Relief pitching used to be the province of the not quite good enough, the unproven hurlers or those who were over the hill.
Starters were expected to go nine innings, a fact reflected in the career complete games leaders, not one of whom pitched as recently as the 1930s. Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry is tops among those who pitched as recently as the 1980s and he’s 39th on the list with 304. Roy Halladay and Livan Hernandez are the only active pitchers with more than 33 career complete games, a total that Hall of Famer Cy Young topped in 14 seasons.
However, baseball has changed so much that Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers, whose last season was 1985, is the only one of 23 relievers with at least 300 saves who didn’t pitch during the last 25 years.
To put it another way consider that the Yankees’ Joe Page, the most celebrated reliever of my father’s college days, saved 76 games during his career, but Mariano Rivera, the greatest reliever of our time (or any time for that matter), saved 77 games for New York the past two years.
So when the Nats lost closer Drew Storen to elbow surgery on April 11, their season could have been doomed. Sure, set-up man Tyler Clippard has been an All-Star, but the pressure of that role doesn’t compare to the ninth inning heroics of which Rivera has been the master. Minus their closer, the Yankees have been just another good ballclub. The Nats, who were below .500 in each of their first seven seasons in Washington, had to wonder how they would manage without Storen for the first three months.
Nats manager Davey Johnson played in the era of such iron man starters as Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Catfish Hunter but managed the New York Mets to a World Series title thanks in part to a fine bullpen headed by hard-throwing Roger McDowell and rubber-armed Jesse Orosco, who split the closer’s duties.
That share the load formula has worked wonders so far for Johnson and Washington. Former Houston and Philadelphia closer Brad Lidge got off to a shaky start before going on the shelf following abdominal surgery. Johnson then turned to 25-year-old Henry Rodriguez, who brings the heat (23 strikeouts in just 21 innings) but also plenty of headaches.
Rodriguez throws as hard as almost anyone in baseball but also has a frightening tendency to melt down in the clutch. Like Don Stanhouse, who drove Johnson’s old Baltimore manager Earl Weaver nuts during the Orioles’ run to the 1979 Series, Rodriguez constantly got himself in hot water with 3-2 counts while allowing three homers and uncorking eight wild pitches.
When Rodriguez was losing it again on May 21 in Philadelphia and seeming like Nuke LaLoosh from “Bull Durham,” Johnson turned to lefty Sean Burnett. But the prime closer since has been the bespectacled Clippard, who looks like one of the Hanson Brothers from “Slap Shot,” but is much calmer than his high-strung predecessor.
So far so good. After Burnett shut down the Phillies, Clippard saved three of the next four games. There were no leads to preserve during a rough series in Miami, but the Nats have won three of four since coming home with Clippard having saved two.
A third of the way through the season heading into today’s season finale against National League East rival New York, Washington is 32-22 and leads the Braves and Marlins by two games, the Mets by two and a half and the defending champion Phillies by six in the division race.
The 24-year-old Storen, who saved 43 games last season in his first full season as a closer, should return sometime next month. Lidge will likely be back sooner than that, but with only interleague foes on tap tomorrow through June 24, Johnson and Washington are already a long way towards weathering the storm that could have battered them during their Storen-less time.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin