Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Save or sorry?

     Once upon a time, people all over town were willing to pay a few dollars a month to read the local newspaper at breakfast. They wanted insight, credibility, and box scores, so they put up with our lousy delivery and vain attempts at humor. For over 25 years, my paychecks depended on it.
     Back when I had a corner of the sports pages in Greenville, I contemplated a series of columns on the theme "Sunday School Lessons from Friday Night Football." If you know the characters and watch closely, you can find biblical examples on any given week on any high school football field—underdog David, self-destructive Sampson, stubborn Pharaoh, wrong-way Jonah, trash-talking Hamann, Daniel in the lions den, Chaldeans running up the score, and the weekly prodigal son. Cover a playoff game starring Isaiah Moses "I.M." Hipp, and you too may get religion.
     Of course, these storylines are not just limited to high school football. Big-league baseball games are just as ripe with material for morality plays, laments, proverbs, and parables.
     It might have gone something like this: 

     Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel owe their fame to a Chicago sportswriter named Jerome Holtzman. In 1969, the same year that Rivera was born, Holtzman invented a statistic—the save—that exalted the relief pitcher and changed the way baseball is played.
Don Zimmer with Jerome Holtzman:
 Changing the face of the game,

not necessarily for the better.
     Rivera, my son-in-law's favorite player, has "saved" more victories than anyone in baseball history, and he has done it with great dignity—the last player to wear Jackie Robinson's now-retired number 42.
     Kimbrel will eventually break Rivera's records if he doesn't flame out, as relief pitchers often do. No one in baseball history (on a per-inning basis) has struck out more batters or allowed fewer hits or runs than this Alabama whippersnapper.
     Rivera didn't get his first of his 652 saves until he was 26 years old. Kimbrel already has 138 saves at age 25.
     But this is not a debate between game-savers—"saviors," if you will.
     For the moment, forget about Rivera. He had his day Sunday at Yankee Stadium.
     Instead, go back to Saturday at Wrigley Field, step into the shoes of Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, and make a do-or-die decision that brings to mind a lesson from the book of Hebrews: How shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation?

     Your team is on the verge of clinching first place in the National League East standings. Your pitcher, Kris Medlin, takes a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning. Then the Cubs scratch out a hit, putting the tying run on base.
     Pitchers used to be revered for completing games. If the starter took a shutout into the eighth inning, he deserved a chance to finish it. But you decide Medlin is out of gas. Nowadays, the pitch-count is on the TV screen, and tweeting yokels everywhere are ready to lynch you for leaving your pitcher in the game too long.
     You could bring in Kimbrel right now to save the game. But it's the eighth inning, which is reserved for the unfortunately labeled "setup man." It's an unwritten rule—a corollary to Holtzman's definition of a save—that Kimbrel only pitches the ninth.
     The trouble is, if your pitcher blows the lead in the bottom of the eighth, there will be no bottom of the ninth.

     Earlier this summer in Rivera's final all-star game, manager Jim Leyland faced a similar predicament, protecting a lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. Everyone, including Leyland, wanted to see the great "Sandman" in a save situation in the bottom of the ninth. But Leyland knew that if Rivera didn't pitch in the eighth, there was a chance he would not get to pitch at all. To Leyland's credit, he did not dawdle. Instead, Rivera pitched the eighth. So what if somebody else "got the save"? Leyland wasn't beholden to a statistic. It might have been anticlimactic, but it was sound baseball.

     Back to the Braves' dugout at Wrigley. You have the opportunity to call on one of history's greatest game-savers. And in the very moment your team needs salvation, you don't turn to your savior. Instead, you  bring in a journeyman (an ex-Angel, no less) who gives up a couple of hits and loses the game. The Braves fail to rally in the top of the ninth inning, and the bottom of the ninth never happens.
     In this case, it didn't matter much. The Braves had a safe lead in the standings, and they clinched the pennant the next day—with Kimbrel getting an easy "save" by not blowing a 5-2 lead.
     But next time?
     The moral of the story should be clear. Don't wait to call on your savior. You may not get another inning.

     Sorry to be the prophet of doom, but "next time" came two weeks after I wrote this. On October 7, the Braves had a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth of their playoff elimination game against the Dodgers. This time, there was no margin for error. Yet once again, they neglected their salvation. Gonzalez left Kimbrel idling in the bullpen and instead brought in a converted catcher who gave up a two-run homer, losing the game and ending their season.
    They never got to the bottom of the ninth.

  • During the course of this season, the Braves will pitch about 1,450 innings. Kimbel will account for less than 70 of those. Other pitchers will get 98 percent of the outs the Braves need. I've been a Braves fan since the 1960s and greatly appreciate Kimbrel, but I don't think that carrying two percent of the workload qualifies him for an award named after Cy Young, who had more complete games (749) than Rivera has saves (652).
  • Other than the closer, is there any other sports hero who never plays when his team is behind? And when he comes in at start of the ninth inning, the slate is always clean, so he never has to pitch out of a jam. I'm more thankful for the guys who completed their eight-inning shift and earned us the lead. 
  • What does Craig Kimbrel have in common with Moonlight Graham? Neither has ever  batted in a big-league game. Graham famously played only two innings in one game in 1905. Kimbrel has played 231 games without ever batting. Keep that record perfect for another 10 or 15 years—imagine a thousand games without a single at-bat—and maybe Kimbrel will earn a cool nickname of his own. Wink!

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