"Who leads us in wins?"
Chipper Jones, in his 12th season with the Braves, walked by and flashed a bemused grin.
"Oscar Villarreal," Jones said.
Forgive Francoeur for his ignorance. Survey anyone outside of the Atlanta clubhouse on who has the second-best individual record in the major leagues, and Oscar Eduardo Villarreal, a right-handed, 24-year-old, fastball-and-slider middle reliever from Mexico, might not make the top 1,000 guesses.
Yet there he is, seven wins against zero losses, only one victory separating him from baseball's best pitcher this season, Arizona starter Brandon Webb, who is 8-0.
"I have been lucky," Villarreal said.
No, Villarreal hasn't been lucky. He has been a rabbit's foot, a four-leaf clover and a winning Powerball ticket packed neatly into a 6-foot, 217-pound frame.
In 25 outings this season, Villarreal has a 4.07 earned-run average, has given up more than a hit per inning and has about as many walks (12) as strikeouts (14). He has been decidedly average.
And somehow he logged as many victories in the Braves' first 11 games – four – as teammates Tim Hudson and John Smoltz have on the season. It took another month for Villarreal to win his next game May 15, and then he picked one up two days later before winning his seventh Sunday.
"When the game is tied or close and I give up a run, I know my team's going to get that back," Villarreal said. "That's baseball."
Maybe so, but it's also some kind of happenstance. Villarreal has thrown 24 1/3 innings this season. The only other reliever with at least two wins and a better innings pitched-to-victory ratio than Villarreal is Houston's Ezequiel Astacio, who won two games in 5 2/3 innings – and got sent to Triple-A in mid-May.
Villarreal won Opening Day, even though the Braves were ahead by five runs when he entered the game, thanks to the scorer's decision. He won his second and third games despite blowing one-run leads. For his fifth victory, Villarreal gave up a three-run, game-tying home run to Florida's Mike Jacobs, only to watch the Braves answer with a three-run rally.
"Picking up the scraps and getting away," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Remember what they called Phil Regan?"
Sandy Koufax deemed Regan such for his propensity to steal victories in relief. Over 65 games as a reliever for the Dodgers in 1966, Regan went 14-1, an unheard-of season today that was commonplace before the specialization of relief pitching.
Pittsburgh right-hander Roy Face holds the record for relief victories with 18 in the 1959 season, and in the '60s and '70s, the league leader had 15 or more eight times. Los Angeles' Mike Marshall won 14 in back-to-back seasons, and in 1979, the Yankees' Ron Davis won 14 in just 44 appearances and topped 11 relievers with double-digit victories.
In the last 20 years, the vulture role has waned some. Since Roger McDowell and Mark Eichhorn won 14 games in 1986, the most victories for a reliever has been 12, done six times, including by Minnesota's Jesse Crain in 2005.
"As a bullpen, wins don't mean what they do to a starter," said reliever Lance Cormier, traded from Arizona along with Villarreal for catcher Johnny Estrada this offseason. "Though it is nice to see Oscar up there in the league leaders."
It's not Villarreal's first time there. As a rookie in 2003, his 10 relief victories ranked second to Joe Nathan's 12, and he finished the season with more wins than Tom Glavine and Diamondbacks teammate Curt Schilling, who, incidentally, are the only others in baseball this season with eight Ws.
Elbow surgery sidelined Villarreal in 2004, and shoulder pain kept him out until September last season. In his third game back, he pitched a scoreless inning and got a win.
Not that it surprised Villarreal. He doesn't know if it's karma or fate or blessings from the baseball gods.
He's just glad it's him.
"We've got four more months," Villarreal said. "You never know what could happen."
The first 20-game winner out of a bullpen? You never know. Villarreal can vouch that it's better to be lucky than good.
|2004||Todd Jones, Juan Rincon||11|
|1997||Roberto Hernandez, Bobby Ayala, Danny Patterson, Arthur Rhodes, T.J. Mathews||10|
|1996||Antonio Osuna, Trevor Hoffman||9|
|1994||Bill Risley, Joe Boever||9|
|1993||Steve Reed, John Wetteland||9|
|1990||Lee Guetterman, Barry Jones||11|
|1987||Mike Henneman, Don Robinson, Scott Garrelts||11|
|1986||Roger McDowell, Mark Eichhorn||14|
|1985||John Franco, Dave Righetti||12|
|1970||Stan Williams, Dick Hall, Ted Abernathy||10|
- Phil Regan
- Mike Marshall