BY John Hickey 03:49PM 05/14/2011

Hickey: Did Aardsma news rattle Brandon League?

League’s tumble as closer started at almost the same time news that former closer David Aardsma still had a long rehab in front of him. Coincidence? Maybe not.

It has been a dire week for Mariners closer Brandon League. / Jared Wickerham, Getty Images

It was just a week ago that the Mariners got the word that closer David Aardsma wasn’t going to be back anytime soon.

Aardsma, a 30-saves guy the past two seasons, was on an injury rehabilitation assignment with Triple-A Tacoma, normally the last step for an injured player before returning to full health and the big leagues.

Then came word. Aardsma’s left hip, operated on in January, was feeling better. His right elbow, on the other hand, was giving him problems.  He had an MRI on the elbow.

Although Seattle tried to keep a brave face on it, it was clear that just by having the need for an MRI that Aardsma’s return was going to be delayed.

The man filling in for Aardsma, Brandon League, had been a near-perfect replacement. He converted all nine save chances.

There was talk that there was no need to hurry along Aardsma, because League was finding success. The backdrop, however, was the fact that League had never been a closer consistently, and last year in the late innings he was just 6-for-12 in save opportunities.

When news got out that Aardsma’s return was at least a month away, League imploded. On May 8, he was asked to pitch the ninth and 10th innings of a 2-2 game against the White Sox. The ninth was fine. The 10th was a three-run disaster that cost the Mariners a winnable game.

Two days later, Seattle had a 6-5 lead in the 13th inning in Baltimore that manager Eric Wedge turned over to League. After an out, he gave up two runs and the Mariners lost 7-6.

Two days later, the Mariners scored a run in the top of the 12th to take a 1-0 lead with a chance to salvage one win in Camden Yards. A single, two hit batters, one great diving stop by shortstop Luis Rodriguez and a two-run single by J.J. Hardy later, the Mariners were 2-1 losers.

That gets us to Friday, where Seattle took a 4-2 lead into the bottom of the ninth in Cleveland. League took over again. Double, double and RBI, two grounders and a game-losing homer to dead center, this one off the bat of slumping Travis Hafner of the Indians.

It’s easy to see a trend,. But it’s more than that. Much more. Managers and pitching coaches will say both privately (always) and publicly (sometimes) that good closers have a special quality about them, a quirk of personality that makes them right for the job.

It’s about handling pressure and bouncing back from adversity.

It’s one thing to face the middle of the lineup in the eighth inning while trying to hold a lead. It’s another thing to face the same hitters in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings while trying to close it out.

It may well be that League hasn’t yet learned the difference. As long as he was keeping the closer’s role warm for Aardsma, there was less pressure. Yes, the games League closed out the first month were important, but it was a take-it-one-day-at-a-time thing.

Has the knowledge that he was going to have to replace Aardsm a– out for six weeks at a minimum and possibly the rest of the season as he rests, then rehabilitates his elbow – tainted League’s approach to the closing job?

Is it as simple as saying he doesn’t yet have a closer’s mentality? I’m beginning to think so.

If that’s the case, where do the Mariners go from here? They don’t seem to have anyone better suited for the job.

That’s a scary thought with three-quarters of the 2011 season left.

Twitter:@JHickey3


YourThoughts

  • Bayviewherb

    Well, good news today. Two rainouts precluded two more blown saves by the Mariner bullpen.