Coming into a close game in the eighth inning isn’t an easy thing for a closer. But as the Yomiuri Giants’ Marc Kroon can attest to, you don’t catch many breaks in October.
“It’s definitely different,” Kroon said after notching a four-out save to preserve the Giants’ 6-4 win over the Chunichi Dragons in the Climax Series on Thursday. “As a closer your mind-set is one inning. But no one said it’s just a one-inning job. Sometimes you’re asked, but if you’re lucky you don’t have to do it very often.
“But it’s not the easiest thing to do, especially for a guy like me, who is a little older now. To go out there and have to come back inside and sit for five or 10 minutes and then go back out there again is difficult.”
Closers are a team’s last line of defense and the role takes on greater emphasis in the postseason. The first game of the Pacific League Climax Series second stage on Wednesday serves as a shining example of that.
Given a four-run lead, Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles closer Kazuo Fukumori gave up five runs in the ninth inning of a 9-8 loss to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
The result gave the Fighters a 2-0 lead in the series instead of pulling the Eagles into a much more manageable 1-1 tie. Kroon still hasn’t seen the highlights from that game because he “hates to see a closer give up five runs,” but is acutely aware of the pressure relievers face in the playoffs.
“Any time as a closer, there’s going to be pressure in the ninth inning,” Kroon said. “I try to approach every game — from the first game of the season to the last game I play — one way and one way only. That’s to go out there and get a save.”
With so much on the line, game situations play a key factor in how closers go about their business. What team they’re facing, who the top batters are and where the game is being played, are all things that factor into a closer’s thinking on the mound. Depending on all the variables, Kroon said at times he actually sometimes prefers facing the middle of a team’s lineup, where the power hitters reside, late in a game.
“Sometimes when you face the middle of the order, they don’t tend to bunt the next guy because he has power, or they don’t do much hitting and running,” Kroon said. “Whereas when you face the bottom of the order, the leadoff hitter gets a hit, then they start bunting and moving runners into scoring position easier.”
In his fifth year in Japan, Kroon has already established himself as one of the top closers to play on this side of the Pacific. His 152 career saves are the most by a foreign pitcher and eighth all-time in NPB history.
Kroon is now in his second year with the Giants, and getting his second taste of playoff baseball in Japan after helping Yomiuri reach the Japan Series last season.
“I do whatever I have to do to go out and get a save,” Kroon said. “I’m not a very good ERA pitcher but my theory is real simple. You’re winning by three, you give up two, we win. Game over.
“I don’t like to give up runs period, but I have to do what I have to do to make sure I get out there and save the game for the team.”