Closers In The Now

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There will be those who question the strategic decisions such as why Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa let Edwin Jackson be announced as the pinch hitter in a bunting situation, then pinch hit for him with Kyle Lohse.

What if Jackson needed to pitch?

Or why Rangers manager Ron Washington pulled Scott Feldman for a pinch hitter with a runner on first base and two outs in the top of the 11th. Even had pinch hitter Esteban German hit a ball into the gap, the runner was the already slowish Mike Napoli who was slowed down further by an ankle injury.

I understood why Washington did what he did; not so with LaRussa.

But my focus is on why the game wound up in the 11th inning in the first place.

And it has to do with Rangers closer Neftali Feliz being unable to nail down the last out in the bottom of the 9th.

What is it about closing that makes it so difficult to get a last out, especially in a championship situation?

Is it the increased determination of the hitter?

Is it the pressure?

Is it a lack of focus?

Is the pitcher gripping the ball too tightly and forgetting any and all strategy?

Much of it comes down to luck. If the pitcher throws the ball underhanded, there’s still a chance that the hitter is going to line it at someone, pop it up or miss it entirely.

But Feliz failed with two outs and two strikes on David Freese.

Where did it go wrong?

Was it the Albert Pujols double followed by the Lance Berkman walk?

Pujols has the ability to shorten his swing in situations where a home run doesn’t do any good—he would hit .400 if he wanted to—so it’s not a shock when Pujols hits a line drive somewhere in that type of circumstance. Berkman has a great eye.

The Freese hit to tie the game was nearly caught by Nelson Cruz in right field—some say it should’ve been caught. The ball was hit hard, but it might as easily have found someone, somewhere to end the game and the series.

I can’t help but wonder if Feliz was thinking about things other than the next pitch. If he was contemplating the excitement of ending the World Series and being the man on the mound when his teammates engulfed him to celebrate; what the post-game festivities would be like; how he’d feel when he went home to the Dominican Republic as a champion and the man who was on the mound for the Rangers first championship.

It’s this type of focus, or lack thereof, that separates the pitchers who got the big outs in the playoffs and those that didn’t. Mariano Rivera‘s laser-like intensity and calm in any situation permeates through the entire Yankees organization and imparts a sense of finality that no matter what happens—good or bad—it won’t be due to the pitcher gacking.

Rivera’s “ice water in his veins” persona is simply confidence and that he’s concentrating on where he is and what he’s doing.

Feliz is 23-years-old so it’s human nature if he was overexcited; it still could have ended positively for the Rangers in game 6 in spite of all the distractions. But now they find themselves in a one-game playoff for the championship.

The Rangers still have a great chance to win tonight, but they could’ve wrapped the series up last night.

And they didn’t.