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Although he has passed test so far, Orioles closer Tommy Hunter strives to be better

After replacing Jim Johnson in the ninth-inning role, 27-year-old right-hander has saved eight of nine chances through first month this season

By Jon Meoli, The Baltimore Sun

6:56 PM EDT, May 5, 2014

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Before long, whether through a rising price tag or poor performance, a baseball team will eventually move to its next closer.

The former is how Tommy Hunter replaced Jim Johnson at the back of the Orioles bullpen this year, but not before Johnson saved at least 50 games in back-to-back seasons and established himself in the ninth-inning role. Hunter knows it will take longer than a successful — and tense — month to earn the "proven closer" tag.

And he knows that the first step in being a good closer is realizing that there's no such thing as a perfect one.

"I think you can do better," Hunter said Thursday of his first month on the job. "I think it's a situation where you know you have a job to do, and I think you've got to just do it and throw. Of course, you'd like to have a zero ERA and have 30 strikeouts in 10 innings, but that's not going to happen. It's not something I really do. I think my job is to end the game."

Hunter, 27, has finished 10 games for the Orioles so far this season. He has saved eight of his nine opportunities, and he has a 1-0 record and a 2.53 ERA in 12 appearances heading into the Orioles' game Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Hunter's only blemish is a blown save April 12 against the Toronto Blue Jays in a game the Orioles eventually won in 12 innings. His eight saves were second in the American League heading into Monday's games, and his strikeout rate of 8.4 per nine innings is the highest in his seven-year major league career, despite the small sample size.

His WHIP of 1.219 so far this year is higher than last year's rate of 0.985, but overall, Hunter's statistical profile is on par with his new contemporaries. And, so far this year, his numbers are comparable to three-time National League All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves, who has as many saves as Hunter with a 2.38 ERA and a 1.147 WHIP heading into Monday.

Yet it's not enough for Hunter to match the league's best closers in numbers only. He has to learn the role's disappointments in order to bring more success — and no outing was more disappointing than that game against Toronto at Camden Yards.

After a couple dramatic outings early in the season, the first-year closer was about to post a clean ninth to give the Orioles a 1-0 win. Hunter picked up two quick outs and hoped to ring up Colby Rasmus on an 0-2, check-swing slider in the dirt, but he didn't get the call. The next pitch, an elevated 98-mph fastball away, landed in the center-field bleachers.

"I thought I made a pretty damn good pitch, and he hit it," Hunter said. "I probably won't do that again to him. I'll probably steer clear of that. You have lessons learned in baseball, and you just have to make adjustments on the lessons."

For someone learning on the job, Hunter has hardly made it easy on himself.

"It's pretty exciting in the ninth inning, the last … well, every outing," he said, with a smile.

The excitement started with the first game of the season, when Hunter's save opportunity on Opening Day brought Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz to the plate with two runners on base and one out in a 2-1 game. Ortiz flied out to left field, and then Jackie Bradley Jr. struck out for Hunter's first save of the year.

His second save was much easier — he faced just two batters after 81/3 innings from Chris Tillman on April 6 against the Detroit Tigers — before the base runners returned in his next outing.

Staked to a two-run lead heading into the bottom of the ninth inning three days later against the New York Yankees, Hunter gave one back and needed a double play to pick up the save.

Hunter allowed the home run to Rasmus in his next appearance, though his most heart-stopping save opportunity to date was the Patriots' Day matinee April 21 against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. A pair of one-out hits and an intentional walk loaded the bases for Boston's Mike Napoli, who grounded out to score a run. But Mike Carp grounded out to first base to give Hunter his fifth save of the season.

"It'd be really easy for that [blown save] to get into your psyche and let it affect you," Orioles reliever Darren O'Day said about Hunter's blown save against the Blue Jays. "Very soon after that, he came back and closed one successfully. That's probably one of the biggest tests a closer can face. He's done a really good job."

Since then, Hunter has settled down significantly. In five straight scoreless outings, he hasn't allowed a run and has given up only five hits in 42/3 innings since the save against the Red Sox.

Hunter, a 2007 supplemental first-round pick by the Texas Rangers, was primarily a starter from his debut with Texas in 2008 until the Orioles moved him to the bullpen in September 2012.

Many other teams groom young, hard-throwing prospects for their bullpen roles because homegrown relievers in high-leverage roles provide more value than an expensive closer who is signed in free agency or acquired via a trade.

Of the last four groups of All-Star relievers, only Minnesota's Glen Perkins had significant experience as a starter before becoming a reliever. Perkins moved to the bullpen in 2010, and he began closing in June 2012 — around the same amount of time between Hunter's transition to relief and his promotion to the closer's role.

Hunter hasn't had the experience as a minor league closer that some other closers may have, but he is learning how to approach different game situations and leads as he goes, and he said this is the first time he has needed to develop a strict plan with catcher Matt Wieters on how to approach hitters.

"You definitely pitch different, and I never really took that into consideration until [bullpen coach] Dom [Chiti] and [pitching coach] Dave [Wallace] started talking to me and making me understand that situations are going to dictate the pitches that you throw a lot more now," Hunter said. "One swing could possibly lose the game for us."

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Hunter could even start entering games in the eighth inning for longer saves.

But Hunter's role or how he is used doesn't affect his approach. He said he won't know how to even guage success until after the season, let alone whether he has had it or not.

The bar in Baltimore is high, and Showalter thinks Hunter is approaching the job the way he should.

"He's got a lot of respect for the job, and he's seen some good ones do it, whether it be Texas or here," Showalter said. "Tommy takes the right things seriously. He's pretty approachable, very amicable, but when it's time, Tommy knows the job description; he knows what he's got to bring.

"And the season will tell us if he can do that."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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