What Kind Of Lasting Memories Will Bullpen Leave?

To some people in baseball, a team is only as good as its closer. Unless a team is pounding their opponents into submission with a high-powered offense (and we all know that's not our Phillies), the bullpen comes into play a lot. Some huge moments in Phillies history have been brought to us courtesy of the bullpen, but not all of them are ones we remember with pride.

The most triumphant image in the Phillies' 120-year history is that of Tug McGraw leaping for the sky after striking out Willie Wilson to end the 1980 World Series. That final punchout capped a season in which McGraw notched 20 saves and posted a sparkling 1.46 ERA in addition to locking up the team's first and only World Championship.

Thirteen years later, a Phillies closer was in the middle of another unforgettable World Series moment--but if McGraw's leap was the stuff of dreams, the flat slider Mitch Williams served up to Joe Carter became one more nightmare to the psychologically battered Philly sports fans. Carter pounded the pitch over the left-centerfield wall in Toronto's Skydome for a three-run homer that gave the Blue Jays an 8-6 win and the 1993 championship. All season long, the control-deficient pitcher who relished his nickname "Wild Thing" had taken the Phils on a roller-coaster ride. In two Series appearances, including game four - when Williams authored the meltdown of a 14-9 lead in the highest-scoring World Series contest ever - he ended it with a spectacular crash, taking the team and the city down with him.

With the 2003 Phillies enjoying arguably their best shot to return to the postseason since Carter ended their last trip ten years ago, fans once again are looking nervously to the bullpen, where veteran closer Jose Mesa often has made the ninth inning an adventure all too reminiscent of the Williams high-wire act.

Mesa's uneven career calls to mind not just Williams, but many bullpen stoppers in this era of relievers who go from the all-star game to the waiver wire, and sometimes back again, in just a few seasons' time. A failed starter with both Baltimore and Cleveland, Mesa came out of nowhere in 1995 to put together one of the most dominant closer campaigns ever. Playing for a superb Indians team that went 100-44 in the strike-shortened season, Mesa racked up a career-best 46 saves and a sparkling 1.12 ERA. He added a win and two saves in the postseason as Cleveland ultimately lost the 1995 World Series in six games. But his save totals declined to 39 and then to 16 over the next two seasons, and Mesa ended his 1997 season on the lowest of low notes: entering Game Seven of the World Series with a one-run lead and the Indians three outs away from the championship, Mesa couldn't nail down the win. He allowed the tying run, and Cleveland ultimately fell in 11 innings for its second Fall Classic defeat in three seasons.

A civic goat in Cleveland after the game seven loss, Mesa's days with the Tribe were numbered. The Indians traded him to San Francisco midway through the 1998 season, and he moved on to Seattle as a free agent for 1999. Anointed the Mariners' closer, Mesa saved 33 games for the Mariners but posted a 4.98 ERA and allowed an ugly 124 base runners in 68 2/3 innings. He returned to Seattle for 2000 but in a setup role. Mesa's 5.36 ERA was the worst of his career as a reliever, but he doubled his strikeouts from 42 the year before to 84, better than one per inning. More importantly, he won a new supporter in Mariners third base coach Larry Bowa, who brought Mesa to Philadelphia after becoming manager before the 2001 season.

You know the rest. Mesa and the team as a whole surprised just about everyone in 2001, as the Phillies battled Atlanta down to the last week of the season and Mesa notched 42 saves with a sterling 2.34 ERA. In the first days of the 2002 season, Phils GM Ed Wade extended Mesa's contract through 2003, and added an option worth $5.5 million for 2004 which would vest if Mesa finished 55 games in the 2003 season. But after a solid first half in 2002, Mesa struggled mightily in July with a 6.08 ERA, two losses and a handful of blown saves during the month. He rebounded sufficiently in August and September to finish with 45 saves, a new team record, but the frequently dramatic nature of those saves and questions about Mesa's age - virtually nobody believes his claim to be born in 1966, particularly considering his oldest son arrived in 1979 - began to worry both fans and a few decision-makers inside the organization.

Mesa's three blown saves and five loses through the first half of 2003 suggest there's still reason for concern. He's allowed over 1.5 runners per inning to reach base, and his performance in non-save situations - particularly tie games in late innings - frequently has been dreadful. The problem is that there's no one out there guaranteed to do any better. The most commonly suggested options - Ugueth Urbina of Texas (who's since been traded to Florida) and Pittsburgh's Mike Williams, to name two - have had their own troubles. And there's no obvious in-house candidate to take over closing duties: Carlos Silva entered the season as the anointed "closer of the future," but has regressed in 2003. Terry Adams and Turk Wendell have struggled in the role at other stops in their careers. Rheal Cormier has been a revelation this season, but left-handed closers are rare - and lefty closers without the blazing heat of a Billy Wagner are virtually nonexistent.

Does it make sense to have a designated ninth-inning specialist at all? There's probably not enough evidence to really say. The 2003 Boston Red Sox began the season with a "closer by committee" approach - and when the ninth-inning hurler du jour blew leads twice in the first week of the season, the press pronounced it a failure and demanded manager Grady Little name a closer. The Sox are still looking for a closer at the all-star break nears, supposedly considering Armando Benitez of the Mets... whose failures under the bright lights against the Mets' rival Braves and Yankees have made him a punchline around the game. Their last full-time closer? Ugueth Urbina, who blew six saves and was tagged with six losses for the 2002 Sox... and was a rumored trade target of the Phils before the Marlins acquired him just before the all-star break. In the era of high save numbers and high bullpen turnover, one team's detested bullpen arsonist is hailed as the potential solution to a rival's problems.

So unless a Francisco "K-Rod" Rodriguez unveils himself from out of nowhere, it's likely the Phils' ninth-inning chances will rest upon a strong back of indeterminate age, bearing the number 49 and the legend MESA. Better stock up on the TUMS and get comfortable.

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