Sunday, April 11, 2010

George Sherrill and the Heartbreakers

The blown save is quite possibly the most infuriating single act which can occur on a baseball field. At least from a fan's perspective. There are all sorts of emotion that run through me as I'm watching a team I care about implode in the 9th inning. Theres a sense of betrayal at having believed for 8 innings that a win was possible. Theres anger at the closer and contempt for the manager who put said closer into the game. Then theres something akin to sadness as I realize that the once promising game has turned sour before my eyes.

The Orioles are incredibly skilled at making me feel all of the above between the months of April and October each year. Its a stupid tradition that I would like to see concluded. But, sadly, I have very little say in these matters.

Remember the rants that Randy Quaid's character would go on in Major League II? "You overpaid weenies!", "You no good piece of cow flop!" Those are the only say that fans get to pretend they have in these things. And those rants accomplish very little. For an example of how little anti-closer outbursts accomplish, did anyone notice that the chorus of 48,000 boos which serenaded Mike Gonzalez during his trip from the mound to the dugout on Friday accomplished absolutely nothing?

But, without apologizing for the Bronx-like behavior on Friday of Orioles fans, let me explain the 12 year volcano that finally erupted on Friday in the form of a triumph of the Boo-Birds.

In 1997, Randall K. Myers saved an impressive 45 games, ran up a 1.51 ERA, and allowed a grand total of 12 runs for the entire season. The Orioles, oddly enough, won 98 games that year and were wire-to-wire champions of the American League's Eastern Division. When the Orioles had a 9th inning lead, the game was as good as in the books.

Myers left after the 97 season.

The Orioles have been engaged in a heartbreaking, maddening, and utterly Hiroshima-esque search for a 9th inning man ever since.

Armando Benitez

Following Myers, the Orioles turned to hard-throwing set-up man Armando Benitez. In his most memorable moment on the mound Benitez touched off the above brawl by drilling Yankee 1st Baseman Tino Martinez. He saved 22 games in 1998 but ran up an ERA barely under 4.00. The Orioles let him fly from the nest following the season.

Mike Timlin

Timlin (bottom right in the above photo) lasted about two years closing games in Charm City. 1999 wasn't terrible, a 3.57 ERA with 27 saves, but 2000 was a disaster. About halfway through the season, Timlin was demoted to middle relief in favor of rookie Ryan Kohlmeier.

Ryan Kohlmeier

A 2.39 ERA from your rookie closer. Great, right? In Kohlmeier's case, not so much. A 1.71 WHIP in 2000 revealed that though he did an alright job of keeping runners from crossing home plate, Kohlmeier had an unfortunate proclivity for surrounding himself in the middle of the diamond with opposing baserunners. 2001 saw Kohlmeier's ERA balloon to 7.30 and he never pitched in a major league game again.

Jorge Julio

I am convinced that Jorge Julio was placed on this earth to punish me for some sort of severe transgression. After finishing 2001 by employing a motley mix of Buddy Groom, Mike Trombley, and combustible Willis Roberts to close games, the Orioles settled on young flame-thrower Jorge Julio in 2002. And he wasn't half bad. 25 saves and a 1.99 ERA in his first year. 36 saves in 2003, but a 4.38 ERA should have caused some concern within the Orioles' offices, but, back Julio went to the mound in 2004 for more maddening erratic pitching and another 4-something ERA. The folks in the B&O Warehouse got wise to Julio's incompetence and demoted him to set-up work in 2005, and how did he perform? A gut-wrenching 5.90 ERA with 14 homers allowed. Tie game in the 8th or 9th? Want to be certain you'll lose? Just call Jorge Julio. 1-800-HIGHERA.

BJ Ryan

By far the best of the post-Myers bunch up to 2005. Ryan dazzled for much of his one season of closing games in Baltimore (with a few memorable blown saves which unfortunately occurred in my presence, making each one count as three blown saves in the crooked calculus of fandom). He finished with 36 saves and a 2.43 ERA, enough to make him a hot item on the free agent market. Toronto gave him a big contract, and he flew the coup.

Chris Ray

With Ryan north of the border, hard-throwing almost side-armer Chris Ray assumed closer duties in 2006, holding the 9th inning role until an arm injury ended his 2007 prematurely. Prior to his DL sojourn, Ray showed signs of promise. He saved 33 games on a 2006 Orioles team which didn't win many games. He kept his ERA under 3.00. He saved 16 more games early in 2007, but his 4.46 ERA showed that all was not right. His career as an Oriole effectively ended with that 2007 injury. When he came back in 2009, he was AWFUL and was dealt to Texas for Kevin Millwood.

George Sherrill

Ray's injury forced the Orioles to go with a closer by committee system for half of 2007. In the offseason, the Orioles mugged the Mariners in a dark alley and stole, inter alia, a lefty reliever with a penchant for flat-brimmed hats, George Sherrill. Though he had been exclusively a setup guy for his big league career to that point, Dave Trembley gave him the keys to the 9th inning. And he shined. Almost always. He earned an All-Star game nod in his first season in Baltimore. He was prone to tight-rope walking, but what closer isn't?!? As the 2009 trading deadline approached, the last place Orioles dealt George to the Dodgers for a 3rd baseman prospect who projects to start at the hot corner by 2011. Thus, even in his departure, Sherrill helped.

Mike Gonzalez

What can one say about this poor fellow? He looked off all Spring. He blows a save on Opening Day. Very nearly blows another in the 3rd game of the year. Blows the Orioles' Home Opener. Gets booed off of the field. And, a day afterwards, Dave Trembley subtly tells reporters that Gonzalez will be working out some mechanical flaws in low-pressure middle relief situations before getting another chance to close. Talk about a quick hook. Assuming he's a professional and works out his issues soon enough to reclaim closer duties, Gonzalez's rough start becomes a blip on the radar screen. But, if he keeps setting himself on fire, Mike Gonzalez has just set a record for saddest cameo appearance in the back of the Orioles' pen.

While all of this has been going on in Baltimore, the New York Yankees have had to turn to a grand total of one man to close games. Mariano Rivera has been the stopper in the Yankees' pen for 4 World Series titles since 1997. 13 tough years in Baltimore have been anything but tough in the Bronx. Is it a coincidence that the team with the stable and reliable closer is the one that has been successful?

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