WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The legend of Koda Glover, if someone with so little on his big league resume can inspire such a thing, dates from a few weeks after the 2015 draft, when the Washington Nationals chose the big right-hander in the eighth round.
As the story goes, when Glover reported to Viera for the first time, the Nationals’ staff passed out questionnaires to all of the new arrivals. How many innings did you throw in college? When did you last play catch? Rudimentary things like that.
Then he came to one of the last questions on the list: “Are you a starter or reliever?”
“I’m a closer,” answered Glover, fresh from Oklahoma State. The words have reverberated through the organization ever since.
Not two seasons later, Glover, 23, has a legitimate chance to be just that for the Nationals, who whiffed in their pursuit of more established closers this winter, and therefore doomed themselves to a spring of speculation.
Manager Dusty Baker said Saturday that he and the Nationals’ other decision-makers have settled on a closer. He is not yet willing to say who that might be. Glover, Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen are all capable candidates, and Treinen got two outs in the ninth inning of Saturday’s game. But internally, the Nationals have come to see Glover the same way he saw himself that day in Viera — as a future closer, in skill set and mind-set.
“What’s helpful is the guy or two that says that’s what he wants to be,” Baker said Saturday, purposely avoiding naming names. “Which is big to me.”
Baker, General Manager Mike Rizzo and others have described Glover as a bulldog, fearless and impossible to intimidate. But the confidence required to earn such praise can be hard to manage for rookies who must walk a thin line between self-assured and presumptuous. Glover walks it well, with very little of that first-day bravado, sure enough of himself to jab back when jabbed, deferential enough to credit the veterans when he can. Kelley, one of those veterans, said that is exactly what they have tried to help Glover do.
“Our veteran guys, we want you to be yourself and be comfortable. If you can help us win games, then be who you are,” Kelley said. “Koda’s young and stubborn enough to just be himself. He’s a good youngin’.”
Despite the precedent set that day in Viera, Glover has been publicly deferential about his role. Asked late this week, he dismissed the notion of being the closer as “all talk.” Glover said, as he has since he was a surprise call-up last summer, that he will do whatever the Nationals ask.
“That’ll work itself out. We got a lot of guys that can take the job,” Glover said. “ … The entire bullpen could take that job.”
But Baker, Rizzo, and other Nationals decision-makers know what their players can sense — that not anyone can take that job, because closing requires a certain something, an it-factor understood best when seen in someone like Glover.
Closers come with stereotypes — a little crazy, a little cocky, and a lot fearless, though few meet all those criteria. When baseball people talk about the perfect closer, they talk about a stubborn certainty, relentless confidence and competitiveness that leave no room for doubt. But few baseball players actually escape doubt, and after he struggled through a hip injury and compiled a 5.03 ERA in 19 major league appearances last season, Glover dealt with plenty of it. Baker and Rizzo do not see Glover as someone immune to ups and downs. They see him as someone who will be molded, not broken, by them.
“I definitely had thoughts like, ‘Am I good enough? Is my stuff good enough? Why have I been successful up to here, but now that I’ve got here, why is this happening?’ ” Glover said. “I feel like those are very normal questions to ask yourself. But at the same time, now that I’ve matured at this level, I know my stuff is good enough to get guys out.”
If stuff were all it took, most teams would have no trouble finding closers. While Glover’s high-90s fastball and secondary repertoire are rare, they are not unheard of, and better stuff than his has failed under ninth-inning stress. The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t, Baker has said, is that successful closers have the ability to forget, to block out failure — prominent, game-changing failure — and return, unfazed, 24 hours later. Glover does not forget. But he does not stew on failure, either.
For example, while joking with some teammates in the clubhouse recently, Glover remembered the go-ahead hit he allowed to Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman in one of his first big league save chances late last summer. He explained his thought process, why he threw the fastball Freeman hit, and why he didn’t get Freeman out the next time he faced him, either. Someone told Glover not to feel bad, that Freeman seems to hit every Nationals pitcher, every time the teams play. Glover smiled, and assured him he did not feel bad at all.
“You gotta have fun with it, too. You can’t sit there and think, ‘Oh, I hate Freddie Freeman because he got two knocks off me,’ ” Glover said. “You have to tip your hat, the guy can hit. You just have to laugh about it when it’s in the past.”
For Baker, choosing a closer means a commitment, a willingness to let that pitcher fail a few times, but not so many that a pitcher’s confidence would be damaged. Since Glover is the youngest of a pool of closer candidates, he would look most fragile on paper, the guy whose uncommon confidence the Nationals would want to care for now, so as to preserve it later. The Nationals could decide to use Kelley or Treinen in that role until Glover is ready, whatever “ready” means. When it comes to closing, conventional wisdom holds that only ninth-inning opportunities can define “ready” for sure.
But the reason Glover is in the running — an improbable position given he has spent just more than a season in professional baseball — is that the Nationals see in him what he saw in himself that day in Viera: as their closer, sooner or later.