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Originally published May 15, 2011 at 7:30 PM | Page modified May 15, 2011 at 9:46 PM

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Steve Kelley

Others have earned shot at Mariners closer's role

Should Brandon League remain the Mariners' closer? Should he be demoted? Does it really matter?

Seattle Times staff columnist

Monday

Minnesota @ Seattle, 7:10 p.m., ROOT

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Should Brandon League remain the Mariners' closer? Should he be demoted? Does it really matter?

After the way he pitched last week League already should have lost his job. Four losses in a week, from a guy who only became a closer because of incumbent David Aardsma's arm problems, should have been enough for League to lose the job.

But it doesn't matter. Not in the context of what the Mariners are trying to do. It doesn't matter for this team that is building for about 2013 and beyond.

General manager Jack Zduriencik wasn't looking for a closer when he made the trade with Toronto. League always was expected to be a setup guy.

(Zduriencik was looking to build a bullpen, and by the way, he also got 22-year-old power-hitting outfield prospect Johermyn Chavez from the Blue Jays.

Chavez is struggling in the early season at Class AA Jackson — two home runs and 11 runs batted in in his first 134 plate appearances, a .238 batting average and .299 OBP. He has struck out 38 times in 33 games, but the Mariners are counting on him to be part of a brighter future.)

Seattle manager Eric Wedge said Saturday that League will remain the closer.

But League isn't a closer.

Closers are a different breed, as much about attitude as stuff. They have short memories and large egos. They want to pitch in every game that matters. They think the ninth inning should be sponsored by them. The ninth inning belongs to them.

Closers are all heavy metal. Trevor Hoffman charging into a ninth inning with AC/DC's "Hell's Bells" rumbling from the public-address system. J.J. Putz entering to AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" or Mariano Rivera coming into the game to the sounds of Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

Closers have nicknames like "Goose" and "The Mad Hungarian" and "The Beard."

Closers are Brian Wilson scowling like Rasputin, or Rivera looking cool as October. Most have one pitch that they throw over and over again, until a hitter begs for mercy.

Rivera's cutter. Brad Lidge's slider. Jose Valverde's 100 mph heat. Trevor Hoffman's changeup.

They don't walk anybody. And they challenge everybody.

Sure, with the exception of Lidge's perfect 2008 season, every closer stumbles. And every bad inning is magnified because it is the difference between winning and losing.

When a closer fails, his save is "blown." The term makes it sound as if this one reliever detonated an entire game. There may not be a more humiliating term in sports.

Closer is a killer of a job.

You get one inning, maybe 20 to 30 pitches, to save a game. And the difference between coming into a game in the eighth inning or the ninth is like the difference between frozen yogurt and filet mignon.

Closers have to breathe fire and confidence. They have to come into the ninth with their teammates believing the game is over.

For a team like the Mariners, who consider a walk, a hit batsman and a wild pitch a big offensive inning, there is no margin for error. Almost every game seems like a forced march, and every win feels like a keepsake.

League needs a break. He lost four games last week, blew three saves and had a 30.00 earned-run average. In one week he brought back all of the unhappy memories of Bobby Ayala.

While giving League a vote of confidence, Wedge also said he would evaluate the closer position day by day.

There are others in what has been a surprisingly deep bullpen who have earned the right to step into the brave new world of the ninth inning.

David Pauley has allowed only three runs in 23-1/3 innings. Aaron Laffey has a 1.35 ERA in 20 innings. And the most likely to relieve League, veteran Jamey Wright, has given up only four earned runs in 18-1/3 innings.

But really, the Mariners' closer for 2011 is like one of those people at the Academy Awards who sits in the seats of the stars when the stars leave to make a phone call or to take a bathroom break. League or Wright or whomever is a placeholder.

The relievers who ultimately will decide whether this latest Mariners reconstruction effort is a success are Josh Fields at Class AA Jackson and Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke at Class AAA Tacoma.

Because the ninth innings that really matter still are years away.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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