There are fewer things more frustrating to baseball managers, players and fans than watching a lead slip away in the ninth inning.
Which is why it’s a good time for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters and Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles to start reviewing their options as Fighters closer Hisashi Takeda and Eagles fireman Kazuo Fukumori struggle.
Even though a 144-game season is more marathon than sprint — as managers love to point out — not much good comes from tripping over your own feet at the starting line.
The Fighters are 1-4-1 to begin the year, thanks in part to Takeda’s troubles.
He gave up a go-ahead homer to Nobuhiro Matsuda of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in the 11th inning of a game the Fighters would go on to lose 2-1 on March 21.
His encore was a horrific trip to Chiba Marine stadium last weekend, where on consecutive days he coughed up a pair of two-run leads against the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Takeda has given up six earned runs over 2 2/3 innings for an 0-2 record, a pair of blown saves and a 20.25 ERA in three appearances.
The road has been no less rocky for Fukumori, whose team is 1-4.
The Rakuten closer gave up a pair of runs to the Orix Buffaloes to blow a save in the final frame of his first outing of the season, a 5-4 loss on March 21.
Fukumori then fell apart and yielded three runs in the Eagles’ homer opener against the Seibu Lions on March 27, a 6-4 defeat.
Both developments are troubling for a pair of teams that finished first and second in the Pacific League last season.
Relievers aren’t as hard to come by, but reliable closers don’t just fall out of the sky.
As easy as the role looks from the outside — get three outs then hit the showers — it takes a special mind-set to handle the rigors of a job where the margin for error is often microscopic day in and day out.
A good closer helps a team’s psyche and takes some of the strain off the rotation. A bad one does the opposite.
With that in mind, it’s important that both clubs address their shortcomings in the ninth inning now, rather than let things play out.
Nippon Ham appears set to turn to Brian Wolfe (no runs and two holds in three appearances) in the ninth.
Though Fighters fans will remember, with some consternation, the team traded away a perfectly good closer in Micheal Nakamura, who racked up 102 saves in four seasons, two years ago.
Fukumori has been demoted to ni-gun, but the cupboard looks bare in Sendai, where the team has struggled with ineffective bullpens for years.
Being realistic, closers are not perfect and from time to time they’re going to let a few games get away.
It’s when their inability to hold a lead becomes a trend, rather than an aberration, that it’s time to make a change. No matter how early in the season it is.