You may recall that the one element Bobby Cox always lacked as he led the Braves through their almost endless divisional dynasty was a certifiable steel-toed, kick-ass closer. He was never able to hand the ball to a National League version of Mariano Rivera — not that there are too many of him lying around — or Dennis Eckersley. He didn’t even have a Trevor Hoffman or a John Franco, in-their-prime relievers piling up tons of saves if not inspiring the masses with confidence as they danced between baserunner raindrops. Cox had to improvise October after October, early on with ex-Mets who either weren’t that good or were no longer nearly as good as they once were.
Alejandro Peña was plucked from the wreckage of the 1991 Mets to serve as temporary savior during the modern Braves’ very first pennant drive, replacing the injured Torre-era Met relic Juan Berenguer (I can still hear the not-quite-all-there older brother of a junior high friend of mine referring to him as “Beren-jower” circa 1978). Jeff Reardon then swooped in in 1992 to pick up for the faded Peña. Reardon was a great closer a decade earlier, but by the time he alighted in Atlanta, he wasn’t the same flamethrower the Expos fleeced from the Mets in exchange for Ellis Valentine .
The record should show it was ex-Mets who sabotaged Brave hopes of obtaining the ultimate prize their first couple of chances; if only current Mets in a given year could have been so effective once the Coxmen moved from N.L. West to N.L. East.
Peña was the losing pitcher in what many consider the greatest World Series game ever played, the ten-inning, 1-0 Game Seven triumph of the Twins over the Braves in 1991, the night Jack Morris went the distance. Alejandro’s activity was overshadowed, but it occurred. After unjamming a mess of future washed up Met Mike Stanton’s making in the ninth, Peña got into his own trouble — allowing a leadoff double to Dan Gladden — and never recovered. (It’s true: the Minnesota Twins used to find ways to not lose postseason series.)
A year later, with Reardon as Cox’s trusted right arm, the Braves were three outs from taking a 2-0 World Series lead on the Blue Jays. Reardon retired his first batter in the ninth inning, but then walked future Met yachtsman Derek Bell. Bell sailed home when Ed Sprague took Reardon deep to give Toronto a 5-4 lead which their closer, Tom Henke, maintained. The Jays never let go of that momentum and the Braves wound up losing the Series in six.
Bobby Cox stayed away from ex-Mets as closers after 1992 but he never really found a pitcher to nail down that role for good for another decade. Instead, he rode hot hands as far as they would carry him, which worked only once — Mark Wohlers, in 1995. Wohlers couldn’t preserve a three-run lead in the eighth inning of the fourth game of the 1996 World Series and there went the Braves’ chance of repeating as world champs (which is fine until you recall who started their own dynasty as a result). Wohlers eventually gave way to Kerry Ligtenberg who gave way soon enough to lovable John Rocker who charmingly talked his way out of Atlanta. The Braves finally deployed big-time closer when Cox converted ace starter John Smoltz — Morris’s opponent from Game Seven in 1991 — into a reliever toward the end of the 2001 season. Smoltz, who came to relieving after a severe injury knocked him from the Brave rotation, definitely had an Eckersley thing going on for a while (144 saves from 2002 to 2004). It was fun while it lasted, but it was destined not to last because:
a) Smoltz was 34 years old when he reluctantly took on the role of closer;
b) Smoltz was essentially on loan to the bullpen until he could get back to doing what he wanted to do and was designed to do all along, which was start…and start very well despite a five-year hiatus from starting, which was one of the most remarkable retransformations any pitcher has ever made.
The last N.L. East champion Braves club, 2005’s, reverted to piecing together its ninth innings from spare parts; anybody remember Chris Reitsma and Danny Kolb? Perhaps Cox did. Maybe they and their non-Eck ilk are why he sought proven ninth-inning insurance for 2010, the year the Braves returned to regular-season glory.
That’s how Billy Wagner wound up in Atlanta. Despite his injury history and the many miles on this former Met closer, Wagner was enough of an answer to satisfy Cox after his own five-year hiatus from the postseason. Billy, 39, helped keep his latest team in first place much of the season while getting them into the playoffs as the Wild Card by the margin of a single length over San Diego.
Then, as we saw Friday night , he was gone. Wagner strained his left oblique muscle, exited Game Two in San Francisco and was removed from the Braves’ NLDS roster before Game Three — all of which combined to make the top of the ninth inning Sunday evening at Turner Field a little extra fascinating to contemplate.
Here was Bobby Cox, trying to extend the last days of his managerial career . Here were his Braves, one inning from outlasting the Giants, having withstood a marvelous outing from Jonathan Sanchez, magically taking a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning thanks to a two-run pinch-homer from the human good-luck charm Eric Hinske. Here were three outs that stood in Atlanta’s way.
The same three outs Peña didn’t get in the seventh game in 1991.
The same three outs Reardon didn’t record in the second game in 1992.
The same three outs that were supposed to be Wagner’s, according to the grand plan.
No plan now, however. Cox said he was going to improvise based on matchups, and he was good to his word.
It didn’t work. It almost did, but it didn’t.
Cox started the ninth with Craig Kimbrel. He was successful (popping up loathsome Cody Ross), then he wasn’t (walking Travis Ishigawa), then he was (striking out Andres Torres), then he wasn’t (giving up a single up the middle to Freddie Sanchez on a 1-and-2 count).
For better or worse, a big-time, big-name, big-money closer of the stature of a Billy Wagner would stay in to finish this chapter. Instead, Cox is desperate to write the ending, so he removes the pen from Kimbrel’s relatively hot right hand and passes it to lefty Mike Dunn.
Which totally doesn’t work, as lefty Aubrey Huff singles to right, scoring Ishikawa from second, knotting the game at two. So Cox does the matchup fandango again, removing Dunn and inserting righty (and Met bête noire) Peter Moylan to face righty Buster Posey. The matchup was a boon for the Braves as far as Moylan inducing a ground ball to second, but Cox didn’t factor in the matchup of ground ball versus overmatched second baseman Brooks Conrad. Posey’s grounder merely visited the area between Conrad’s feet — just passin’ through! — before E-4’ing its way into the outfield. Sanchez scored, the Giants led, and that would essentially be that for the Braves…though Cox did bring in one more reliever, Kyle Farnsworth, to get the final out of the top of the ninth.
No closer, four relievers, two runs, a 2-1 series deficit . Tough, hauntingly familiar luck for a franchise whose fairly recent history of excellence always did seem to stop at the edge of ultimate victory.
Wagner was unavailable, so no point posing a “what if?” on Billy’s behalf, but what if Cox had simply left Kimbrel in to face Huff? What if a manager who is lauded in all precincts for showing unmatched loyalty to his players had stuck with one live arm to capture one more out? What is it about ninth innings that make even a Cooperstown-bound skipper so goofy?
There wasn’t much to recommend the final third or so of the 2010 Mets season, but I personally adored the way the Mets never missed their high-priced closer once he landed simultaneously on the shelf and court room docket. I was a fan of Frankie Rodriguez. Though I’m sympathetic to arguments that teams rely way too much on closers — I’ve made them myself on occasion — I watched 2008 melt away once Wagner went down and believed we needed somebody not just dependable but stellar to take ninth innings. Rodriguez was coming off a record-setting 62-save season in Anaheim. Though he could be nerve-wracking as an Angel and showed signs he was anything but angelic in terms of temperament, I couldn’t argue at all with the Mets grabbing him off the open market.
He had his ups and downs prior to partaking in K-Rod Smackdown 2010. He was sometimes horrible, sometimes reliable, no more aggravating than any of his 1990s and 2000s predecessors. Then after one fit too many, he was out of the picture. The Mets were pretty much out of the race at that point, so it didn’t matter immensely who would pick up for him, but, still, I hoped somebody would.
And Hisanori Takahashi did. He was the anti-Frankie, the non-Billy. There was nothing exciting about Hisanori Takahashi except that he generally got results. Pulses didn’t quicken when he appeared. Music didn’t blare. The words prima and donna didn’t go steady in his presence. He was simply the guy who was given the ball to close out ninth innings when the Mets had a lead, and he went about his business professionally and effectively.
What it means for 2011 is unknown. Takahashi will be a free agent and he wants to start. He won’t be a starter with the Mets. He put in some nice yeoman work in that role when called upon, but didn’t seem to have the stuff to persevere as such once teams got a look at him. Hisanori was quite valuable as the closer pro tempore but the new manager, whoever that soul will be, wouldn’t likely be penciling him in. Rodriguez’s status is unclear for next year, but he is owed a closer’s ransom. Francisco throws hard and causes a fuss…for anybody else, that would be reflexively considered an asset; with this guy, who knows? And if K-Rod is otherwise detained (or dismissed), there will be sentiment mounting to give Bobby Parnell a long look, though he didn’t seem quite ready for the added responsibility in August.
In any event, what the Mets have experienced across their pre-Takahashi late innings and what the Braves are going through as a pressing concern right this very minute shows, perhaps, what a crap shoot the concept of the closer truly is. Unless you’ve got that stiff from the Taco Bell commercials, you really do have to kind of touch and feel your way through ends of games. You might get lucky with a Craig Kimbrel, or you may be right to feel impatient. You might miss your Billy Wagner or Frankie Rodriguez, or you might come up with a Hisanori Takahashi and be surprised how little stress you feel in the process. Bruce Bochy no doubt counted his lucky stars that Brian Wilson could get three outs Sunday after cursing the darkness Friday that he couldn’t get six.
Makes a baseball fan appreciate the following fellows even more:
• Mariano Rivera. Grrr… My friend Kevin and I like to remind each other that the guy universally considered untouchable in October gave up a series-turning home run to Sandy Alomar in 1997, a killer soft liner to Luis Gonzalez in 2001 and was unable to slam the door shut at Fenway Park in 2004. Those failures would tase closers who didn’t have other opportunities to make up for them. Rivera’s had a zillion and he’s converted, I think, a zillion. Grrr…
• Cole Hamels — also not a favorite here, but what better way to avoid relief troubles than by avoiding relievers? Hamels Sunday night tossed a five-hit, nine-strikeout series-clinching shutout  that, to date, stands as only the third-best starting pitching performance of this postseason. More Hamels, more Halladays and more Lincecums, and you’d have less nonsense in ninth innings.
• Tug McGraw, for what he did 37 years ago yesterday. With a tiring Tom Seaver having loaded the bases with one out in the top of the ninth in the deciding game of the 1973 NLCS, Yogi Berra called on his indefatigable fireman to secure the Mets’ second pennant in five years. Sure enough, on October 10, 1973, Tug popped Joe Morgan up to short and grounded Dan Driessen to first. The Mets won 7-2, took the series 3-2 and successfully bolted to their clubhouse with their lives intact in the face of onrushing Shea hordes (who had a funny way of showing their love back then).
All the other lifesaving Tug had done in the previous six weeks was figurative, but it was just as valuable to the Met cause. His final five saves down the stretch in ’73 — when all that was at stake was Met survival — were recorded in outings that lasted 2⅓; 3; 3; 2⅓; and 3 innings, respectively; the last of them was the division-clincher in Chicago. During that same fifteen-game span, McGraw picked up a pair of wins after pitching 1⅓ innings and 2 innings of shutout baseball.
We’re so used to doubting our closers, you may be surprised to learn we had no problem believing in Tug McGraw as 1973 was becoming 1973. We encapsulate his essence in a pitch-perfect slogan, and we revere his singular personality (while we continue to try to derive some good from his untimely passing ), but something else is worth noting about Tug McGraw, particularly if you weren’t around to see him in action during his signature season as a Met:
That screwball could really pitch when it really mattered. You have someone who can do that in a given September and October, you don’t take it lightly, and you never forget it.
Thanks for that, Mr. McGraw, wherever you are.