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Closer's role changing ever so slowly

Special to

May 2

Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan once called the house of cards bullpen structure "Creeping La Russaism." Right-hander in the seventh, a lefty for an out, another righty, and, if you have the lead in the ninth, the door opens and the closer walks out. But it had to be just right for that closer. Ninth inning, no one on. No Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter or Goose Gossage in the seventh. Heavens!

Derek Lowe
Derek Lowe has allowed only two runs in 14 innings of work through Sunday.

But so often the cards fall. A closer goes haywire, gets hurt or old. Then the media makes his apprentice think he's been charged with the future of the free world.

"I think that's changing, and for the better," says Red Sox pitching coach Joe Kerrigan. "That may work for some pitchers and some teams, but not for all."

When Kerrigan's boss Jimy Williams had the best closer in the league in 1998 in Tom Gordon, he often used him in the eighth inning, and 17 of Gordon's 48 saves were four outs or more. Gordon went down last season, and Williams first went to Tim Wakefield, then to Derek Lowe, and 13 of their combined 30 saves were 4-to-6 outs. Lowe is this year's closer, and in four of his first five saves he went two full innings.

"I'd prefer to go three innings," says Lowe. "I was raised as a starter. I come in and go with my power (a sinker that produced the second best groundball/flyball ratio of the '90s last season), but I can use my curveball and changeup. I don't get tired. I need the work."

Lowe worked 109 innings in relief last season, and this year Williams sets his limit at 40 pitches. If he goes 40 pitches two days in a row, Williams would use Wakefield to close, or given a situation, Rheal Cormier or Rich Garces. In all, Boston had seven pitchers get saves in 1999.

In 1999, 70 percent of all saves were of the three-out variety, but only 184 of 1,257 saves were four outs or more. Through April 26 of this season, 63 percent were three-out saves.

"I don't see why you have to run your bullpen conventionally," says Cincinnati's Jack McKeon, who guided his team to 96 wins last season, when 22 of the 46 saves posted by Danny Graves and Scott Williamson were four outs or more. The White Sox, with one of the most promising bullpens in baseball, are using Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry to close.

"If we ever got Mel Rojas back for the stretch, we might use five guys to finish when Derek isn't avaliable," says Kerrigan. Mel Rojas? After shoulder surgery, Rojas rehabbed and worked out for the Red Sox in the Dominican Republic and threw what Kerrigan called "lights out."

"We're the kings of projects," added Kerrigan. Indeed, Ramon Martinez is Boston's No. 2 starter. Bret Saberhagen is on his way back. Cormier was a rehab project. So was Pete Schourek. In Pawtucket, they're hoping former Devil Ray Julio Santana comes all the way back following surgery. If Rojas, Santana and Saberhagen do make it this season, they can call the New Fenway "St. Elsewhere."

A true sign of what's to come
Frank Robinson's swift, strong actions following the April 22 brawl between the Tigers and White Sox was another clear statement that now that Bud Selig has reconstructed the commissioner's office under the supervision of Sandy Alderson things are definitely going to be different.

Take the umpires. Once Alderson broke the rusted, corrupt umpires union and put all the arbiters under one roof, he set out to insure they hustle, huddle to get calls right (something the union used to frown on) and put an end to the confrontational approach so many umps had developed.

Early in the season, veteran umpire John Shulock refused to allow his three partners to overrule him on a ball he called a home run and his three partners all knew was foul. Shulock was jumped on by the commissioner's office. On April 23, third-base umpire Jerry Layne failed to hustle out to left field and missed a trap call in the Oakland-Baltimore game. He, too, was reprimanded, not because he missed the call, but because he didn't run out, as mandated.

In time, once the umpires have gotten used to their new crews and supervision, the commissioner's office will begin to address the strike zone. First attention -- the low strike.

Where once the strike zone was supposed to be the bottom of the knee, it uniformly has crept up to above the knee, and in this age of hitters and small ballparks, forcing the ball up is suicidal for many pitchers.

Oh yes. Alderson had the baseballs tested again at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, as he did last year when he was comparing the Mizuno ball used in the Pan Am Games and the Rawlings ball used in major league baseball. Tests showed what Rawlings has asserted for years -- that the balls are not really any different. "It's the hitters who have changed," says Alderson.

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