Nothing drains the spirit of a team more quickly, and more thoroughly, than squandering a lead when victory is in sight.
When it’s a team like the Mariners, with such a minuscule margin for error and for whom leads tend to be elusive in the first place, the pain is extra intense.
Just ask Tom Wilhelmsen, who takes the responsibility of closing to heart, and who wears the misery of a blown save on his sleeve.
“It’s the bleeping worst thing in the world,’’ he said after allowing a game to get away in Minnesota. “Letting your team down. There’s nothing else like it.”
Wilhelmsen’s recent spate of breakdowns — four blown saves since May 20, and a 14.85 earned-run average over his last eight outings — is the latest crisis to infiltrate this troubled Mariners’ season.
Wilhelmsen’s failure to protect a hard-earned 1-0 lead Wednesday, giving up five of the six Houston runs in the ninth, leaves the Mariners pondering the status of his role as closer. They open up a seven-game trip Friday in Oakland.
The trouble is, there are no alternatives available to manager Eric Wedge that would provide a clear-cut improvement to Wilhelmsen. Or, at least, to Wilhelmsen at his best, which is what he displayed for the first seven weeks of the season, when he converted 11 consecutive saves and racked up a dazzling 0.41 ERA.
At the end of May, in fact, the prevailing topic regarding Wilhelmsen was whether he would make the All-Star team, not whether he should remain as closer. But that was before he allowed a hit to the leadoff man in six of his last eight outings; before he walked nine in his last 62 / 3 innings, with just four strikeouts; before he allowed opponents to hit .360 off him in that span; before he lost the feel of his curveball and the command of his fastball.
In 2006, when Eddie Guardado faltered, the Mariners had J.J. Putz ready to slide in. In 2011, when David Aardsma got hurt, they had Brandon League as an alternative. And when League struggled last year, Wilhelmsen was an obvious choice to take over the closing duties.
No such evident options exist for Wedge, nor is there a budding closer brewing on the farm in Tacoma. The Mariners are high on 23-year-old right-hander Carson Smith, a likely closer of the future, but he’s just in his second pro season and still in Class AA Jackson.
On the current staff, Carter Capps has the high-octane fastball you look for from a closer, but left-handers have given him trouble (a 1.027 OPS) and he’s allowed five homers in 28 innings (none since May 7). Veteran lefty Oliver Perez is another option, but in my opinion, their best option is still getting Wilhelmsen straightened out.
Wilhelmsen is a mess, mentally and physically, but that’s an occupational hazard for closers not named Mariano Rivera. Wilhelmsen has also shown he has the capability to handle the job, which isn’t the case for everyone.
“Hey, the ninth inning is a different animal,” Wedge said after Wednesday’s collapse. “You saw it. The next two guys (Yoervis Medina and Charlie Furbush) struggled, too. We just have to get Tom driving the ball downstairs, missing down when he does miss. We’ll work on it.”
My hunch is that Wedge may give Wilhelmsen a breather, as he did with League in 2011 after a historically bad week in which he went 0-4 with three blown saves and 10 earned runs allowed in three innings. Jamey Wright, a journeyman right-hander, handled the closing duties temporarily, but League came back soon and converted 14 saves in a row (and 22 of his next 23). He made the All-Star team and finished with 37 saves.
Now, as then, I don’t see a longterm closing change imminent.
“You’ve got to be careful,” Wedge said Wednesday. “Any type of decision you make, you’ve got to make sure it’s the right one to do before you move forward, because you’re not going to bounce back and forth.”
When it comes to closer’s struggles, “you see it in baseball,’’ Wedge said. “What you have to do is try to nip it in the bud. Make sure you’re very aware of the mental side of things, make sure they’re honest with you about what they’re feeling mentally and mechanically, and work from there.”
Wedge called Wilhelmsen “pretty strong-minded. That’s why he’s had so much success so early, really, in his big-league career. We’ll get him back on track.’’
That’s a necessity to keep this beleaguered Mariners season from unraveling completely.