Imagine a world where the ninth inning is a dark and scary place. Where cowbells and leads are no longer safe. Imagine a world where the burly, balding closer walks with a limp.
Now you see the blind alley the Rays may soon be entering.
When Troy Percival fell to his knees after throwing a pitch Wednesday, the Rays found themselves in the biggest save situation in franchise history.
Not just the two-out, ninth-inning save situation Dan Wheeler came in to finish off, but the hanging - on - to - first - place - with - Percival - possibly - heading - to - the - disabled - list save situation. I'm not sure there's an official American League statistic for that, but I'm guessing it's at least as critical as a decent OPS.
The Rays are hopeful Percival's cranky hamstring is not serious, and they have not committed to putting Percival on the DL, but that certainly seems like the prudent move. You've got a 38-year-old closer who has had a cramp in the back of his leg for a week and is pitching with a right arm Dr. Frankenstein might envy.
Why risk the possibility of blowing out the hamstring? Or worse yet, why take a chance Percival adjusts his delivery to compensate for the pain and blows out his elbow for good? It makes a lot more sense to put Percival on the 15-day disabled list to ensure his hamstring is healed.
Of course, that's not a pain-free solution, either. Not when you're talking about reserving a trainer's room spot for the player who just might be the most valuable addition the Rays have had.
I suppose you could make a case for Jason Bartlett being more important in solidifying the defense. Or the roles Matt Garza and Eric Hinske have played in changing Tampa Bay's fortunes in 2008.
But listen long enough to Rays officials talk and you get the feeling they would not be close to where they are today if they had not persuaded Percival to agree to a two-year deal in November.
"I'm a believer in intangibles. I know it's true, and it does make a difference," manager Joe Maddon said. "You saw when we lacked the intangibles the last couple of years, what that looks like. All of the sudden we've got people that are actually difference-makers, and they make people around them better just by their presence.
"That's what (Percival) does. He gives people courage just by being himself ... and then you take him out on the mound and convert most of the save opportunities and anchoring the back end of the bullpen.
"He's done all of that."
It is not just the ninth inning that Percival has owned. His availability at the end of the game has allowed Maddon to slot all his relievers into roles that fit their talents and personalities. Al Reyes has pitched the seventh, Wheeler has had the eighth, and Trever Miller has handled the left-handers. If Percival is not available, that balance could potentially unravel.
The bullpen has not been perfect with Percival in charge, but the improvement from last season has been dramatic. The Rays were 50-13 when leading after six innings last season. They are 25-2 this season.
"He's a big part of what we've done," Wheeler said. "We definitely need him to . . . to continue to do what we're doing."
So what's the solution if Percival is out for an extended time? I would assume it begins with a phone call to Triple-A Durham to see how quickly Grant Balfour can catch a flight to Tampa. Balfour has been virtually unhittable as Durham's closer this season, with a 0.38 ERA, an .067 opponents batting average and 39 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings.
The problem is Balfour is 30, has control problems, and his minor-league success has never translated to the majors. So a possible solution would be using Balfour in the setup role and having Wheeler and Reyes share ninth-inning duties.
No matter how the Rays divvy it up, the situation is not ideal. Percival exuded a confidence that cannot easily be replicated. He is Tampa Bay's security blanket. The guy who has been talking about turning the team's fortunes from the time he walked into the clubhouse before the sun rose on the first day of spring training.
For now, it looks like the Rays may be on their own in the ninth inning.
Can they save themselves?
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]