Closer and Closer to DisasterPosted by Jeff Summers on Jul 28, 2006 in 2006 Regular Season | 1 comment
In 1998, the Arizona Diamondbacks began their inaugural season with Felix Rodriguez as their closer. It was probably not what Buck Showalter and the front office had planned but their only other choice was Hector Carrasco and he didn’t work out. So they began their first year with Rodriguez who had a one pitch arsenal, he threw heat. His pitches were consistently clocked in the high nineties. The problem was that he was a little erratic so batters feared for their lives. That was the advantage he had. When a hitter came to the plate he knew he was either going to get a fastball for a strike or they would get a baseball imprint tattooed to a part of their body. As the year went on it was clear that Felix was probably not the answer as a closer. The Diamondbacks looked within and found none other than Gregg Olson. Olson had been a closer for most of his career and had some success. He came on during the later half of the season and led the team in saves. It looked as though the Diamondbacks had finally found the pitcher they could count on in the last one to two innings to shut down an opponent and win a game.
When the 1999 season began, there was one roster spot that was not up for grabs and that was the job of closer. Olson had been given the job and he looked very capable of being a dominating force in the National League. With the Diamondbacks new and improved pitching staff that included Todd Stottlemyre, Bryan Anderson, and ace Randy Johnson there were high hopes for the team and a lot of pressure on Olson. Within the first two months of the season it became a roller coaster ride watching Olson pitch. In one game he looked unstoppable and the very next game he looked like one of Peter Pan’s lost boys who could not find the strike zone with a map and a compass. As the trading deadline loomed, the Diamondbacks made a move that would cost them. They traded with the Florida Marlins receiving closer Matt Mantei in exchange for Vladamir Nunez. The Diamondbacks also gave up double A prospect Brad Penny and a player to be named later (Abraham Nunez). Mantei was the necessary piece to the 1999 puzzle and allowed the Diamondbacks to make the play-offs in just the second season. While Mantei’s season ended with him giving up a home run to Todd Pratt to lose the deciding game in New York, he was still looked upon to solidify the team and be the closer for the Diamondbacks for the foreseeable future.
In 2000 Mantei showed signs of brilliance getting hitters out and showed resilience in not letting things bother him when they did not go well. He led the team in saves in 2000 and it appeared that the Diamondbacks had finally settled on a closer that could lead them for a solid run at a world championship. Unfortunately Mantei also had a tendency to find himself on the disabled list with various problems which made the Diamondbacks very nervous. When Mantei was not available, it was a bullpen by committee and that didn’t work very well. The result was the Diamondbacks did not make the playoffs in 2000 and it cost Buck Showalter his job.
Going into 2001 new manager Bob Brenly again was counting on Mantei to be the closer for the Diamondbacks. That plan was side tracked when Mantei was hurt in April. The closer’s job went to a young Korean starter by the name of Byung Hyun Kim who spoke very little English but threw a nasty side armed pitch. Kim kept hitters off center and helped the Diamondbacks not only reach the playoffs but also make it to the World Series. No Diamondbacks fan will ever forget game 3 where the Diamondbacks were leading in Yankee Stadium. Kim comes in to finish the game and gives up a home run. The Diamondbacks end up losing that game. The next night under a similar situation Kim gives up another home run. Kim never fully recovered from those two outings even though the Diamondbacks won the world championship, his days as an Arizona closer were numbered.
Over the next five years the Diamondbacks have gone through closers like donuts at a police station. There was Greg Aquino, Mike Koplove, Brandon Lyon, and Jose Valverde. Of those Valverde seemed to be the most consistent and going into the 2006 season he was deemed the closer. Over the first month Papa Grande seemed to be the man for the job getting hitters out and bringing confidence to the team. Then it seemed like all of a sudden Valverde decided he needed to try some new pitches. Overnight he went from a dominating force to one that brought fear to the hearts of the players. Unfortunately those players were the Diamondbacks. He just fell apart and consequently the Diamondbacks sent him to Tucson to see if he could regain his confidence. During his absence Jorge Julio who was obtained from the Mets in the El Duque trade was given the job of closer. Julio was a closer during his days with Baltimore so everyone had high hopes that the Diamondbacks would be ok. So far that hasn’t worked out real well. Julio has been erratic at best and frightening at worst. You can rarely count on a one-two-three inning and with a close game that is just not good. So entering tonight’s game against the Astros you were just counting on Julio settling down. That didn’t happen as Jorge called upon the long line of Diamondback predecessors and did what they all did and blew another save resulting in an extra innings game. Some day the planets will all align and we’ll finally find a closer that actually closes out games.