Ninth inning is special

In the recap of the Dodgers-Rockies game on April 7, 2002, a notable (as it turned out) event got just one short sentence:

Eric Gagne pitched a one-hit ninth for his first career save.

And not just the first save of his major-league career – the first save of his seven-season professional career. Of course, Gagne had always been a starter in the minor leagues, so he hadn't had the chance to save any games. But in 133 professional starts, he'd never completed a game, either. Which means that in his entire career, Gagne hadn't finished even one ninth inning with a game on the line.

But that's the job he got in 2002, and since that first save, he's saved 151 more games in only three seasons.

This isn't about starters who became closers (that's another article, written by another writer). Rather, this is about the (supposedly) magical qualities of the ninth inning. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a hundred times: "The ninth inning is different than the eighth inning." Sometimes it's even this: "I don't care what those pointy-headed stats guys say, the ninth inning is different than the eighth inning."

It's different, all right: It's one inning later. And there certainly might be some excellent pitchers who simply can't cope with the ninth inning, because it's … different.

But just off the top of your head, try to think of a pitcher who established himself as an excellent pitcher in the seventh and eighth innings, then failed after becoming a closer. I'm sure there are some, but I certainly can't think of any.

Oops, just thought of one: Arthur Rhodes in 2004.

And then, on the other hand, just in the past five years we've seen…

  • Eddie Guardado, who progressed from adequate reliever to solid reliever to closer, and in fact became a better pitcher upon taking over as the Twins' closer in 2002.