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Sunday, July 30, 2006

"Make Room for 1 Mo," in the Hall--Jesse Spector

Today's inductee, Bruce Sutter, made only one postseason appearance, but he made the most of it in the 1982 World Series, coming into the seventh inning of Game 3 to bail the Cardinals out of a bases-loaded jam and earn a seven-out save.

In Game 7, Sutter entered in the eighth with a one-run lead. The six hitters who faced him made a combined 27 All-Star appearances in their careers, including Hall of Famers Paul Molitor and Robin Yount. None of the six so much as hit the ball out of the infield as Sutter sealed the title for St. Louis.

Maybe it's not fair, but John Franco, who ranks third all-time in saves with 424 - 124 more than Sutter - never had a similar moment, because he was never the closer for a playoff team. Closers make their reputations - and, thusly, their Hall of Fame candidacies - on how they deal with pressure.

Dennis Eckersley saved all four games of Oakland's sweep of the Red Sox in the 1988 ALCS, but gave up Kirk Gibson's homer in Game 1 of the World Series for his most famous failure. Given the chance to rebound, Eckersley did - over the rest of his career, he had a 1.96 playoff ERA.

Lee Smith, Eckersley's teammate with the 1984 Cubs and the all-time saves leader, didn't make the most of his opportunity for redemption. After giving up the two-run homer to Steve Garvey that beat the Cubs in Game 4 of the '84 NLCS, Smith made his only other postseason appearance opposing Eckersley's A's in the '88 ALCS. Smith, a seven-time All-Star and three-time Rolaids Relief Man lost Game 2 and let Oakland score two insurance runs in the clinching Game 4. He never made it back to the playoffs, and has never appeared on more than 45% of the ballots for the Hall of Fame, which requires 75% to get in.

At least Smith has gotten some consideration. John Wetteland, Rick Aguilera and Doug Jones - Nos. 9, 13 and 19 on the career saves list - received a combined nine votes for the Hall, and none will be included on the next ballot.

Wetteland, the 1996 World Series MVP, probably deserved better. But there are a few things that played against Wetteland as a candidate for Cooperstown, starting with the fact that he retired at the relatively early age of 34. Also, as a one-inning closer rather than a true fireman, he should be held to a higher standard, and Wetteland had a well-deserved reputation for making games interesting. Of the players in the top 10 all-time in saves, only Eckersley gave up home runs to a higher percentage of the hitters he faced. Keep in mind, though, that Eckersley spent half of his career as a starting pitcher - one who had eight seasons in which he served up 20-plus homers.

That homer rate might be something Billy Wagner should think about as he climbs up the save charts - Wagner has allowed homers to 2.34% of the hitters he's faced in his career. Wetteland's figure was 2.32%. Wagner will also want to improve on an unsightly 7.71 postseason ERA.

Including Wagner, there are seven active pitchers who rank in the top 25 all-time in saves, and it's too early to talk about young closers, such as the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez, without a career's worth of closing to shape a case for induction to the Hall.

Wagner (No. 17) still has a chance to build on his candidacy - Roberto Hernandez (No. 10), Jose Mesa (No. 12) and Todd Jones (No. 24) are all at the tail end of their careers and would be shocking faces to see on Hall of Fame plaques.

The man with the 22nd-most saves in major league history, Armando Benitez, also is a lock for getting in - during visiting hours. The only pitchers in history with 100 saves and more walks per nine innings than Benitez are Mitch Williams and Ted Abernathy. Benitez and Williams are both best known for blown saves in the World Series - Benitez's flop in Game 1 in 2000 began with a memorable walk to Paul O'Neill, while the homer that Joe Carter hit off Williams to win the 1993 Fall Classic came three batters after a leadoff walk to Rickey Henderson.

Of the batters Benitez has faced in his career, 11.42% have drawn unintentional walks, easily the highest total of anyone in the top 25 in saves. Sutter, by comparison, issued unintentional walks to just 5.32% of the batters he faced, setting the stage for far fewer meltdowns.

Trevor Hoffman, No. 2 on the all-time saves list, should be an interesting case for Cooperstown voters. He's been to five All-Star Games, but notably blew the save in Pittsburgh earlier this month. Hoffman has had seven seasons of 40-plus saves, and of the top 25 all-time savers, only Wagner, Benitez and Troy Percival have struck out a higher percentage of the batters they've faced than Hoffman, who's based his whole career on a superb changeup, rather than the blazing fastball preferred by most of his peers. But his most memorable postseason moment was giving up a three-run homer to Scott Brosius to blow the save in Game 3 of the 1998 World Series. That might cost Hoffman some votes when he hits the ballot.

Then there's the guy who holds the major league record with nine World Series saves, the one who established a record of 33 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason. Mariano Rivera has had some memorable blown saves, but he also has posted an 0.81 ERA in 72 postseason games, spanning 117-2/3 innings. The last true fireman in baseball, Rivera is the only closer in the game today who is a lock to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. By Jesse Spector, NY Daily News, July 30, 2006

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