“It has something to do with your makeup,” said Dennis Eckersley, a Hall of Famer who ranks sixth all-time with 390 saves. “It’s not like guys don’t have the guts to pitch the ninth inning. There are so many guys that have great stuff, especially nowadays. But there is something about the ninth inning. There’s something about the finality of a game.”
This season, the Washington Nationals have seen both sides of what can happen to a closer in the face of that pressure. Tyler Clippard, thrust into the role unexpectedly, has mostly excelled, notching 20 saves in 22 tries as the team’s primary closer.
But before him another ninth-inning novice, Henry Rodriguez, a pitcher with all the talent needed to succeed, succumbed to the weight of the task. His struggles cost him the job he had inherited from injured closer Drew Storen.
Last season, Storen saved 43 games in only his second major league season. Neither he nor Clippard has the blistering stuff of Rodriguez. Yet, they succeed because of, among other things, a focused mental approach. They minimize the pressure of the ninth inning, simplify and slow their thoughts.
In his first few saves this season, Clippard admitted feeling nervous when he heard the crowd rise to its feet, the heightened energy and louder cheers. He mostly throws a fastball at 92 to 94 mph that seems to rise but doesn’t, and a dangerous change-up. What worked for Clippard was approaching the ninth inning just as he has every other inning he has pitched for the Nationals. He said he has had an uncanny ability, since he was young, to focus and tune out. Friends will try to talk to him while he’s watching a television show at home, and he won’t hear it; it just doesn’t register.
“For whatever reason, I have a simplistic mind,” he said. “I am really just focused on one thing at a time. Anything else, I’m not capable of comprehending anything else. I’m just really focused on the pitch and one pitch at a time.”
That’s the frame of mind that Fran Pirozzolo, a sports psychologist who has worked with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros and individual players, said he has seen in some of the best closers. Injured Yankee closer Mariano Rivera, arguably the game’s greatest ever, has pinpoint accuracy with one predictable pitch, his cutter, but trusts the “automaticity” of what he does so much that he succeeds, Pirozzolo said.
Closers have little time to get into a groove like starting pitchers, he said. They have to stick with a few things that work. “Pitching is just a huge memory test,” he said.