Eddie wants ball with game on line
Column by The Post's Lonnie Wheeler
The younger fellow in the next locker had earned the chance to close out games, unearned it, and said all the right things in every circumstance. It doesn't matter what role he's put in, Todd Coffey politely repeated every time he was asked.
But to 35-year-old Eddie Guardado, the pluggish left-hander with 179 saves to his everlasting credit, make no mistake, it matters very much. It matters so much, in fact, that when he lost the closer role earlier this year with the Seattle Mariners, Guardado lost a lot more along with it. Namely, his pride. His confidence. His edge.
What the Reds have done is give all that back to him. To be sure, they acquired Everyday Eddie - he once pitched in 12 straight games for the Minnesota Twins, and was ready on the 13th - out of desperation. Jerry Narron had been summoning his relievers with one hand and covering his eyes with the other. It was that bad.
Guardado, though, doesn't care why he's out there with the game at stake. Just that he is.
"When Wayne Krivsky and Jerry Narron told me, 'Hey, you've got the ball in the ninth,' right there and then I knew I was going to be OK," said the two-time All-Star and holder of the Twins' single-season saves record. "That was a good feeling.
"Being a closer, there's nothing like it. You're the last man standing out there trying to get the final three outs. It's exciting, a do-or-die situation. You live for that. At least I do."
And that's why the reordering of the Reds' bullpen - a freshening of talent and shifting of assignments that Wednesday night resulted in seven scoreless innings against the New York Mets - began with a guy who's a little advanced in years and lagging behind on the radar gun. Krivsky, employed by the Twins for all the years that Guardado was, well knows that, in spite of a passing resemblance in girth, it wasn't Goose Gossage he brought here. Note that they never called him Easy Eddie. For him, nothing has ever been that, except maybe Wednesday's 1-2-3 save, his fourth in as many tries for Cincinnati.
As Reds pitcher Joe Mays, a former Minnesota teammate and one of Guardado's biggest fans, put it, "He's not a guy who has overpowering stuff. He just has a huge heart and goes out and puts everything he has on the line every night.
"I don't want this to sound the wrong way, but he's got nothing special. What he does have is an enormous set of ... well, whatever you want to call them."
Those, so far, have proven unfailingly adequate, a development for which Reds fans were so starved that Sunday, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and a 6-3 lead over Colorado, the crowd began to chant "Eddie! Eddie!" So prompted, he naturally surrendered a home run to light-hitting Clint Barmes. Just as predictably, he ended the game by getting Todd Helton to ground out.
"It reminded me of the old Minnesota days," reflected the friendly Californian who grew up in a window-barred section of Stockton, playing ball on a field where he saw people shot and stabbed, which gives a fellow some perspective on pressure. "We'd have about 55,000-plus yelling my name. One time (in 2002), we were in the playoffs against Anaheim, and it was sold out, and Joe Mays pitched eight really good innings and they brought me in for the ninth. Talk about butterflies. I had some big dragons in there."
The other part of the story is that Mays had retired 13 straight batters and led the Angels 2-1 in the game of his life, and the Twins manager, Ron Gardenhire, asked him how he felt about finishing. Ordinarily, that would be the starting pitcher's cue to curl his lip and mutter no way, no how, is he coming out of there.
"I said," said Mays, "that Eddie's been doing a good job all year and this is his role. I just said, 'Eddie's the man.'''
It was the only game Minnesota won in that series, and it was a testimony to a closer with the right stuff and no other kind to speak of. The confidence was well-placed. Guardado, who now has 56 more saves than all the Reds' other relievers combined, led the American League with 45 that season, and followed it with 41 the next. For Seattle last year, he had 36.
For Seattle this year, he had five and blew nearly as many. He lost the trust of his manager and the support of his chanters. In middle relief, he was rudderless. In long relief, he was miserable. He was a late-inning junkie who had to have his pressure fix.
"I've been with Wayne Krivsky for a long time, so he knew what I could do," said Everyday, whom the Mariners were so untroubled about losing that they accepted a minor-league pitcher in exchange and sent Cincinnati a big chunk of salary. "When the Reds picked me up and gave me that opportunity, it made my confidence way higher because you know you're wanted. You know they got you for a reason, and that's to come in here and close some games out."
Maybe he'll continue to do that, and Coffey - who picked up the come-from-behind victory Wednesday night for his work in the eighth inning - will regain the touch he demonstrated in the setup role and everything will fall into place and the fans will be screaming "Eddie!" in the playoffs again. Maybe not.
At the least, the younger fellow in the next locker will pick up a thing or two - will develop, perhaps, the dire desire to close, and the attitude that nothing, in his profession, can take its place - and do better next time.