05/13/2002 07:36 am ET
Williams key to Bucs' early success
By Ed Eagle / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH-- When fans of the game debate over who are the top closers in baseball, names such as Mariano Rivera, Robb Nen and Trevor Hoffman are likely to be mentioned. One player who has not received much attention outside of Pittsburgh for his ability to finish off an opponent is Mike Williams of the Pirates.
It has been quite a ride for Williams, 33, during his 13-year professional career. Drafted in the fourth round by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1990, within two years Williams was making his Major League debut as a starter. But he spent the next five seasons shuttling between the Phillies and their Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre team, never quite able to become established as a big leaguer.
After going 6-14 with a 5.44 ERA in 1996, Williams was signed by the Boston Red Sox as a minor league free agent, but was released less than a month later. He was then signed by the Kansas City Royals and his career as a starter was essentially over.
"I didn't pitch well enough to start," recalled Williams. "I was down in the bullpen with Kansas City and I have been pitching in the bullpen since then."
Unlike many starters who object to what they consider a demotion to the relief corps, Williams took the change as an opportunity to continue his big league career.
"I just wanted to pitch so it didn't really matter," said Williams "At first, since I had been a starter my whole minor league career and in college, I guess I was a little disappointed. But once I got here to Pittsburgh and had some success I liked it."
Indeed, it was as a member of the Pirates, with whom he had inked a minor league deal prior to the 1998 season, that Williams first established himself. He was 4-2 with a 1.94 ERA in 1998 and, after Rich Loiselle went down with arm problems in 1999, Williams got his first opportunity as a closer.
Because Williams did not throw the overpowering fastball that is a trademark for so many of the games' top closers, few saw him as a long-term answer in that role. But what Williams had discovered in his repertoire off pitches was a devastating slider that few opponents seemed to be able to either lay off of or hit.
"I have always thrown the slider," said Williams. "I don't know when I realized that it was my bread-and-butter pitch. But it was probably '98 that I realized that I could throw it and not be afraid to walk a guy.
"From coming here and having success with it, I wasn't afraid to throw it in certain situations. I wasn't scared to throw it and walk a guy or make him chase a pitch."
Williams' catcher believes that his "bread-and-butter" is in a class by itself.
"I get to see it every day and I'd say that it's the best in the game," said Bucs backstop Jason Kendall. "But that's probably me being a little biased, too."
The Pirates' manager couldn't agree more with Kendall's assessment.
"He has probably one of the most deceptive sliders because his spin is so hard to pick up," said skipper Lloyd McClendon. "But I think the thing that is making him even better this year is that he is using his fastball and changeup more. Guys just can’t sit back and look down and in. He's not as predictable."
Williams has certainly seemed to step his game up a notch this season. Though he racked up a respectable 69 saves from 1999-2001, good for third on the Bucs' all-time list, he has been nearly untouchable in the first six weeks of this season. Williams is 13-for-13 in save attempts for the surprising Pirates and was awarded the NL Rolaids Relief Award for the month of April.
Though pleased to be acknowledged as a top closer, Williams is more concerned with the team's overall success.
"It was nice," Williams said of the recognition. "But I really don't care about all of that stuff as long as we are winning. That's all I care about. "I know if I do my job then we are successful as a team here. I just want to win."
Williams got his first taste of team success when he was sent to Houston last season at the trade deadline. While Williams served as a set-up man for Billy Wagner with the Astros, the Pirates struggled to find someone to fill his role at the end of their own bullpen.
"You need a guy who can finish out a game," said Pirates bullpen coach Bruce Tanner. "As soon as he left we were looking for a guy who could finish out games on a consistent basis."
When Williams re-signed with Pittsburgh as a free agent in the off-season, he was able to reprise his role as a closer.
"I don't think that we can ever doubt that Mike Williams always wanted to close," said McClendon. "I don't he would be happy doing anything else. If he was he probably would have stayed with [Houston]."
McClendon is also the first to credit Williams for the role he has played in helping the Pirates bullpen to become the strength of the team.
"He's just as important as anybody [on the team]," said McClendon. "Being on the back end of the bullpen, he not only closes games, but he allows everyone else to be put into the slots that they should be.
"He is not conventional but he gets it done."
Ed Eagle covers the Pittsburgh Pirates for MLB.Com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.