ANAHEIM, Calif. – Joe Borowski, first in the American League in saves, 144th in relief ERA, and often the last man standing for the Cleveland Indians, has adopted a philosophy that explains how a 5.50 ERA becomes 40 saves for one of the best teams in the game.
"I'm going to give some people some gray hair," he said. "Some people might start smoking. But, as long as I'm not the one getting nervous out there, we'll be OK."
It is coincidence that Borowski hails from Bayonne, N.J., home of the boxer Chuck Wepner, who re-carpeted the ring in his own blood, win or lose. They called him the Bayonne Bleeder.
Like Wepner, Borowski often leaves a pint or two for the groundskeepers, but in the major leagues trails only Arizona's Jose Valverde and Milwaukee's Francisco Cordero in saves. He's blown six and has lost five times, and wasn't even the Indians' choice as closer on the first day of spring training.
But, Keith Foulke retired, practically before the introductory physical was over, and while Indians' scouts were out looking for someone to pitch the ninth inning – not to mention the seventh and eighth – Borowski took the ball and then the job.
Now the Indians are three weeks from winning the AL Central and the back end of their bullpen – Venezuelan right-hander Rafael Betancourt, Dominican left-hander Rafael Perez and Bayonne's Borowski – stands among the surprises of the season.
"Those three guys," Indians manager Eric Wedge said, "have been as important as anything."
Significantly, the bullpens in Detroit and Chicago have been largely ineffective, that disparity helping (along with the arrival of Fausto Carmona to the starting rotation, some attentiveness to defense and the late addition of second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera) to carry the Indians from last season's fourth place to this season's first place.
So, Borowski allows some baserunners, gives up some runs, stresses out everybody who has to watch. Forty times, it's worked.
"It's been, uh, personally frustrating to the point of stats," Borowski said. "As far as giving the team an opportunity to win or my stats, I'll take the (win) any day."
Wedge shook his head.
"The only stat that matters is saves," he said. "And he's leading the league. … Either you do it or you don't. The 'how' doesn't really matter."
Sunday afternoon, before the Indians played the Los Angeles Angels for the fourth time in four games, he laughed at his own moments of imprecision, admitted he'd prefer it be a bit cleaner, but, you know, "It is what it is. You take the best out of it."
By Sunday night, he was standing with a four-run lead, the Indians that close to pushing their lead over the Tigers to six games again, with 19 games to play. The Indians and Angels would win two games apiece in a series absent Vladimir Guerrero, so, as Borowski would appreciate, no blood.
In a non-save situation, Borowski faced only four batters in the ninth, a relatively neat inning that meant five wins in seven games for the Indians in Minnesota and Anaheim over seven days, with three in Chicago to come.
They'd scored six runs in five innings against Angels starter Jered Weaver, undoing brother Jeff's untidy work for the Seattle Mariners against the Tigers the day before, two wins in two days here granting further validity to Jim Leyland's pre-weekend concession speech. The Indians are again a sturdy team, a reasonably healthy team that has withstood the rigors of 5½ months primarily by answering the questions of their bullpen.
Meantime, it is the Angels who will spend the final three weeks attempting to rediscover their shut-down bullpen. Scot Shields and Francisco Rodriguez both appeared in soft situations at separate points of the Indians series, Shields in a blow-out win Thursday and Rodriguez in a four-run deficit Sunday.
Manager Mike Scioscia said he believes the broad statistics are not entirely telling, but the fact remains the Angels are ninth in the AL in relief ERA, almost unheard of in the Scioscia era, and that Shields and Rodriguez lacked their best stuff in late summer. As such, Justin Speier has spent recent days in Shields' setup role, while Shields endeavored to rediscover the touch on his fastball and breaking ball. Also, scouts have noted a decline in Rodriguez's velocity both on his fastball and curveball.
Bullpens are fragile entities, particularly in September. The Angels, eight games ahead of the Mariners, can weather it for now. Shields threw well Thursday and better Friday. Rodriguez pitched a perfect ninth Sunday. Indeed, on the eve of a day off and then the Angels' six-game trip through Baltimore and Chicago, Scioscia appeared more interested in Guerrero's sore elbow, Bartolo Colon's return (likely sometime this week) and Juan Rivera's healing game.
"I think in terms of the back end of our bullpen, we have as much confidence in them as any group we've had here pitching late in games for us," he said.
By mid-evening, the Indians were on their way to Chicago. The Angels fly Monday. There is a chance they haven't seen the last of each other. October awaits, somebody will have to get through the Boston Red Sox, somebody else – apparently – through the New York Yankees, and they'd meet again, the late innings bringing what they do.
Borowski will be there.
"There is a bottom line and that is winning," he said. "You do what you have to to get people out.
"I've been doing it, so, you know …"