PHILADELPHIA -- Part of being a closer, the most mentally taxing job in baseball and perhaps all of sports, is knowing that eventually it will be your turn to fail. Sooner or later, a ball is hit where they ain't, or an outfielder loses a ball in the lights, or a hitter who knew exactly what you were about to do rips a game-winning double into the gap, and then you lose.And when that happens, you look very much like Jonathan Broxton did just before midnight on Monday: head down, shoulders slumped, eyes on the ground, the pain of defeat stabbing you anew with every step and with every cheer of the crowd.
There have been times this month when Broxton has looked something close to unhittable, armed as he is with an often overpowering fastball that regularly reaches triple digits on the radar gun. But this postseason has been open season on closers, and in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, the grim reaper came for Broxton, the Dodgers hulking and husky closer with the live arm and, he and his teammates hope, a short memory. But even though five of his fellow firemen have had a similar sensation in these playoffs, none of the previous blown saves came with quite the sense of ownership that Broxton must feel for the Dodgers' 5-4 loss to the Phillies.
Just one out from tying the NLCS at two games apiece and ensuring that it would head back to Los Angeles, Broxton walked one batter (pinch-hitter Matt Stairs) and hit another (catcher Carlos Ruiz) before allowing Jimmy Rollins to smoke a game-winning double into the right-field gap that scored two runs and moved the Phillies into a state of delirium and the Dodgers into a state of desperation.
The Dodgers will now need to win three consecutive games, starting with Wednesday's Game 5, and to do so, they will almost certainly at some point need to entrust a game to Broxton again. That is more than can be said for Ryan Franklin of the Cardinals, Joe Nathan of the Twins, Huston Street of the Rockies and Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox, each normally trustworthy, and each of whose team is at home now thanks in part to their failures to close out a win in the Division Series.
The Dodgers may soon be home as well, and once again a blown save is a primary culprit. Afterward, a somber-voiced Broxton gave barely audible one-word answers about whether the long top of the ninth had any impact on him in the bottom half ("No.") if Dodgers manager Joe Torre had anything to say to him when the game ended ("No.") and whether he had paid much attention to the struggles of the other closers over the past two weeks ("No.").
Broxton promised he would be able to bounce back, but if there's anyone in the Dodgers clubhouse who knows just how difficult that can be, it's the man who was pulling on cowboy boots just one locker over from Broxton. George Sherrill had been an All-Star closer with the Orioles before being dealt to the Dodgers to be Broxton's set-up man, and he likened the disappointment of a blown save to "like being a golfer or a poker player at the last table. You're there at the end, and then you lose. You could do it right 40 times out of 42 but it's the two times you don't that stay with you."
Broxton has more than two blown saves on his resume this year, six in fact, ranking a mediocre 18th in the majors and eighth in the National League in save percentage. For all the talk about a short memory, it was a long memory that may have started his struggles Monday. With one out, the Phillies sent Stairs up to pinch-hit, the same Stairs who had launched a mammoth home run off Broxton in Game 4 of last year's NLCS to win the game for the Phillies and put them up 3-1 in the series.
Broxton made a conscious effort to keep the ball down, lest he allow another momentum-shifting home run. Instead, he walked Stairs. Then he got too careful pitching to the suddenly red-hot Ruiz, who is batting .500 in this series, and hit him to put the winning run on base.
After getting pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs to pop out, Broxton had to face Rollins, who came to the plate with little previous success against Broxton (he was just 1-for-4) but with an awful lot of certainty about what to look for. "Every time I've faced him, he's pretty much done the same thing," Rollins said. "Knowing that, I said, I'm going to sit on his pitch, a fastball on the hands, sit there and catch it, and really look for a single up the middle to tie the ballgame, but I was able to get more."
He got a lot more, and by the time Rollins was on the ground just outside third base, lying in the fetal position and trying to dish out as much punishment to his teammates as he was getting -- "whoever got hit, got hit," Rollins said -- Broxton had already disappeared into the dugout.Of all the trends this postseason has revealed -- from shoddy middle infield defense to curious umpiring to sloppy baserunning -- perhaps the most stunning has been the struggles of the closers. Like Broxton, the Angels' Brian Fuentes emerged unscathed from the Division Series only to slip up in the LCS. In fact, only two of the eight closers this postseason have been perfect, one of whom (Brad Lidge of the Phillies) is a modest surprise given his year-long difficulties, and one of whom (Mariano Rivera of the Yankees) is no surprise at all.
Now the only surprise would be if Broxton and the Dodgers are able to rebound from such a crippling defeat and win the series. Only two National League teams have ever overcome a 3-games-to-1 deficit in the NLCS.Across from Broxton in the Dodgers clubhouse stood Doug Mientkiewicz, a reserve first baseman who is not on the roster for this series, but who is the only one in the room who has actually scaled such a mountain before. As a first baseman with the 2004 Red Sox, Mientkiewicz was a part of their comeback from a 3-games-to-0 deficit against the Yankees in the ALCS, and he said that during Tuesday's off-day, he will have to impart the wisdom of that experience on some of the Dodgers young players. On Sunday, Torre joked that Mientkiewicz had made him watch clips of that comeback, and now, he may ask Mientkiewicz to remind the rest of the players that such a miracle is possible. Asked what he would say to his mates, Mientkiewicz said, "Just worry about winning today. Don't get wrapped up in how many games behind you are. This team does a great job of worrying about now. This group's gonna fight before we go home."