Closers Struggling to Seal the Deal in Baseball’s Postseason

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October 12, 2009

Closers Struggling to Seal the Deal in Baseball's Postseason As the great Yogi Berra once said, "It was déjà vu all over again."

One day after the Red Sox watched their All-Star closer blow a two-run, ninth-inning lead to lose a vital playoff game at home, the Colorado Rockies fell victim to the same variety of collapse.

Needing a win in Game 3 to prolong their division series against the Angels on Sunday in Boston, the Red Sox brought a 6-4 lead into the ninth inning. But Jonathan Papelbon allowed three runs on four hits and two walks in just one inning, blowing the save opportunity and getting saddled with the loss.

Needing a win in Game 4 to prolong their division series against the Phillies on Monday in Denver, the Rockies put together a three-run rally in the bottom of the eighth to take a 4-2 lead into the ninth. Enter Colorado closer Huston Street, who was handed the loss in Game 3 the night before after allowing the go-ahead sacrifice fly in the ninth.

Unfortunately for the purple and black, Monday was no better. With two outs and Shane Victorino on second, Street walked Chase Utley. He then allowed a two-run, game-tying double to right off the bat of Ryan Howard. Jayson Werth then blooped a single to center, scoring the fleeter-than-you'd-think Howard from second. All of a sudden, the Rockies were down 5-4 and went on to lose by the same score.

Game over. Series over. Season over.

It's hard to see a game, series and season end at the hands of your closer, but there's a reason these guys are getting the call from the bullpen when the game's on the line. Street had a 4-1 record, a 3.06 ERA and 35 saves — the second-best total of his career — on the season. Papelbon was a similarly superb 1-1 with a 1.85 ERA and 38 saves — his second-best total.

"You do it all season, and you've done it time and time again previously ? but I just wasn't able to come out ahead this time," Papelbon told MLB.com on Sunday. "These types of moments stick with you more than the types of moments when you preserve those wins, because they tend to sink a little bit deeper."

"It's numbing," Street told the Denver Post late Monday. "I take full responsibility for this loss. I let my teammates down."

"That's why it's the toughest job in baseball," Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. "If you get the save, everyone's supposed to do that, but if you don't, everyone points the finger. There's no one who we'd rather have the ball than him."

Such is the life of a major league closer. Some days you're Mariano Rivera. Some days you're Chita Rivera.

One difference between these two closers, though, has been their production in the playoffs. Not only had Street lost the previous night's game for the Rockies, but he brought a 6.48 career playoff ERA into Monday's tilt. In 8 1/3 innings pitched, he had allowed six runs on 11 hits, posting a WHIP of 1.68.

Meanwhile, the runs allowed by Papelbon on Sunday were the first he's allowed in 27 career postseason innings. Before Sunday, he was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA and 22 strikeouts and just 10 hits allowed in 17 performances. But Game 3 was a different story.

"Things happened quick, and I wasn't able to stop the bleeding," Papelbon said of Sunday's explosion. "Your team fights to put you in that situation to call upon you, and you let them down. It's a feeling that there's a lot of weight on your shoulders, because your team expects you to pull through and preserve that win. When you don't, it's definitely not a good feeling."

"He comes in for one inning," Boston infielder Kevin Youkilis said. "You can't put it all on him. It's a team game. You have to blame everyone around and look everyone in the eye. It's not just Jonathan that gave up the runs. There's other things that contributed to us not winning. That's the bottom line."

But despite charitable teammates' best intentions, it's the closer who bears the brunt of the blame. And under the spotlight of the postseason, closers' jobs become that much more significant.

Yogi also said once that, "It ain't over 'til it's over." With two of baseball's top closers failing to get it done on consecutive October days, that's never been more true.

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