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Sports

Slow starts for some big-name closers

| Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Mariano Rivera blows two saves against Boston, Keith Foulke gives up a game-ending homer to Derek Jeter.

Cleveland's Bob Wickman wastes a ninth-inning lead against the White Sox, and the very next day, Chicago closer Shingo Takatsu gives up three homers in the ninth against the Indians.

"Those guys are not going to save every game they pitch," said Colorado manager Clint Hurdle, whose bullpen failed to hold a pair of leads against San Francisco last weekend. "And once there's one chink in your armor, it affects your confidence."

While position players and starting pitchers get into game shape during spring training, closers can't really get parallel experience. For them, it's not the innings or pitch count that matter: Their specialty is being able to pitch with no margin for error, needing to get only three outs most of the time.

"There's really no way that you can simulate the regular season in spring training," Houston closer Brad Lidge said. "Right now, maybe the ball isn't bouncing the right way for Rivera and some of those guys, but over the course of the season, it evens itself out. My guess is by the middle of the season, people won't even remember."

There were 39 blown saves in 99 games through Monday, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, up from 35 in the first 102 games of last year.

Rivera, who converted 53 of 57 save chances last year, has blown four straight against the Red Sox, including two in last October's AL Championship Series. Twelve of his 28 blown saves since the start of the 2001 season have been against Boston, and some fans at Yankee Stadium booed him last week after his second failure in a row.

"It's always good or bad," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "If you're a closer, either you do it or you don't do it. You're successful, or you're a failure."

Texas closer Francisco Cordero has blown two of four save chances, giving up a homer to Anaheim's Darin Erstad on an 0-2 pitch in the ninth inning of the Rangers' loss Monday. Cordero converted 49 of 54 chances last year and allowed just one homer.

Mets closer Braden Looper had 29 saves in 34 chances last year, but right now, he has to shed memories from his first appearance this year, when he gave up home runs to Adam Dunn and Joe Randa in a 7-6 loss at Cincinnati. Looper's performance cost Pedro Martinez a win in his Mets' debut and started New York on a season-opening 0-5 slide.

"I've definitely given up my share of whatever you want to call it," Looper said. "But on Opening Day, it stinks."

Wickman had converted 12 straight chances dating to last season heading into last Wednesday's game at Chicago. He entered with a 3-0 lead but gave up hits to four straight batters in a span of eight pitches, including consecutive homers by Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye, and the White Sox won, 4-3.

Takatsu had a 5-2 lead in the ninth the next day but gave up home runs to Casey Blake, Coco Crisp and Ronnie Belliard, and the Indians won in 11 innings.

On Sunday at Detroit, Wickman gave up an RBI single to Carlos Guillen before retiring Ivan Rodriguez on a grounder to preserve Cleveland's 7-6 win. Wickman admitted Wednesday's meltdown remained on his mind.

"I'm thinking, 'Here we go again,' just like everyone else," he said.

Colorado set a major-league record with 34 blown saves last year -- when the Rockies bullpen totaled just 36 saves. Hurdle tries to get his closers back on the mound as soon as possible after a bad games.

"It happens. They're humans," he said. "You don't have a pause button with a closer without controversy. You try to find better matchups or matchups that are more conducive to his strengths."

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