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Rockies Journal: Search for a qualified closer could take all season

TORONTO — If the Rockies posted a job listing for their closer position, it would read something like this:

“Wanted: A talented pitcher to work the back end of baseball games, primarily in the ninth inning with the game on the line. Must be fearless and have a short-term memory. Must be willing to deal with the quirks and harsh realities of pitching at Coors Field. Must know that the job is one of the most challenging in the majors. Only the brave need apply.”

There are several relievers currently trying out for the position: Justin Lawrence, Nick Mears, Jake Bird and perhaps Tyler Kinley. All of them have their strengths, all of them have their flaws, and none of them have secured the job.

The Rockies hoped Daniel Bard, so good as a closer in 2022, could recover from his anxiety issues, get healthy, and become a legitimate candidate to pitch in the ninth. But Friday, we found out Bard will undergo season-ending surgery later this month to repair the torn flexor tendon in his right arm.

The hard truth is that the Rockies’ ninth inning might be a merry-go-round this entire season. That’s often the sign of a bad team.

The hard-throwing Mears has flashed promising stuff, but his inconsistency makes him a wild card that manager Bud Black might not be ready to trust. Last Monday, for example, Mears came into the ninth with a chance to secure the Rockies’ win over the Diamondbacks at Coors Field.

But in two-thirds of an inning, Mears walked three, gave up a hit and struck out one. Black gave him the hook with the bases loaded and two outs. Bird relieved Mears and got Eugenio Suarez to fly out to right fielder Jake Cave for the save in Colorado’s 7-5 victory.

Despite the uncertainty, Bard says Rockies relievers have a lot of potential.

“The stuff in that bullpen is so good; probably the best pure stuff we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Bard, who first pitched for Colorado in 2020. “There are a lot of young guys who are inexperienced but are showing flashes of being really good.

“But they’re maybe not used to pitching in close games, so, that will get better. It’s just kind of early-season instability right now. There wasn’t a clear-cut closer coming out of spring, which is always a little weird for everybody.”

Bard added that there is added pressure because the Rockies’ poor start has meant even more pressure for the back-end relievers “because you want that win so bad.”

However, handling pressure is a prerequisite for a closer.

When I think about the job’s volatility, I flash back to the image of Huston Street, head in his hands, struggling to comprehend his blown save in Game 4 of the 2009 National League division series at Coors Field.

The Rockies were one out — make that one strike— away from forcing a Game 5. They entered the ninth leading the Phillies, 4-2, but Street gave up three runs, and the Phillies won, 5-4. The meltdown happened quickly. He pinned Chase Utley against the ropes with a fastball to get to a 2-2 count, but he couldn’t put Utley away and ended up walking him.

Then Ryan Howard roped a 91-mph fastball to right field, the two-run double tying the game at 4-4. Jayson Werth followed with a Coors Field special — a soft liner to center — to win the game. Street was booed as he trudged off the mound.

“It’s impossible to put into words how bad it feels, for the season to be over when you didn’t expect it to happen,” Street said on that frigid October day. “I feel responsible.”

Street, a member of the Rockies’ 25th-anniversary team, saved 35 games in 2009. He posted a 3.06 ERA, striking out 70 and walking only 13 over 61 2/3 innings. He was superb but couldn’t close the deal in the season’s biggest game.

Being a closer, especially at Coors Field, requires exceptional talent and a specific personality.

“It takes poise, and those guys have to like the stage; they embrace the stage,” said Black, who was a teammate of closer Dan Quisenberry in Kansas City, managed Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman in San Diego, and has watched a number of great ninth-inning pitchers.

“They embrace the responsibility of being a closer. They have sharp in-game awareness. And talent — you’ve got to have talent, even if there are guys who are good closers, even if they don’t have the pure stuff of other guys.”

In other words, not every closer has Mariano Rivera’s magical cutter, Goose Gossage’s gas, or Trevor Hoffman’s baffling changeup, but every successful closer needs guts and tenacity.

The Rockies are trying to determine if anyone in their bullpen has those qualities.

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