|Friday, July 12
No longer Everyday, Guardado now closing the deal
By Alan Schwarz
Special to ESPN.com
Eddie Guardado is mad. His eyes deepen in his head as he relives a conversation with his agent, Kevin Kohler, from about 10 days ago.
"Hey Kev, I made the All-Star team!" Guardado said.
"That's great. Congratulations, man."
"Yeah, thanks. Hey, I have a bonus for that, right?"
"I don't know. Let me check."
"Wuddaya mean, let me check?"
(Painfully long pause as papers shuffle in background.)
"Uh ... Eddie, you didn't want it."
"Oh, so I didn't want it, huh?"
"Uh ... "
"You know what? You're fired."
With that, Guardado slammed down the phone. He waited 30 seconds or so, gave himself a giggle, and called his agent back.
"Ah, I'm just kidding, man. It's OK. I never thought I'd make the All-Star Game, either."
Sure enough, imagining Twins closer Eddie Guardado as anything but jovial has to be a joke in itself. No modern ballplayer goes through life in a consistently better mood. Bearing a striking resemblance to the portly and smiley Kool-Aid jug, the 6-foot and (at least) 200-pound Guardado also has a little Pillsbury Dough Boy in him; you could probably poke him in the belly and get a "Hoo-hoo!" in return.
His pitching has made for plenty of smiles, too -- his 27 saves entering the second half lead the American League, in his first full season as a closer, making him one of the most surprising elements on the never short-for-surprises Twins. Perhaps most shocking is how he never bothered to score the standard 50 grand for making the All-Star team -- in an era when ballplayers stitch bending-at-the-waist bonuses into their contracts, Guardado, a career setup man, couldn't imagine vaulting into the closer elite.
"I never thought in my wildest dreams I'd be an All-Star in the major leagues," says Guardado, a 31-year-old California native. "I enjoyed what I was doing. But when the manager comes in and says, 'You wanna be my man?', I'm ready for the challenge."
What Guardado had been doing for most of the last seven years was rolling through life as "Everyday Eddie," a lefty-versus-lefty specialist who came in for a batter or two just about every other game for the Twins. But last season LaTroy Hawkins' disintegration as the Minnesota closer prompted then-manager Tom Kelly to try Guardado in that role -- he went 12-for-14, and new skipper Ron Gardenhire saw no reason to change back this spring.
Guardado responded by converting each of his 14 save opportunities to open the season, and still has blown just three of 30. His other statistics -- despite being used less often for a specific batter against whom he matches up particularly well -- are the best of his career: Just 32 hits and 10 walks in 42 innings, with 45 strikeouts and a 2.79 ERA.
Guardado doesn't have a Wagner fastball, Rivera cutter or Nen slider; he throws 89-90 mph with an assortment of curveballs, sliders and a new split-finger he added recently. He changes angles more than a desk lamp and uses a delivery where his front shoulder tends to hide the ball incredibly well, adding to the deception.
"He's funky," Devil Rays All-Star Randy Winn says. "All of a sudden the ball's on you, like, 'Where'd that come from?' " On an 0-2 pitch in Minnesota, Winn watched helplessly as Guardado dropped down sidearm and whipped something -- who knows what it was -- inside. Strikeout looking? "Oh yeah," Winn groans.
Guardado's animation on the mound has made him perhaps the most popular Twin. A sprawling catch of a foul ball left teammates calling him "The Flying Burrito." Metrodome crowds giddily chant "Ed-die! Ed-die!" whenever trouble strikes and he rolls into the game.
Having arrived, he acts nothing like today's robotic closers -- he's got a lot more Al Hrabosky, his favorite player growing up. "He'll be out there throwing the resin bag, grabbing some places he shouldn't be grabbing," laughs his catcher, fellow All-Star A.J. Pierzynski. "He'll stick his tongue out -- I think at me. I don't know." Actually, the tongue thing is from Guardado's going to his mouth so often during and after the resin antics that he's sapped of all saliva. "By the second hitter, I've got nothing," he explains.
Perhaps in his mouth, but his arm has plenty -- Guardado is going past the second hitter better than ever. He's averaging more than an inning per appearance (42 in 41) after usually facing just two or three batters per game as a middle man. And he's still keeping up the heavy workload, his 41 appearances ranking second (to Billy Koch's 44) among American League firemen. One of just three left-handed closers in the majors today -- Houston's Billy Wagner and Montreal's Scott Stewart are the others -- Guardado has an outside shot at breaking Randy Myers' lefty record of 53 saves for the 1993 Cubs.
"He doesn't have premium-type stuff, but Eddie is as good as they come right now," Angels manager Mike Scioscia says. "He can make pitches when a situation gets hot and not get scared off a pitch if one guy hits him. He's all about, 'Hey, I'm gonna make a pitch and you're gonna have to hit it.' He trusts his stuff to get the job done."
He also trusts his ability to get over blown saves. After nailing down wins two days in a row, on July 2 Guardado coughed up a game-winning homer to Oakland's Olmedo Saenz, but then convinced Gardenhire to send him out the next day as well -- his fourth straight game. He retired all three A's he faced in the ninth to preserve the Twins' 2-1 victory.
Guardado survives the living-on-the-edge closer's job not by ignoring the inevitable failures but by reminding himself of them constantly, enjoying the ups and downs. "Every day I come to the ballpark I prepare to come in and close the game, but always with the mind that I could blow this one. It's gonna happen," he says. "I prepare for the worst."
Meanwhile, the hitters he faces have to prepare for one of the best. Even if he's short that 50 grand, The Flying Burrito is sky high.
Alan Schwarz is the Senior Writer of Baseball America magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.