Tony La Russa, when scoffing at the suggestion that “anyone” can close games has said something to the tune of, “those last three outs are different”.
It’s not something that can be equated by stats or stuff. Closing is a mental endeavor more than anything else. It helps to have a power fastball like Goose Gossage; a bat-destroying cutter like Mariano Rivera; or a split-finger fastball like Bruce Sutter, but what all three of these pitchers and the other great closers of past and present have had is that they’ve been able to handle the mental and physical stresses of the job.
This phenomenon is being played out in front of our eyes as we’re seeing another quality arm who should be able to do it, one who I specifically pointed out as a winning choice—White Sox lefty Matt Thornton—imploding in his first week as the full-time closer.
Thornton has a high-90s fastball and good slider; he strikes out tons of hitters; has historically handled righties and lefties; doesn’t allow many homers; and throws strikes. His demeanor is indicates a closer’s mentality with the aura of “gimme the ball”.
In other words, time’s running out on Thornton’s foray as the White Sox closer.
Can it be explained by dissecting Thornton’s games and finding a reason why he’s gotten off to an atrocious start in his star turn? He’s had three save opportunities this season and blown them all including the April 8th game against the reeling and winless Rays in which he got tattooed for 5 runs. His defense certainly didn’t help him, but that’s no excuse.
Is it a slump? Or is being the designated “closer” in his head?
La Russa always chafes at the implication that he destroyed the game with his specialization and role-based strategies.
The accusation is a misnomer. La Russa was simply doing what was best for his club at the time—the Athletics—and used Dennis Eckersley in a way that was best suited to what Eckersley could and couldn’t do.
The suggestion that “anyone” can get the outs in the ninth inning is contradicted by the qualified pitchers who’ve failed.
It’s not as simple as going out there and recording three outs. It’s an exercise in mental toughness more than a lights out fastball or sharp breaking pitch.
It’s important for one new to the situation and designation as the “ace” out of the bullpen to get off to a good start. Thornton’s already gacked that test. Next is whether he can overcome adversity and regain his bearings—another prerequisite.
Can he recover?
Judging from the statements of his manager, Thornton had better get a move on or he’s going back to the set-up role and Chris Sale will be closing sooner rather than later.
Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.
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