On the failure to save games

The Baltimore Sun

So you want to be a closer in the major leagues? You want to take the ball in the ninth inning with a slim lead to protect as if it were one of your children?

The stands are full, and your mission is to keep the bases empty. Succeed, and it's expected - no, demanded - of you. Fail, and everyone wants to know - no, demands to know - why you weren't perfect and when you plan to be perfect again, because your imperfection will not be tolerated for much longer.

George Sherrill still wants to be the Orioles' closer.

No matter what happened this week.

As the world knows, because these things are never kept a secret, Sherrill blew save chances Sunday afternoon and Monday night. Once in Washington, once at Camden Yards. Once on a walk-off home run in the 12th inning, once on a game-tying home run in the ninth. Each time on the same pitch, a slider that didn't slide. It sort of hovered, like bad fumes. And just like them, it cleared out Nationals Park on Sunday.

Welcome to the life of a closer, George Sherrill. Glad to see you haven't changed your mind.

Don't let the beast destroy you. The blown save is as popular as shard glass in your skivvies, but it's inevitable. Randy Myers converted 45 of 46 chances for the Orioles in 1997. That's a ridiculously high standard to set. Fortunately, you already know that. Good for you.

Protect a lead, and it might warrant a line in the next day's newspaper. Lose a lead?

"It makes headlines," Sherrill said after Monday's game, managing a small grin.

Asked how he would rebound from two failures so close together, and his fifth in 31 opportunities, Sherrill replied, "Just forget about it and move on." And this time, he wasn't smiling.

That's the only way to approach the job. Short relievers must have short memories. How else can the San Diego Padres' Trevor Hoffman step on a mound again after blowing a save against the Colorado Rockies in the one-game playoff last year to determine which team would proceed to the Division Series?

Hoffman had amassed 524 saves in his 15-year career, the most in major league history, including 42 that season. He held a two-run lead in his hands in the 13th inning and treated it like scalding water.

It happens. He's still pitching, though. And so is another reliever who, by June 2, 2007, had two blown saves in six tries, three defeats and a 5.30 ERA. Mariano Rivera didn't announce his retirement back then or ask to return to his setup roots.

If Sherrill wants to put his five blown saves in some sort of perspective, the St. Louis Cardinals' Jason Isringhausen had six of them by the beginning of June. Kerry Wood had four, Hoffman three.

"What [fans] don't understand after a tough loss is how it feels walking into a clubhouse," Padres manager Bud Black told reporters this season, "and that feeling that permeates a clubhouse, and having the perspective, the ability to put it behind you and come back the next day and not let that affect you."

But it's completely acceptable to vent a little at the time. Sherrill chucked his glove into the first row of seats behind the Orioles' dugout after the ninth inning Monday night, after the Kansas City Royals' Miguel Olivo tied the score by homering on an 0-2 pitch. Then Sherrill kicked a bucket onto the field and scattered pieces of chewing gum all over the grass, as if they had been shot out from one of those T-shirt guns.

First baseman Kevin Millar explained the situation to first base umpire Larry Vanover, who retrieved the empty bucket, making sure it didn't appear that Sherrill was aiming at anyone in particular, or that Matt Stover had been invited to sit on the bench.

"Obviously, [the umpire] saw a bucket of gum come out there," Millar said. "He asked what that was about, and I told him [Sherrill] missed the fence. Bad luck. And the bucket went through the hole. That's just a frustrating situation, and if you're in the arena, you know that feeling.

"Georgie is very competitive and just made one bad pitch. He did a great job, two sliders in the dirt, then put one over the plate and Olivo hit the ball out. But we'll be OK."

Sherrill has no choice but to be OK. That's the life of a closer. The life that Sherrill has chosen.

Succeed, and they love you. Fail, and hope they understand.

"It's a thin line," he said.

And sometimes, you trip over it.


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