It’s been a tough week for closers, with Jason Grilli temporarily losing his job in Pittsburgh, Ernesto Frieri struggling with the Angels, and the Tigers’ Joe Nathan blowing another save.
The latest meltdown for Nathan came on June 21 in Cleveland, where the veteran stopper was trying to nail down a 4-3 victory for Justin Verlander, who was just one out away from winning for only the second time in seven starts. Alas, Michael Bourn tied things up with a two-out single, giving Nathan his fifth blown save of the season.
The Tigers still went on to win the game 5-4, with Miguel Cabrera stroking an RBI double in the top of the 10th to plate the winning run.
Because Nathan had finished the bottom of the ninth, he was the pitcher of record when Cabrera cashed in the game-winner in the next half-inning. Thus, the veteran closer, who gave up a run on three hits in his lone inning of work to raise his ERA to 6.18, was credited with the victory. Verlander, meanwhile, got the no-decision despite his seven innings of four-hit, two-run ball.
Obviously, it doesn’t seem fair but that’s how the baseball rules work in terms of who gets the win in such a situation. Unfortunately, the official scorer isn’t allowed to use his/her discretion and award the victory to a more deserving hurler, in this case, the starter Verlander.
This reminds me of an outstanding pitching performance from 1994 at Shea Stadium in New York, where a reliever pitched seven innings and handed the lead to the closer, only to see that stopper blow it and yet pick up the win. In that case, it was also a first-place team (same as the Tigers), and it was also a struggling closer that couldn’t nail it down.
In this particular game, though, it was a three-run lead that was coughed up.
First, some background. It was the second half of the 1994 season, with the All-Star break just over. The Los Angeles Dodgers, sitting atop the NL West, were on a tough 13-game road trip to begin the second half. Tom Candiotti had just pitched six innings to defeat the Phillies 3-2 in Philadelphia in the second game of a doubleheader on July 15.
Three days later in New York, the Dodgers were forced to start rookie Ismael Valdez, who had never started a game in the majors (but was making his 13th career appearance), because of an injury to Orel Hershiser. Unfortunately, Valdez lasted only seven Mets batters before leaving the game with a blister on his pitching hand. It was only the second inning, and a runner on second with none out, as Valdez departed and the Dodgers leading the game 3-1.
In came Candiotti on only two days’ rest, and the knuckleballer proceeded to strike out the side and strand the runner on second. He went on to log seven innings, allowing only three hits with seven strikeouts, and handed a 6-3 lead to closer Todd Worrell to start the bottom of the ninth.
With the knuckleballing Candiotti gone, the Mets hitters were delighted. They got to Worrell for five hits and three runs in the ninth, miraculously tying the game at 6-6. The tying run actually came home on a Jeff Kent groundout, when Dodger second baseman Jeff Treadway got the forceout at second but couldn’t turn what would have been a game-ending double play.
Dodger first baseman Eric Karros, though, saved the day with a go-ahead RBI single in the top of the 10th to give Los Angeles a 7-6 lead, and Jim Gott nailed down the save despite a shaky bottom half of the 10th which saw him give up two singles before getting the final out.
Gott got the save, and of course, Worrell was credited with the win because he was the pitcher of record.
Candiotti, who got the no-decision, was clearly the best pitcher of the game, with the following line: 7 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 ER, 4 BB, 7 SO.
Worrell, meanwhile, had this line: 1 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 0 SO.
Just one of those rules in baseball that allows the closer to pitch ineffectively, blow the save, and still get credit for the W.
Precisely what happened to Joe Nathan on June 21 – though he did a little better than Worrell did in that July game in 1994 .
 And oh, by the way, the Dodger bullpen was horrible that year and the team went 3-10 on that road trip, but Los Angeles still finished in first place when the strike took place in mid-August because of the mediocrity of the rest of the NL West. Would have been interesting to see how that race in the West would have turned out had the season been played to a conclusion.
“Tom Candiotti: A Life of Knuckleballs,” a biography of former big-league pitcher Tom Candiotti, will be released in July of 2014. You may pick up a copy either from Amazon.com or through the McFarland & Company website.