PITTSBURGH – Figuring out how to get those final three outs in the ninth inning of a ballgame is one of those great mysteries of baseball. For some reason the final inning is that much more difficult than the eight that precede it that there needs to be a specialist earmarked specifically to pitch that one inning.
Moreover, ballplayers buy into the mysteries of the ninth inning. They say things like, “Oh yeah, he has closers stuff, but to actually be a closer is a different beast.”
The word they use a lot is “mindset.” Anytime that word gets thrown out there chances are no one has a real explanation.
But that’s not to disparage the poor baseball man attempting to answer an unanswerable question about pitching the ninth inning. That one inning, as sometime closer Ryan Madson said, is “magnified.”
Of course the last inning is magnified because it’s the only one the closer pitches in. Back in the 1970s when Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter were going two to three innings (and sometimes even four innings) to nail down a game, the blown save meant a lot less. That’s why several of the all-time leaders in blown saves in a season are in the Hall of Fame.
Still, the ninth inning is Machiavellian in the truest sense. It doesn’t matter how Brad Lidge saved 48 straight games last season, it just matters that he did it. Just the same as it matter that this year he isn’t doing it as well.
Last season the Phillies pitchers had 15 blown saves with Chad Durbin leading the way with six. Of those 15 blown save chances, zero came in the ninth inning and nary a one came from the closer or that day’s closer. As a result, the Phillies’ save percentage of 76 was 14 percentage points better than the league norm.
This year the Phillies already have 18 blown saves, including one in back-to-back games against the lowly Pirates here in Pittsburgh. Of those 18, 14 have come from Lidge and Madson and 12 of those have come in the ninth inning.
Nevertheless, with 38 games to go there is a chance that the Phillies could surpass last season’s save tally of 47. What’s more, the Phillies have actually won five of the games in which there was a blown save. In fact, the team has come back and won three games that Lidge got a blown save.
That says more about the Phillies offense and resiliency more than anything.
So maybe in a sense the Phillies have merely blown 10 save chances this year? I know that’s not the proper formula and minimizes the impact of the blown save chance, but it is worth thinking about where these Phillies might be if Lidge can get it together for the playoffs.
Meanwhile, Lidge has been on the mound for four walk-off jobs this season. I’m not sure if I can recall an instance of one walk-off piece against the Phillies last season at all.