I absolutely love watching a dedicated closer pitch. The sheer drama that goes with it is, to my mind, fantastic. It becomes a baseball game in a microcosm almost, with the result boiled down to a single half-inning (I know it could end up in extra innings but let’s not ruin the drama unnecessarily).
I find the mentality of those select few pitchers chosen to be dedicated closers absolutely fascinating. The pressure that comes with the responsibility of that position must be immense.
There are pressures on all pitchers of course, but all other pitchers have, to varying degrees, a safety net of sorts. Yes, the starter is expected to go for five or more good innings, but they have the backup of the entire offensive line-up. No one will really be that concerned if you give up three runs over the first four innings if your offence scores eight for you at the same time. Should the worst come to the worst and it’s simply not your day, there’s a whole bullpen of other guys who can take over to try and steady the ship, hopefully buying the offence time to do their thing – leaving you with wounded pride but hopefully not a big L next to your name on the box score.
Similarly, the majority of relief pitchers take to the mound knowing there’s some time for their hitters to contribute, and the knowledge that there’s likely another pitcher that could take over to help if they get into a jam.
But a closer has none of this. They usually enter the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, when the offence has fired its shot and the run total is what it is. There’s also not supposed to be anyone else in the bullpen to turn to. The closer is on the mound because they’re the guy that, for one inning at least, is allegedly nailed on to get three outs for essentially no runs. They cannot exceed expectations. They can only ever disappoint by blowing the lead and failing to get the save, or struggling to the point they have to be hooked and replaced with someone who wasn’t considered good enough to close.
The mental preparation these guys must have to go through also has to be unique amongst pitchers. There can be no “right, he’s got the first five innings and then I’m coming on for two provided the proverbial doesn’t hit the fan” game-plan for a closer. They can go from sitting there comfortably watching their side 5-0 up at the start of the eighth innings to suddenly getting the call to warm up during the bottom of the eighth as they might be going on in the ninth thanks to some late offensive production from the opposition. Even then they might not be called upon if their own hitters can get their noses back far enough in front as the manager might decide to save their arm for the next night in case the team finds itself in a tight spot again.
I honestly cannot think of any other sport where a substitute coming into the game while their team occupies a winning position gets so little time to get their game face on and is subjected to the same level of pressure and expectation as a closer is in baseball. Yet they seem to thrive on this pressure. I can’t work out if you have to have ice in your veins, an unshakeable belief in your own ability or just be a little bit mad to do it well.
It’s probably a little bit of all three – and long may the game continue to find pitchers who can do it!
Photo by Jonathan Daniel
Richard Hampson is covering the Boston Red Sox during 2021 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @Armchairbaseba1