The evolution of the relief pitcher and specifically the closer has been significant over the years and while the term "fireman" is still used with the modern day closer, that is not always the case. Today closers are almost solely used in save opportunities and while there are three ways to earn a save, these days it is almost always by entering the game to start the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less. While closers will still enter the game with the tying run on base, it is really a rare site and only a time when the manager had no intention of using his closer in the first place. While a pitcher can still earn a save by working the final three innings of a game, that seems to be more of a fluke of nature in the modern game.
The Texas Rangers have begun to quietly reshape the focus of the bullpen and it actually has absolutely nothing to do with the early season struggles of Joe Nathan. The modern closer first came into existence in the late 90's with Dennis Eckersley. There had been many "firemen" up until that time and while they were called closers, Eckersley was really the first relief pitcher to be used exclusively in a ninth inning role.
During the 2011 postseason, Ron Washington ended up with a needed extra arm in the bullpen that happened to belong to Alexi Ogando. Ogando had been extremely effective in the 2010 season as the setup man for Neftali Feliz, but got thrown into the rotation at the end of spring training last season. Ogando went on to an All-Star first half, but fatigue hit him in the second half and he was moved to the bullpen for the postseason. It was a decision based off of fatigue, but it was also because the Rangers knew he could get guys out in crucial parts of the game and they still needed all the help they could get in the bullpen.
The Rangers reshaped their rotation over the offseason with the addition of Yu Darvish and by moving Neftali Feliz into the rotation. That meant Ogando would once again be moving into the bullpen. The Rangers also signed Joe Nathan to be the closer and had Mike Adams as an established eighth inning arm. Ogando was stretched out in the spring, but in the end Washington announced he would be in the bullpen and was a "very special weapon."
Ogando has proved to be just that this season and while Joe Nathan may be the closer and Mike Adams the setup man, Ogando has proven to be the "fireman." Ogando has proven that a game can be saved in the sixth, seventh or eighth inning and a pitcher does not have to be on the mound in the ninth inning to be in a crucial situation. While he is not working two or three innings, Ogando is bringing back memories of men like Bruce Sutter, Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage who came into the game whenever things were catching fire.
Five times this year Ogando has entered the game with the Rangers having a two run lead or less and he has also entered four times with men on base. He has only worked more than an inning twice and while he has mainly worked the seventh inning, he has came in the game during the sixth, eighth and ninth innings.
The Rangers are not completely deviating from the modern system of closing games out. Nathan is still the closer and Adams is still the setup man, but the Rangers seem to be finding a way to get Ogando and even Adams in the game during the most crucial times. A game can be won or lost in any inning and they are turning to the men who can put out the fire at that moment. Things could change as the season moves along, especially if Nathan continues to struggle in the ninth inning, but for the time being the Rangers appear to be completely content putting out fires with men fully capable of doing so, no matter when they begin.
John Bowman is a lifelong baseball and Texas Rangers fan that loves to ponder the deeper aspects of the game. Some of his first baseball memories involve Arlington Stadium nachos, Charlie Hough's knuckleball, dirt on Pete Incaviglia's uniform and the voices of Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel as he fell asleep. Follow him on Twitter @TexasWinColumn.
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- Alexi Ogando
- Joe Nathan