MILWAUKEE — Manager Joe Maddon is still playing semantics, preferring the more generic "relief pitcher extraordinaire" title than actually calling Kyle Farnsworth the Rays closer.
But now Maddon has something else he'd like to call Farnsworth: All-Star.
"I really would hope people start mentioning his name," Maddon said. "I think he absolutely deserves that."
Just the thought would have seemed unlikely a few months ago, but Farnsworth, 35, has emerged as perhaps the biggest surprise of the Rays' season, stepping into the vacant — sorry, Joe — closer role he had little experience with, and excelling.
Farnsworth has converted 15 of 16 save opportunities, ranking third in the American League with a 93.8 save percentage, and among AL closers is second with a 2.17 ERA and fourth with a .217 opponents batting average.
"The ability was there," Farnsworth said. "It was just a matter of trying to get a chance to do it."
He has done it with an expanded repertoire of pitches, with extensive preparation that starts with computer work and note-taking early each afternoon, with a calm demeanor that belies his wild-man reputation, with a mature and wise approach.
And, also, with an attitude.
"It's a mind-set," starter David Price said. "A closer has to have that 'it' about him, and Farnsworth definitely does. He has it, whatever it is. He's breathing fire every time he steps out there, and he takes it personally."
Farnsworth spent most of his first 12 big-league seasons in middle relief, starting early in his career and getting only one extended opportunity to close in 2005, when he converted 16 of 18 saves for the Tigers and Braves. Otherwise it was just occasional duty (including some in the Yankees spotlight), and it didn't go well, just 11 of 45 successfully.
He said he is not one to draw satisfaction from proving the skeptics wrong, but he is clearly, in his own way, proud of what he has done, getting a ball from each game he saves and scribbling the details. The plan is to eventually put them in a display case, though for now it's a bit more informal. "They're just in my sock drawer at home," he said.
Maddon is impressed with what Farnsworth has done and how he has done it, especially noting his team-first attitude and willingness, as opposed to some closers, to work in nonsave situations.
"He's labored in different markets; he's had some successes, some failures and maybe some not-met expectations based on this big arm," Maddon said. "But I really think he's persevered to the point where he's figured himself out. And right now you've got one of the better relief pitchers in the American League."
A few small changes over the past two seasons have made significant differences. He repositioned his back foot square against the rubber to help his alignment to the plate. He started throwing a cutter more consistently and effectively (especially to left-handers), and he added a sinker to mix in with his usual high heat and slider to get more ground balls. And just in the past month he went back to using a splitter, though with a "so far, so good, knock on wood" proviso, as in previous seasons it led to elbow issues.
"This guy is a pitcher, man," Maddon said. "He could start with that stuff. He pitches and he throws strikes and he's good against righties and lefties and he's resilient and he's durable. He's all these things."
He's just not, of course, a closer.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.