In his first year as closer, Brandon League blew three saves in one week last May, but converted 37 of 42 save opportunities, and has used the rough patch as an invaluable lesson.
PEORIA, Ariz. — The wound has healed now, and the scar can be looked at with tough-guy pride. Brandon League smiles at the memory of the worst week of his career.
“It seems like a long time ago now,” the Mariners closer says.
In the 10 months since he hit rock bottom, League has played in the All-Star Game, cemented himself as a dependable option in one of sports’ most volatile jobs and returned this spring with a desire to be even better.
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So last May truly was a long time. Back then, during a six-day span, League lost four games, three of which were blown saves. He was reeling. He was a full-time closer for the first time, and critics howled that he couldn’t do the job. Replace him, they cried. But the M’s had a different take: Now you’ve been initiated.
“That’s what he had to come to grips with, the fact that this happens to every closer,” Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said. “The best of the best — Mariano Rivera, Dennis Eckersley — they’ve had weeks like that, too. This was his first year as a closer, and we told him, ‘You’re only as good as you are after you’ve blown a couple of games and come back.’ “
After the rough patch, the Mariners told League that they would pitch him in a non-save situation the next time, work with him to get his swagger back, and then he would be closing games again. Their confidence helped League get past the disappointment of letting his team down four straight times. He went on to have a stellar season, converting 37 of 42 save opportunities and ending the season with a 2.79 earned-run average in 65 appearances.
Now, League is preparing to do more. Willis and manager Eric Wedge rave about how ready he is to start the season.
“He’s had a great camp,” Willis said. “From the outset, he’s been throwing strikes. He has a tremendous arm. Sometimes, when you throw hard and you’re long and limber like he is, it takes a while to get everything in sync. But he’s ready.
“With the stuff he has, when he’s in the strike zone, it’s tough. This spring, he’s throwing many more strikes than he was at this time last year. Now, it’s not a matter of getting to the point of throwing strikes consistently. He can focus on the quality of strikes.”
Wedge says League’s maturation always goes back to his struggles last May.
“Going through that, that’s what makes him the pitcher he is today,” Wedge said. “He handled it the way he was supposed to handle it. He faced it head on. Ultimately, he’s much better because of it.”
The Mariners traded Brandon Morrow, the infamous former No. 5 overall pick in the 2006 draft that they selected instead of homegrown superstar Tim Lincecum, to acquire League and a quality outfield prospect, Johermyn Chavez. At the time, it seemed like Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was giving up on Morrow, whom he didn’t draft, and trying to make the best of a draft decision that didn’t work out for the Mariners.
But Zduriencik says the Mariners were highly motivated to get League. Tony Blengino, the special assistant to the general manager, showed Jack Z statistical analysis that revealed League’s split-finger fastball was the best swing-and-miss pitch in baseball. The Mariners considered his stuff “electric,” and while they weren’t certain that League would become a closer two years ago, they knew he was the kind of late-innings pitcher they needed.
“We were acquiring what we thought was a very special tool,” Zduriencik said. “He has more than lived up to our expectations.”
He’s a talent and personality that the young Mariners can market, too. From his spiky Mohawk-like haircut to his tattooed body, League is quite the character. But he’s also humble and thoughtful.
Despite offseason trade speculation, the M’s resisted the urge to deal League simply because many think All-Star closers are unnecessary on rebuilding teams. The reliever is only 29, and the Mariners believe they need him to build a winner.
Having been supported by the Mariners through the worst week of his career, League hopes he can stay and show the franchise just how appreciative he is.
“Hopefully, I’ve made it clear to the Mariners that I want to stay here,” League said. “I’m focused on taking last year and building on that. I guess you could say this is a comfortable situation for me, but you never want to get too comfortable. This game is a crazy game.”
League learned just how crazy last May. But he survived. Which means he’s a real closer now.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.