Friday, July 4, 2008

Saving the Closer

Closing out a game with a 1-run lead is a much more tasking inning on the body than holding a 6-run lead in the 7th, regardless of the situation. Those 3 outs can take much more out of a pitcher, mentally and physically, than any other role in baseball. Of the many afflictions the Orioles faced last year, relief pitching may have been the worst. Danys Baez was not worth the paper his contract was written on, and with Chris Ray’s struggles and eventual surgery, no lead could be considered safe. Having a quality closer to lock down that final inning is essential for any team’s success, particularly one that has relied on late-game comebacks like the Orioles have this year. The Orioles were fortunate in the Erik Bedard trade to get a pitcher in George Sherrill who could come in and immediately step in to the closer role, though some adjustment period was expected.

Much to our joy and surprise, for most of this season Sherrill has been lights out in the 9th. The “could-be closer” was drilling through lineups like he was pitching against Delmarva. Starting in the middle of May, Sherrill began walking more batters and allowing the occasional big hit, but usually with enough of a run cushion from the late-inning Orioles offense to survive with nothing but sighs of relief for another exciting win. Dating back to June 14th, Sherrill has allowed 6 earned runs through 7.2 innings, and blown 3 saves in 8 opportunities. To that point, Sherrill had only blown 2 saves in 24 opportunities.

In five years in the majors, George Sherrill has never pitched more than 45 innings in an entire season. This season, he is on pace for almost 80 innings, in a more taxing role than he had encountered before to this point in his career. The amount of stress being placed on his arm is likely something he has not felt since before his arrival in the majors in 2004. As such, his complaint of arm soreness (that he did not report to Manager Dave Trembley or the training staff) could be worse than he has been letting on, as he has been reticent to admit that he needs time off to rest. When a player, fails to report a potential injury, he often exacerbates it and causes his team to suffer in the process. Even if he is able to tough it out, he has an obligation to at least notify the team so they have accurate information going into every game. This season could be far more taxing on George than we as fans or even the coaching staff is possibly aware of.

Trembley has indicated his desire that another player look to take some of the closing duties from Sherrill, but who? Tuesday night he got the save, but not before allowing a base hit that scored 2 inherited runners from Dennis Sarfate. Sarfate wouldn’t have been taken out of the game had he not put the game into a save situation after taking over with a 7-3 lead. Sarfate had been the leading candidate to take some of the closing duties, but he has struggled as much as Sherrill recently, allowing 5 earned runs in his last 8 innings. With Matt Albers out for the season and Jamie Walker on the DL with an injury that might or might not effect him for the rest of the season, The O’s may be short on relievers at a time when we are looking for an extra one to rely on, despite Adam Loewen’s long-awaited return- and 3 run disaster last night. Jim Johnson is probably the most likely candidate, but the void left in his place might be almost as difficult to fill.

Sherrill may get some necessary rest over the All-Star break, unless he turns out to be the O’s obligatory representative and once again denies injury to pitch in the game. The impact of Sherrill’s tired arm and other injuries in the bullpen could make those trademark Orioles comebacks fewer and farther between if the pieces don’t continue to fall into place for this “charmed” Charm City team. It looks very shaky for relief pitchers that just a few weeks ago were carrying the O’s to win after win.

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