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After a good start, it's time for a close


ATLANTA -- The hard-luck Pirates became martyrs when they lost the National League playoffs in the ninth inning of Game 7. But if you go down with Stan Belinda on the mound, don't you deserve to go down?

The Braves' fortunes in this World Series began going south, no pun intended, when the Blue Jays' Ed Sprague and Candy Maldonado solved Jeff Reardon in the ninth innings of Game 2 and Game 3. But were the Braves the only ones who didn't know the 37-year-old Reardon had lost speed on his fastball?

When the Braves lost their best chance to win a World Series in Game 6 a year ago, a starter named Charlie Leibrandt was on the mound in the 12th inning, throwing the wrong pitch to Kirby Puckett. Where was the closer?

Where, in all these examples, was the big, bad closer?

Reardon is the majors' career saves leader, but not the pitcher he was in the late '80s. Yet the Braves still traded for him in August because their closer, Alejandro Pena, was injured, and the instruction of recent history is that a closer is mandatory for a team with designs on winning a Series.

A year ago, the Twins had Rick Aguilera and his 40-plus saves. The year before that, it was Rob Dibble and the Nasty Boys of the Reds. The A's and Dennis Eckersley got their Series rings in 1989. The Dodgers didn't really have one in 1988, but what else mattered with Orel Hershisher in the best groove since Bob Gibson?

In 1987, it was the Twins with a younger, faster Reardon. The year before that, the Mets had Jesse Orosco -- and the Red Sox lost Game 6 with the infamous Calvin Schiraldi trying to close it down.

In 1985, the Royals had Dan Quisenberry. The Tigers' Willie Hernandez was the by-gum MVP of the American League in 1984. The Orioles had Tippy Martinez in 1983.

Point made? Maybe even into the '70s teams didn't need a closer, but the game has evolved. You can get by in the late innings during the season with a bullpen-by-committee, as the Pirates did in winning 96 games this year. But the more harrowing playoffs inevitably require one pitcher accustomed to the job.

A pitcher such as the Blue Jays' Tom Henke, who shut down the Braves after Sprague's home run in Game 2, and was a perfect 5-for-5 in postseason save situations before last night's game, running his overall 1992 record to 39-for-42.

In Henke and setup man Duane Ward, baseball's best one-two bullpen punch, the Blue Jays have the only distinct advantage over the Braves in a matchup of otherwise even teams. If Henke was a Brave and Reardon a Jay, the Series might have ended earlier -- with Atlanta winning.

Of course, an advantage at closer can prove illusory, as the A's and Eckersley learned with one ill-advised pitch to Kirk Gibson in 1988. But for every one of those examples there are a dozen Series games that are routinely closed down as ordered.

It's enough to make you wonder when teams will catch on and begin developing closers in their farm systems with the same patience and thoughtfulness that they develop players for other positions.

As it stands now, most closers are uncovered by accident, after failing as starters. Henke was piddling around in the Rangers' system in the early '80s when they sent him to the bullpen. "I thought it was a demotion," he said.

It turned out he had the unflappable demeanor essential to the task. "It's just never bothered me to be out there with the game on the line," said Henke, who has saved 217 games for the Jays.

The Braves have done a better job than any team of developing young starters, but their inability to perform the same magic with a closer has haunted them in the postseason. They never found their Henke. Late-season trades for Pena in 1991 and now Reardon have helped, but ultimately been insufficient.

You can bet that the Braves, win or lose, will learn from the mistake and begin tutoring young, suitable pitchers in the art of closing. Same with the Pirates.

It's the only way, really. Virtually every pitcher who signs a pro contract was the best player on his team, asked to pitch entire games, not just finishes. No one learns how to close. Of the current crop of closers, Gregg Olson was the only one who came to the pros with experience.

It's funny: Teams spend millions developing outfielders, catchers and starting pitchers, and settle for stumbling onto their closers. Yet they need one to win a Series, It doesn't make sense, and after the late-game horrors of the Pirates and Braves this autumn, it's probably going to change.

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