ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It happens in an instant. You are the best. And then you are a bum.
It is the role of the big league closer.
When something bad happens on the big stage, it can be a career-ender. Some guys can live with the moment and move forward. Some never recover.
The Red Sox closer, the indomitable Koji Uehara, came into a 4-4 playoff game at Tropicana Field Monday night. Ever a strike machine, working quickly, Uehara retired the first two batters he faced. He got two outs on three pitches.
Then Tampa catcher Jose Lobaton stepped into the box. Uehara’s second pitch was a nice splitter, but Lobaton went down and got it. He squared the ball perfectly and drove it deep to right-center. It sailed over the Geico sign. A fan reached out and almost snatched the homer, but it clanged off the fan’s glove and splashed into the fish tank.
Uehara’s gopher ball swims with the fishes.
“It’s a hard thing to swallow,’’ Uehara said through an interpreter. “It comes with the territory. It’s something that’s in the past already. I’m not going to think about it.’’
Later, Uehara posted a brief tweet on Twitter, taking blame for the loss and concluding his missive with “. . . tears.’’
Hmmmm. We love guys who shoulder the blame. We don’t want players who make excuses and go all Adrian Gonzalez on us, saying, “It was God’s will.’’
But the Uehara situation bears watching as the Sox move forward in what they hope is a long playoff run.
Uehara was supposed to be the sure thing. He was almost perfect in the closer’s role after he got the job. He compiled an ERA of 1.09. He saved 21 games. He retired 37 consecutive batters at one point. He threw only strikes. He didn’t give up a homer after June 30.
Sox manager John Farrell was ready to give Uehara the ball again in Tampa Tuesday night. That’s the way it has to be. You don’t give up on your closer after one game.
The list of pitchers who never recovered is fairly lengthy. Tom Niedenfuer was a dominant closer for the Dodgers in 1985. Then lightning struck twice. Niedenfuer surrendered homers in back-to-back NLCS games against the Cardinals. Ozzie Smith and Jack Clark. Niedenfuer never recovered.
A year later, poor Donnie Moore was summoned by Gene Mauch in the Game 5 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. The Angels were set to advance to the World Series before Moore gave up a two-run homer to Dave Henderson. The homer triggered a series of events that resulted in three straight victories for the Sox. A few years later, plagued by family problems and serious mental health issues, Moore committed suicide. He did not kill himself because he gave up a home run, but his name is on every list of closers who were never the same pitcher after one bad outing.
Calvin Schiraldi was the Red Sox closer in 1986. He had a great fastball but a poor work ethic. He also had scared eyes. Schiraldi got the job done until Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. He lost ’em both. We still talk about those Calvin Schiraldi Eyes.
Dennis Eckersley is a great example of a man with a perfect closer’s mentality. Eck never made excuses. He was able to move forward after a bad game. He was a confident, downright cocky righthander who rarely walked anyone. He was a Most Valuable Player, a Cy Young Award winner, and a Hall of Famer. Yet his career lowlight lives forever on World Series highlight reels. Eck is the man who surrendered the infamous Kirk Gibson pinch-hit homer in the 1988 Series. Gibson’s Game 1-winning homer changed everything in that series. It inspired Eck to invent the term “walkoff.’’
Eck was always able to joke about it. He’d come in from a warm-up session in the bullpen and say, “Man, the fans were killing me out there, all dropping ‘Gibsons’ on me.’’
It proved to be little more than a speed bump on his path to Cooperstown.
Ditto for Mariano Rivera. The greatest closer in baseball history has endured some historic blown saves. Red Sox fans love to remind Mo of the night in 2004 when he couldn’t hold a one-run lead in Game 4 of the ALCS. That was the Dave Roberts game. Mo surrendered the lead and the Yanks went on to a four-game humiliation. The same thing happened to Rivera in the 2001 World Series. He broke a bunch of Diamondbacks bats but lost Game 7 for the Pinstripes.
Most guys don’t handle it as well as Rivera and Eck. Mitch Williams was never right after he blew the 1993 World Series for the Phillies. Jose Mesa is forever harpooned in Cleveland for failing the Tribe against the Marlins in 1997. And the immortal Byung-Hyun Kim disappeared after back-to-back humiliations at Yankee Stadium in the 2001 World Series.
Uehara should be fine. He’s 38 years old. He’s secure. But his failure in Game 3 inspired us to look up his postseason history and it’s a little frightening. Uehara pitched in three playoff games for the Rangers in 2011. He retired only four batters while surrendering three homers.
Hope he’s going to be all right. The Sox are going to need him.