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Closer is the biggest question mark for Tampa Bay Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — Even now, even at the start, the real question is about the finish.

Even here, even as the Rays begin to open a new season, the riddle is about the closing.

And so it was that on a bright Monday morning in an infield-sized town, Joe Maddon stood in front of a firing line of pitchers and looked for answers.

There were seven pitchers, all in a line, throwing to seven catchers, and as they threw, the sound of seven balls popping into seven mitts made for the singsong soundtrack of spring training. It felt early. It felt like a beginning. It felt like the first chapter of a sequel.

Yeah, but what about the end?

For the Rays, it keeps coming back to that. If the bullpen is the biggest question on the team, then the identity of the closer is the question inside of that. In the moments that matter the most, who is going to save the day? In the games that threaten to slip away, who is going to slam the door?

Troy Percival? Grant Balfour? J.P. Howell?

Anyone?

Everyone?

Of course, it would help the Rays' chances mightily if someone would earn the job. After all, a good closer adds structure to his bullpen, a gifted one instills doubt in the opposing hitters and a great one looms over the game like a vulture on a fence.

True, the Rays were successful last year despite going to a bullpen-by-committee approach after Percival's body broke down. There can be a flexibility to the approach; after all, there are games in which the most important out might come in the seventh or the eighth inning instead of the ninth.

For the most part, that's baseball the hard way. A bullpen-by-committee is a constant juggling act of worrying about matchups and recovery time and emotional reserve. It can be done, but it's like trying to paint a masterpiece with a relay team.

As much as any division in baseball, the AL East belongs to the closer. Between the Red Sox's Jonathan Papelbon, the Yankees' Mariano Rivera, the Blue Jays' B.J. Ryan and the Orioles' George Sherrill, the division had four of the top seven closers in saves in the American League.

"Having a regular closer is always the best," Maddon said. "That way, the rest of the bullpen files into their roles, and you can put guys into positions where they are more comfortable on a daily basis."

So does that mean that someone is going to be anointed as closer? Well, no. It doesn't.

And there's the rub. Except for Percival, who still has to prove he can stay healthy, the Rays don't really have a pitcher who has made his living as a closer. At least until someone convinces Maddon otherwise, the Rays will attempt to close out their games with Percival or by mixing and matching.

At this point, it is understandable if both options might play on your nerves a bit.

The easiest thing would be if Percival could prove he is healthy again. As nerve-wracking as it was watching Percival a year ago, he did save 28 games in 32 chances. If he could take care of the ninth, it gives the Rays a lot of options for the seventh and the eighth.

On the other hand, Percival is 39, and it is hard to dislodge those closing images of him as he struggled to maintain control.

"It was debilitating," Percival said. "I couldn't get up in the morning. I couldn't walk around. It was a telltale sign when I was throwing a pitch and I would fall down because my leg didn't have enough strength to hold me up. It got to the point where I had to completely change my mechanics to get through an inning."

After back surgery, Percival says he's healthier than he was at any point last year. Will he stay healthy? We'll see.

"I'm going to make it through the whole season," he said. "If I have to bowl that thing up there, I'm going to make it through without a DL stop."

But what if he can't? And what about Balfour, whose stuff is nasty enough and whose nature is fiery enough to resemble a closer?

Maddon nods. He, too, believes Balfour has the physical and mental ability to close. But such jobs are to be won, not designated.

"Right now, it's Percy," Maddon said, "and if it's not Percy, then it's a committee. As the season progresses, if someone really, truly looked like they would be able to handle that role consistently, yes, I would be willing to look to someone to be that guy.

"But I really believe in the beginning, you have to go to committee. I don't think it's important to assert that so-and-so is the closer, only because it's a different mind-set. You get someone out of their comfort zone and their effectiveness goes away purely on the fact you've titled them differently."

Perhaps. For the Rays, however, the ninth inning is coming. Big games are coming. The stretch run is coming.

Wouldn't it be nice if there were someone there to save them from a fall?

Closer is the biggest question mark for Tampa Bay Rays 02/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 17, 2009 9:46am]

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