Written by Mike laws
Blown Save Six
Orioles 2, New York Yankees 3
To hear Jim Johnson tell it, it was “screwing up the bunt” that did him in. To clarify: That’d be the first bunt of his latest nightmare ninth, a drag job from Brett Gardner, he’s referring to. True enough: Johnson botched the play: He got off the mound and circled the baseball in plenty of time, but in his haste to make the transfer from glove to throwing hand, never actually corralled it. Which gave the Yankees now men at first and second — David Adams had singled to right, to greet the Oriole closer — and no one out, and was followed by the inning’s second bunt, from Ichiro and not a good one, though it did the trick; Matt Wieters pounced from behind the plate but had no play on the lead runner at third, given Manny Machado’s positioning up the line (thinking he’d be fielding a better effort at the sacrifice — oh, the horrible irony!). Meaning the only play was at first. Meaning that base was now open. Meaning, for the second time in this particular ballgame, the Orioles would be opting to walk Robinson Cano to load ’em up with just the one away.
That’s a bummer, dude. But let’s flash back to how starter Miguel Gonzalez handled a similar — nay, actually the exact same — situation, back in the fifth. Which, ominously, had started with Adams reaching via free pass (one of Gonzalez’s five total on the day, a staggering figure even when you subtract the one eventual IBB from the tally). Gardner struck out swinging. Ichiro doubled down the right-field line, pushing Adams around to third. And here’s where the Orioles had opted to face Travis Hafner, rather than Cano, putting the latter aboard (grammatically the latter, that is. Cano was hitting ahead of Hafner. You know what I mean, dammit!). Gonzalez, who you have to remember was working with just the one-run advantage, at 2-1 — the product of a Wieters two-run homer in the second and a two-out RBI single for the Yankees, an inning prior — then fell behind 3-0 to Hafner. Yuh-oh. Here’s what Ned Flanders would call a dilly of a pickle: Walk Pronk and the game’s tied; on the other hand, lay in a fat pitch and he might be green-lighted to do some real damage. But not to worry: Gonzalez delivers a called-strike fastball, yes, but it’s low enough not to light Hafner’s eyes up enough to put that upper-cut swing onto it. Likewise, Miguel’s next pitch is a fastball riding high enough up and away that Hafner can only send it limply out to mid-shallow center, where the Yankees aren’t gonna test Adam Jones’s arm, and only bluff at sending Adams. Two out. And now Gonzalez gets ahead of the majorly slumping Vernon Wells, eventually popping him out to Chris Davis, ranging into foul ground over beside first.
But back to the ninth. Now, maybe you can’t expect that same escape-artistry twice in one ballgame. But you have to marvel at the symmetry the baseball gods provided us: Really the only difference is that Gardner gets on and Ichiro makes the one early out. Other than that it’s like a controlled experiment: like, Abstract: Pressure Situations and How Orioles Pitchers React Under Stress, Gonzalez v. Johnson, A Case Study. Hell, Johnson even went ahead and fell behind 3-0, to Hafner (though it’d be really pushing it to suggest he did so just for the sake of science). Unlike the unflappable Gonzalez, however — pretty much the pitching paragon of what the French call sang-froid (and yeah I’m pretty much only including this aside so I can work the word sangfroid into one of these recaps) — Johnson proceeded to walk Hafner on a not-even-close fourth-consecutive ball, forcing in the tying run. The save now already blown — that makes a league-leading sixth, to go along with (to be fair to the guy) his league-leading twenty-nine successful conversions — the Baltimore closer went ahead and delivered balls one and two to Wells, to start the at-bat — making ten straight pitches out of the zone, including the intentional free pass to Cano — before climbing back into the count at 2-2, after which Wells smacked a grounder past a diving Machado and into left field, completing the Yankee comeback.
OH WELL, WHATEVER, NEVER MIND: Being as blown saves have a nasty habit of obliterating all memory of whatever preceded them, let’s just quickly run down the other stuff that happened (before we get back to griping about Johnson/Showalter/etc., of course) …
Well, it wasn’t much. Gonzalez pitched pretty well, though all the walks and that high-wire fifth elevated his pitch count to such a degree he couldn’t make it more than six. Far from his best outing, but certainly not his worst — he did still manage to exit with his club in possession of a 2-1 lead in Yankee Stadium. Never a bad thing.
Right, and Troy Patton and Darren O’Day held the fort through the seventh and eighth, respectively … which I’ll have more to say about in just a sec, here …
And OK, if you insist, NYY starter Ivan Nova was pretty great, making just the one mistake to Wieters back in the second (or maybe you could call that his second mistake of the inning, being as he’d plunked Davis, one of the few Oriole baserunners all night), and even that probably could’ve been caught by Wells — say, if this were a decade ago and he were still a Blue Jay. Anyway yeah, have to hand it to Nova, who had the big sweeping breaking ball working, and wound up with a complete-game win (rather than the rare complete-game loss, thanks to Jimmy J.), and generally looked far better than you’d expect out of a guy making a spot-start for the scheduled Hiroki Kuroda, whom the Orioles also can never hit …
Oh yeah and Wells may have been out at the plate — hat-tip to Nate McLouth, for a nice job coming up firing after fielding the Luis Cruz base hit to left, with two away in the fourth — but it’s also possible his foot got in just ahead of the tag, and in any event there’s not much to suggest the outcome would’ve been any different if this had been a two-run lead Johnson was called on to protect …
OK, SO NOW THEN: I just did a little research (read: Yahoo Answers and BaseballReference.com) and, while it’s hard to parse some of the blown-save stats, I discovered that the consensus all-time single-season blown-save record is a four-way tie at fourteen, with all four occurrences, um, occurring in the late ’70s/early ’80s (and with, predictably, none of those closers’ teams making the playoffs). More recently there’s been Brad Lidge in 2009, whose eleven blown saves have become stuff of … legend, I guess (and whose team, it should be noted, did make it all the way to the World Series). But other than Lidge the new normal, at the high end, seems to be seven or eight — at around that point you probably cease being the closer.
So I think I’m going to go ahead and toss my hat in and offer my meaningless lowly two-cent peanut-gallery opinion that this should probably do it for Jim Johnson — at least for a little while. It’s not like the six blown saves are the outlier; the guy almost never gets it done in comfortable fashion. Not lately, anyway; not for most of 2013. Ask yourself: Do you ever feel comfortable when he’s coming in to close? But also ask yourself: Do you feel confident that O’Day/Hunter/Matusz/Patton, et al, generally have what it takes to hold a lead? If the answer to the first is no and the second yes, why not try Johnson in a different role, maybe just for a little while, just till he’s got his head straight (and equally importantly, his sinker sinking in a way he can command)? This probably needs to happen out of the limelight anyway. And if you’re that worried about sparing his feelings, or whatever, you don’t even have to name a replacement closer. Just do it by committee. Go with who’s hot. Go with whose arm isn’t (like Johnson’s, by all appearances) about to fall off. Hell, go with Gausman here and there. If you’re not wedded to the quote-unquote orthodox way of doing things anyway — and it wouldn’t appear Buck is; see his recent comments expressing openness to a six-man rotation once Chen gets back — well, to invoke a certain older Oriole expression, why not?
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