In the big inning: Yes, the ninth is different
Getting a game's final three outs presents a host of challenges to relievers
On the night of April 14, at Citizens Bank Park, the Braves led the Phillies going into the eighth inning by a score of 2-1.
Final score: Braves 9, Phillies 6.
Part of the reason for the abrupt change in the tenor of the game was that neither team's closer was available. Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel had a tender shoulder. Philadelphia's Jonathan Papelbon needed a night off.
So Phils manager Ryne Sandberg, his team having scored five runs in the bottom of the eighth to take a 6-5 lead, gave the ball to Jake Diekman, who had made five straight scoreless appearances, in the top of the ninth. Diekman gave up four runs and was charged with both a blown save and the loss.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez shook his head afterward.
"It seemed like almost two different games," he said. "They didn't want to run Papelbon out there for a fourth day in a row. They had to use somebody else. So for all those people out there who say anybody can close in the ninth inning? It's a different animal."
The Ninth Inning. It's one of the most portentous phrases in baseball, right up there with The Seventh Game.
There's no tangible reason why anything should change in the ninth. There are still three outs in the inning. The mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches from the plate, which is still 17 inches wide. It shouldn't be different. But it is.
Shawn Kelley has been used mostly as a setup reliever by the Yankees the past two years. Earlier this season, though, with closer David Robertson on the disabled list, he went 4-for-4 in save opportunities.
Tyler Clippard is the go-to setup man for the Nationals. He had 33 holds last season. But in 2012, Clippard had 32 saves as the team's closer.
Both Kelley and Clippard said that the key to having success in the ninth is to convince yourself that there's no difference at all.
"The mentality of the ninth is that you have to do your best to look at it as just another inning. Because, realistically, if you let all that pressure build up, if you think, 'Hey, everything that's transpired is now on my shoulders, I can ruin this,'" Kelley said. "Really, I try to take whatever role I'm in as that I've got X amount of outs to get. You take it one pitch at a time, one batter at a time, one out at a time. And you go from there."
"I've always been adamant about that, when you're in those situations, you have to approach them like it's any other inning," Clippard said. "That kind of puts you mentally in the right state of mind to get through those big moments."
Of course, saying that it's important to treat the ninth the same as any other is a tacit admission that, in reality, it isn't the same.
"There's a little bit more mental pressure knowing that it's all on your shoulders," Kelley said. "These are the final three outs. That team is going to do whatever it can. Bunting. Stealing. They're going to play those last three outs like it's Game 7 of the World Series. You get everybody at their best. You get the guy who's ready to pinch-hit off the bench.
"I think that's the mental-toughness part. The guys who have had success doing it, who you've seen do it year after year, they don't change that approach. They go into it as, 'Hey, this is my moment. It's where I'm supposed to be, I'm going to make my pitches and we're going to get out of here with the win.' Guys who allow themselves to feel the pressure of it or put too much pressure on themselves or think of it as this whole different monster just make the job that much tougher."
"The ninth inning is special because it's the last stand," Clippard said. "I mean, if you get the job done, your team is going to win the game. That's why it's so special. That's why everybody is watching that inning, because it's the last three outs of the game. ... When you're up by three or less runs going toward the end of the game, every out is huge. You really have to simplify it as much as you can, because those moments are so big."
Mariners catcher John Buck has played for six teams in his 11-year big league career. He's seen pitchers who have been able to make the transition and others who haven't.
"The intensity level goes up," Buck said. "The hitters up their concentration level, just because they know it's do or die. Sometimes they're a lot more patient. They're not as aggressive, so all of a sudden their strike zone [narrows] down because they're trying to take a walk or just get on base somehow. So the pitcher has got to be able to put on the blinders and fight through all that stuff."
In Buck's experience, pitchers who have had success in the seventh and eighth but struggle in the ninth don't get in trouble because they have lesser stuff than the others. Sometimes their command isn't as good, suggesting that they might be pressing, but that's not always it, either.
"Sometimes all of a sudden, because it's the ninth inning, they get a little erratic because they try harder or whatever. I've seen that in the past," Buck said. "It's usually not because their stuff is less or more or anything like that. It's usually because of how they deal with the heightened intensity of that situation.
"But there are all sorts of different scenarios. Sometimes it's just circumstance, luck of the draw. They've still got good stuff but it's just a grenade, bloops, stuff like that. It depends. Just because a guy walks, it's hard to give a reason without having a situation."
The Phillies, by the way, continue to have high hopes for Diekman, believing he has closer's stuff. Sandberg pointed out that night back in April that he was throwing 98 mph.
"He just couldn't quite find the zone to get ahead in the count," the manager said.
It happens. Especially in the ninth inning.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.