It was early on a spring-training day before the season, around 7:30 a.m., to be precise. Florida Marlins reliever Todd Jones was in the clubhouse eating a fried-egg sandwich the size of a brick. He was with his sixth team in three years -- but, as always, he was smiling, laughing and being Todd Jones. The subject of steroids came up. Jones said, "As long as they don't test for Little Debbies, I'm OK.''
There was nothing to suggest that February day that Jones, now age 37, would be the most influential newcomer on a pennant contender in 2005. There are two dozen other worthy candidates, including Braves pitcher Jorge Sosa (13-3, 2.45 ERA), but Jones is one of the big reasons the Marlins are still in the National League wild-card race. Entering this season, Florida was a contender in the NL East, but only if it could replace closer Armando Benitez, who had left via free agency. Guillermo Mota struggled early in that role, then got hurt, so manager Jack McKeon turned to Jones.
And he's been brilliant. Jones has 37 saves (his streak of 27 straight successful saves recently ended) and a 1.60 ERA. In 67-2/3 innings, he has allowed 52 hits, walked 13 and struck out 57, thanks in part to a fastball that has been clocked in the area of 95 mph, amazing for a guy his age. Mota is healthy, but there's no way he's going to close with the way Jones has thrown the ball.
"I don't know where we'd be without him,'' McKeon said of Jones.
The save total shouldn't come as a surprise. Jones entered this year with 186 career saves, including three seasons of at least 30. In 2000, with Detroit, he led the American League with 42, the club record for saves in a season. This season, following a four-year period in which he saved a total of only 16 games, Jones joined Todd Worrell, Mike Marshall, Gregg Olson and Doug Jones as the only pitchers to go five years between 30-save seasons.
Todd Jones credits much of his success this year to his catcher, Paul Lo Duca. "I throw four pitches for strikes,'' Jones said. "I used to have every at-bat mapped out, using all my pitches: First-pitch fastball away, second pitch ... etc. It was a four-step process. What Paul has done is take me from step one to step four. It has been working really well.''
How often has Jones shaken off Lo Duca?
"Not once all year,'' Jones said.
Jones says his stuff is also better now. "When I was in Colorado [in 2002-03], I didn't throw my sinker because it didn't sink there -- now I've got it back,'' Jones said. "And my cutter is better than it was last year, for some reason. And my elbow and arm feel stronger.''
Jones has been with Colorado, Boston, Tampa Bay, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Florida the last three years. The Rockies released him in 2003, the Devil Rays did so in spring training last year.
"I don't think I was told the truth in Tampa Bay,'' he said. "[Manager] Lou [Piniella] and [general manager] Chuck [LaMar] told me I'd have to pitch myself off the team. I gave up two runs in nine innings, and got released. In Colorado, I had a good year in '02, but in May of '03, I gave up runs in 17 of 18 appearances. I was awful. Colorado was great. They said, 'Help us help you.' But I was so bad, they had to let me go.''
Jones had an excellent year in Cincinnati in 2004, which is why the Marlins signed him this past offseason. Now he's the closer in a pennant race for the first time in his career.
"This is great,'' he said. "I never had this opportunity in Detroit.''
He has come a long way from the strong-armed kid at Jacksonville State University who asked Jeff Brantley, then a major-league pitcher, "Do you know how to throw a breaking ball?'' Now Jones is a polished pitcher who isn't spooked by the ninth inning of a close game. The column that he has written for three years for The Sporting News called "The Closer" has extra meaning these days.
"When I was in Colorado,'' Jones said, "the guys had fun with it ['The Closer' column] ... it was my job as the set-up guy to keep the game 'closer' -- same spelling, different pronunciation. When I was a long man, the guys had some fun with it, as well. ... We were usually behind by about 15 runs, and the game was close to being over.''
Now it's back to its original pronunciation: "The Closer." That is Todd Jones of the Florida Marlins.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.