Rookie Carson Smith seems like a logical candidate to get a chance with Rodney throwing too many ulcer-inducing games.
When Don Stanhouse was the Orioles’ closer in the late 1970s, he flirted with disaster so often in his save opportunities that manager Earl Weaver dubbed him “Fullpack.”
The reference was to the amount of cigarettes Weaver would smoke in the corner of the dugout while watching Stanhouse wriggle out of danger. Or not.
“He doesn’t suffer from stress,’’ Weaver once said of Stanhouse. “He’s a carrier.”
Fernando Rodney would be Lloyd McClendon’s Fullpack, if the Mariners’ manager smoked. He’s most definitely a stress-carrier in the ninth inning of just about any game he enters.
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But here’s today’s scoop: Get used to it.
I see no signs McClendon is thinking of making a closer change, though he has a logical candidate in rookie Carson Smith. Before Wednesday’s game – in which Felix Hernandez displayed the only foolproof method of taking the anxiety out of bullpen usage – McClendon reiterated why he’s sticking with his guy.
“You start playing games with your bullpen and not showing confidence in your players, that’s not very good,’’ he told reporters in St. Petersburg, as relayed to me by Ryan Divish. “That relationship won’t last very long.”
I’ve been a proponent of patience with Rodney, pointing to his track record as well as stuff that remains, at times, of shutdown quality. Rodney had a nine-game stretch from April 18 to May 8, for instance, in which he was 6 for 6 in saves with 12 strikeouts in nine innings, a 1.00 earned-run average and .188 opponents’ batting average.
My breaking point has been reached, however. Rodney’s last nine games have been a nearly nonstop ulcer inducer. Opponents have a 1.067 OPS (on-base plus slugging) off him in that span, meaning that for the past three weeks, he’s turned his foes into Nelson Cruz or Adrian Gonzalez.
McClendon will no doubt point to the fact, as he has before, that Rodney has the knack of making you sweat, but still converting the save. It’s his trademark, right? (Along with the tilted hat and the arrow; dude has a lot of trademarks.)
Even in Tuesday’s near disaster against Tampa Bay, in which he coughed up a 6-3 lead, Rodney would have miraculously closed down the win had Robinson Cano converted a makeable double play. For all the anxiety he’s caused, Rodney is 61 for 66 in save opportunities since he got to Seattle.
But now he’s living too dangerously. The consistency Rodney eventually found last year has been maddeningly elusive in 2015. When you give up that many base runners, eventually it’s going to bite you.
What would it hurt to let Smith try to see if his overpowering stuff plays in the ninth inning? Well, McClendon clearly believes there is indeed a downside. He has said before that if you replace the closer and the replacement fails, you’ve got big trouble. But he’s adjusted on the fly at other struggling positions. Why not shake up the closer spot?
Smith certainly looks like he has closer’s stuff. In 21 innings, he has a 0.86 ERA, allowing just nine hits, with a 24 to 5 strikeouts-to-walks ratio. Those are crazy numbers, and they’ve come in a lot of high-leverage situations, too. Smith has two essential closer’s attributes: Swing-and-miss stuff, and the ability to induce ground balls.
Smith looks to me like he has the makeup for the job, too, though of course you never know for sure, particularly with a rookie. McClendon made that point on Wednesday, too, when speaking about Rodney’s resilience.
“One thing about closers, when people say anyone can close,’’ he said. “Maybe. But can anyone blow a game and come back the next day and have that mentality to close again? That’s the key, and that’s the tough part.
“You find out who can close after they blow one and come back the next day.”
Rodney is heading into unprecedented territory. Only two pitchers in history have recorded more than 30 saves with an ERA higher than Rodney’s current 6.98: Philadelphia’s Brad Lidge (31 saves, 7.21 ERA in 2009), and Colorado’s Shawn Chacon (35 saves, 7.11 ERA in 2004). Just five others have 30 or more saves with an ERA over 5.
Most closers with those kind of numbers get replaced. McClendon believes in faith over fiddling, though he said when he managed in Pittsburgh, there were games he pulled his closer because he didn’t like what he was seeing.
“He’s still my closer, but tonight he didn’t have his best stuff. That’s happened,’’ he said, hastening to add he thought Rodney’s stuff looked good enough on Tuesday to leave him in.
With Seattle reaching .500 and desperately trying to get back in the race, it seems like a good time to do a little experimenting with Smith. If it doesn’t work, you can always go back to Rodney. If he’s as strong mentally as McClendon believes, he can deal with it. It’s happened to him before in his career, after all.
But if Smith’s stellar body of work translates to closing situations, well, the Mariners will have shored up one more area of growing concern. And maybe even turn the ninth inning back into a reduced-stress zone.
McClendon, however, appears willing to ride on with his modern-day Fullpack.