Relief Needed: Life without an ace closer is rare for Andy Lopezby Scott Terrell on Mar. 30, 2010, under Sports
It wasn’t the worst possible way for the Arizona Wildcats baseball team to end its 15-game winning streak. But it was close.
(The worst way to lose a basketball game? Probably like this.)
Next on the blown save suffering spectrum would be walking (or balking) in the final two runs to lose by one. Then comes the way Arizona lost to Oregon on Sunday.
Up by three, two outs in the 9th, bases empty. What could possibly go wrong? The answer is three straight singles and a home run. The Ducks take the lead and go on to win the game. Bye-bye, streak.
Looking at the big picture we have no reason to complain. When the season started – and especially after getting swept by Long Beach – winning 15 total games seemed more likely than winning 15 in a row. The young Wildcats deserve a lot of credit for winning all those games, no matter who they were against.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the bullpen hasn’t been very good. More like iffy at best. Oh, all right…bad. Here are the six save situations thus far for the 2010 Cats:
Feb. 26 vs. Long Beach, leading 7-5 in the 8th. Bryce Bandilla comes in to the start the inning and gives up three runs over the final two innings to lose by one.
Mar. 5 vs. Cal State Fullerton, leading 7-5 in the 8th. Tyler Hale enters the game with one on and two outs and gives up a two-run homer.
Mar. 13 vs. Northern Colorado, leading 7-5 (do you sense a trend?) in the 9th. Hale starts the inning and gives up one run but gets the final out with the tying run on first for the save.
Mar. 20 vs. Sacramento State, leading 7-5 (I’m not making this up) in the 8th. Hale comes in with two on and two outs and gives up a walk and a two-run double.
Mar. 27 vs. Oregon, leading 7-4, in the 8th. Nick Cunningham enters with two on and two outs. He gives up an infield hit to load the bases before getting a pop out to escape. He retires the side in the 9th around an error for the save.
Mar. 28 vs. Oregon, leading 8-5 in the 9th. Cunningham starts the inning and gets the first two men out. You know the rest.
That’s two saves in six attempts. A .333 average may be good at the plate but it’s horrible when you’re trying to close out games.
Bad closers are a part of baseball, but they haven’t been a part of UA baseball. We’re used to strong bullpens from Andy Lopez. Not just strong. Big-league bullpens.
In the last five years the Wildcats have featured Mark Melancon (pitched for the Yankees in 2009), Daniel Schlereth (1st-round pick, pitched for the Diamondbacks in ’09), Ryan Perry (1st-round pick, pitched for the Detroit Tigers in ’09), and Jason Stoffel (4th-round pick of the Giants in ’09).
That means Andy Lopez had three relievers in the Major Leagues last year and another guy on his way (Stoffel had 19 strikeouts and only one walk in his first year in the minors). Lopez-era Cats have the top three single-season save totals in UA history, and six of the top 10. We’re going to have to give the guy the benefit of the doubt when it comes to building a bullpen.
What can you do? Somebody has to be on the mound at the end of close games. You’re only option is to keep running guys out there and hope one of them grows into the job.
And growing is a possibility. Some say great closers are born but that hasn’t been the case at Arizona. Melancon had a 4.33 ERA as a freshman. Schlereth’s ERA was 4.56 as a UA rookie. Perry posted a mammoth 7.34 ERA as a freshman and a 6.35 ERA as a sophomore. They got just a wee bit better as time went by.
So we can’t give up on freshmen arms like Cunningham and Hale. They had some large shoes (and fat wallets) to fill and it’s going to take some time.
Just close your eyes the next time the Cats have a 7-5 lead.