POSTERS OF CLOSER Mariano Rivera and the Yankees' 1998 world champions adorned the walls of Craig Hansen's bedroom when he was growing up in Glen Cove, N.Y., a 20-minute ride from Yankee Stadium. In June he was in the backyard of that boyhood home with 30 friends and relatives listening to a broadcast of the amateur draft. After the Red Sox selected Hansen with the 26th pick, many at the party tossed the New York caps they were wearing to the ground. "They said that they were going to go out and get Red Sox hats," says Hansen. "My mom took down all the posters."
Four months after he was closing games as a junior for St. John's, the 6'6", 210-pound Hansen will step into the cauldron of Fenway Park for a three-game weekend series against the Yanks with the American League East title on the line. (The Yankees led by a half game heading into Tuesday.) Most eyes will be on Boston DH David Ortiz and New York third baseman Alex Rodriguez, front-runners for MVP honors, but first place could be riding on the bullpens.
Rivera has been spectacular--42 saves in 46 chances and a 1.41 ERA at week's end--and setup man Tom Gordon had allowed three earned runs in his last 17 appearances. Boston relievers had given up the second-most ninth-inning runs in the majors, and closer Keith Foulke was out for the season with bad knees. Default closer Mike Timlin had seven blown saves in 18 opportunities, and 24-year-old Jonathan Papelbon (2-1, 3.03 ERA) was the leading setup option.
Thus the need for the righty Hansen, who was called up on Sept. 19 after 15 2/3 innings at rookie league and Double A stops. That night he made his big league debut against the Devil Rays, throwing 97-mph fastballs and striking out two in one inning. Hansen, to his teammates' chagrin, drew comparisons with Angels wunderkind closer Francisco Rodriguez, who was called up in September 2002 and helped Anaheim win the World Series. "It's not fair to make the comparison," says Timlin, "because Rodriguez had a whole year in Double A."
His next time out, last Saturday in Baltimore, Hansen surrendered a game-tying, two-run homer in the seventh inning, but the Red Sox came back to win 4-3. He wasn't fazed after being taken deep. "It's thrilling," Hansen says, "and pretty crazy."