When people say baseball is dying, that it lacks stars or that TV ratings are low and nobody cares about the World Series, I simply suggest that I don't know what they're talking about. I suggest that it doesn't matter that baseball doesn't have its LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Peyton Manning. Baseball fans don't need stars to follow; we follow the game. We follow our team, living and dying and sometimes forgetting to breathe six or seven days a week.
Like Manny Machado, the 20-year-old third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, who impressed in his 51 games with the team last season. He was off to a slow start, hitting less than .200 with just one RBI when he stepped into the batter's box with two outs in the ninth inning at Fenway Park on Wednesday, the Red Sox leading 5-4 but the bases loaded.
Joel Hanrahan quickly removed some of the pressure from Machado, throwing a slider in the dirt that went to the backstop, allowing the tying run to score. The next pitch was a 95 mph fastball, up and in, and Machado flicked it into the second row -- quick hands! -- of the Green Monster seats for a three-run homer and that joyful trot around the bases that ends with 30 teammates and coaches celebrating as you return to the dugout. It was a 2012-like moment for the Orioles. It's one of many huge moments Machado will deliver this year.
"It was a huge win for us," Machado said. "To come out with the victory is just going to give us the big boost that we needed to get this show rolling."
It was also a 2012-like moment for the Red Sox, who suffered eight losses in games they were leading heading into the ninth inning last year, tied for second-most in the majors behind the Brewers. That's why they acquired Proven Closer -- capital P, capital C -- Hanrahan, who saved 76 games the previous two seasons for the Pirates.
But here's the truth of the matter: Hanrahan originally earned the coveted Proven Closer title as much with good timing (the Pirates needed a closer) as good pitching (he'd posted a 3.62 ERA in 2010). He did have a good season in 2011, when he minimized walks and allowed just one home run. But his numbers last year weren't that impressive once you look beyond the 36 saves: 36 walks and eight home runs allowed in 59 2/3 innings. His 128 strikeouts over 128 1/3 innings the past two seasons don't necessarily scream "dominant" for a late-inning reliever. Among all pitchers with at least 100 innings over that two-year span, Hanrahan's strikeout percentage (percentage of all batters faced that he struck out) ranks 56th. His batting average allowed does rank 20th, but his WHIP ranks 59th. He's a decent reliever with some control issues and possible home run issues, at least based on 2012.
On the pitch to Machado, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia set up low and away. Hanrahan missed on the low part and the away part. Machado didn't miss.
The inning began when Chris Davis -- aka "Crush," aka "Mr. First Week" -- sent a 1-2 slider into the first row in dead center for his fifth home run and 18th run batted in. Davis has been locked in on the outside part of the plate; apparently the Red Sox missed the scouting report. (When our ESPN Stats & Information group pointed out Davis' hot spot, Curt Schilling suggested the smart teams will start trying to pitch Davis hard stuff inside.)
Hanrahan then got himself into trouble when Ryan Flaherty singled with two outs, and Nolan Reimold and Nate McLouth walked. This is where the whole concept of Proven Closer drives me crazy. Managers will mix and match to death in the seventh and eighth innings, then ignore matchup advantages in the ninth. That's fine if your closer is Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman or Mariano Rivera or a few others, but Hanrahan isn't in that class. The Proven Closer always gets to work out of the jam -- or, in this case, not work out of it. John Farrell had an obvious platoon advantage against McLouth, a left-hander who can't hit lefties, with Andrew Miller, a lefty who kills lefties, in the pen. (Buck Showalter did have Steve Pearce as a possible pinch-hitting option.)
Look, it's just one blown save, and the Red Sox still have a strong pen with Andrew Bailey, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara (who combined for three hitless innings in the game). Frankly, it doesn't really matter all that much who pitches the ninth inning; Hanrahan could have just as easily blown the game in the eighth inning if he wasn't the closer. And even mediocre closers can have a successful save percentage. As one example, Frank Francisco was the closer much of last season for the Mets and had a 5.53 ERA. The Mets still managed to lose just two games they led heading into the ninth.
But for Red Sox fans, it was a painful reminder of the bullpen issues of 2012. I suspect Hanrahan will be just fine, although he does have a former Proven Closer in Bailey as his primary setup man. There's no need for Farrell to panic after one bad outing.
If I were the Red Sox, what I'd be more worried about is the Orioles. If Machado hits, and with the way Davis is proving last year wasn't a fluke, this is a lineup that might be better than many projected. And if the Orioles get that late-inning magic going again, watch out.