The Closer Question: When Should They Take The Mound?

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IJuly 14, 2008

Last Monday, the Minnesota Twins faced off against the Boston Red Sox in the first game of their three-game set at Fenway. The game was exceptionally tight the whole way, and both starting pitchers were at the very top of their respective games.

However, both Scott Baker and Daisuke Matsuzaka had thrown their limit by the middle of the eighth inning, each leaving the game right where they found it: 0-0. Dice-K went 7.1 innings before giving up the ball to Hideki Okajima, who finished off the Twins in the eighth and put Twins' manager in a tough spot.

Gardenhire had, at his disposal, one of the best closers in baseball: Joe Nathan. Nathan, however, rarely pitches in non-save situations, which was the situation that night. Gardy decided to forgo Nathan in the eighth, leaving him ready for the ninth, and chose Brian Bass to face the top of the Red Sox order.

As it turned out, there was no ninth for Nathan to pitch; the Sox scored in the eighth and Jonathan Papelbon shut the door on the Twins' hopes.

The decision not to use a closer, who is, or should be, the best reliever the team has, in a close, but non-save situation, is one that plagues a lot of teams. Current saves leader Francisco Rodriguez has never thrown more than one inning this season, and closers that do get four or more outs are an aberration, not the norm.

This prompts the question:

Should a manager use his best reliever in a high-leverage situation, such as a tie game in the eighth against a rival team, even if it deviates from the pitcher's normal routine?