. He’s the guy who pitches the ninth inning of close games with the Sox ahead.

But there are all sorts of other demands with that title. Usually, that includes flamboyance, cockiness, a little too much machismo. And at that moment, Koch, who flopped all last season, had all that stuff back.

“I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that they weren’t going to score,” he said. “I just knew it. Last year, when I was pretty much in the same situation, I was always like, ‘Oh, crap. Here we go again. Something bad is going to happen.’

“But this time, I knew it No way.”

So giddy, he had to tell teammate Paul Konerko about it afterward. And yes, Koch did strike out the next two batters, then pumped his fist as the Sox won.

Koch has basically been repeating that outing again and again. “I would like them to be a little easier,” manager Ozzie Guillen said after the victory. And everyone on both sides of town knew what he meant.

They go by names such as Goose, Wild Thing, Flash and Shooter. In fictional baseball movies, they tend to be the wacky guy for comedic value, entering the field to blaring rock.

But really, that’s not the part of the movie that’s fictional.

Face it: In real life, baseball’s closers are the players making lots of money, getting much of the attention and having all the fun.

They are considered vital to a team’s success.

So here’s the question: If you put a premium on the ninth inning, and you need someone to consistently get three outs in that inning, and your current guy is struggling, why not put in the guy who seems to be able to get three outs in the eighth inning?

“The end (of the game) is the toughest,” Cubs reliever LaTroy Hawkins said.

“The last three outs are the hardest ones,” said White Sox reliever Mike Jackson, who at different times in his career was among baseball’s top setup men and among its best closers.

“For some people, the end is different,” White Sox DaMaso Marte said.

All outs are not built the same. That’s what makes the closer job special. And worth more. There are great closers who have failed as setup men because the pressure isn’t there. And there are great setup men who can’t close.

Baseball observers used to say former Cubs setup man Paul Assenmacher could be unhittable. But he couldn’t get the 27th out.

Jackson doesn’t agree with any of that. Years ago, when he was baseball’s premier setup man, he wanted a shot at a closer job, and no one would give him a chance. Why?

“That’s what I wanted to know,” he said. “They didn’t think I could close. That didn’t make any sense to me. If you can get three outs in the eighth inning, then you can get three outs in the ninth.

“Then, I finally got a chance in Cleveland, and I did well.”

Hawkins used to play with Jackson in Minnesota. And when Eddie Guardado became the Twins’ closer, he said, Jackson called a meeting of relievers.

“He said, ‘We’re all closers,'” Hawkins said. “Eddie’s going to get all the credit, and that’s fine. But our setup men are closers, too. We can lose a lot of games in the seventh or eighth innings. Whoever pitches in the seventh inning is the closer for that inning. Whoever pitches the eighth is the closer for the eighth.'”

That seems to be the attitude taken by the Sox’ and Cubs’ relievers this year. Marte said: “I feel comfortable, and it makes no difference whether it’s the eighth or the ninth. I prepare the same way.” The Cubs’ Kyle Farnsworth said he doesn’t feel any additional pressure in the ninth vs. the eighth because “there is no pressure that you don’t put on yourself.”

Each of them says the three outs in the eighth are just as important as the three in the ninth. Hawkins said the three in the ninth are simply harder to get because the batters are more selective, the crowd more excited. And everyone knows that this is it, win or lose.

Closer Joe Borowski said that does lead to added pressure, but it’s something he thrives on.

“It’s pretty much do or die, and your competitiveness comes out,” he said. “You feel the atmosphere. Sometimes it’s tougher to get it going when the outcome isn’t on the line.”

That is the closer mentality.

“I’ve seen pitchers throughout my career who have great stuff, who have closer’s stuff, but don’t have the closer’s mentality,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Ned Yost said. “Why that is, I don’t understand.

“There’s a stigma that goes with that, and it’s kind of like you’re the last wall of defense and some guys don’t handle it that well. There’s guys who are made for that and guys (who) are just more comfortable pitching in the seventh and eighth innings. I’ve seen guys who were borderline stoppers all of a sudden become tremendous setup guys.”

How do you define that mentality? It’s something you often can just see. Generally, setup men seem to be a little quiet and workmanlike, while closers are more outgoing and individualistic. It might be a funky beard, long hair, bushy mustache. Think of ex-Cub Mitch Williams flailing off the side of the mound, long hair flying. Flash Gordon, the Yankees setup man this year, wears his cap so low that you can’t see his eyes under the bill.

New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera intimidates by having no expression at all. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Eric Gagne has the big glasses. The San Diego Padres’ Trevor Hoffman was known for taking the field to AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells.”

Some of that attitude leads to a reputation and then an aura that puts even more pressure on hitters at crunch time.

John Smoltz, an ace starter-turned-ace closer, talked about the importance of that image.

“You don’t want to give anyone hope,” he told the Rocky Mountain News. “‘Oh, look, he blew two of the last three coming in. He’s human.’ I want to create the aura that when I come in, it’s over, and keep that as long as possible.”

Former starter Dennis Eckersley, who became a Hall of Fame closer for the Oakland Athletics, agreed.

“I’ve always felt there’s something to be said for how you go about it, your body language on the mound, strutting around, looking confident,” he told the Boston Herald. “I’d look at the guy who was getting ready to hit. I’d just stare at him. Then I’d throw a few warmup pitches; then I’d look over at him again. I did that on purpose. It fueled me.

“Plus, I wanted the batter thinking I wasn’t scared at all. I was ready. Let’s go. Then he’d look at me funny, like I was nuts or something. There’s something about pitching the ninth inning and the responsibility that comes with it…. Is it guts? I don’t know if that’s the word, but you don’t know what people are made of, or if they have that makeup, until they get the opportunity.”

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