Tagged: closer

June 7 – Happy Birthday Heathcliff Slocumb

slocumbHe will always be remembered by Red Sox Nation as the guy who was traded to bring Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe to Boston. It was the deal that eventually broke the curse of the Bambino and hung a championship banner again in Fenway after over an eighty year drought. It was Dan Duquette’s finest hour, even though the former Red Sox GM was actually trying to get a prospect named Ken Cloude from the Mariners and only “settled” for Varitek and Lowe after Seattle refused to give up on their young power pitcher.

Heathcliff Slocumb’s record was 0-5 at the time of the trade and his ERA was in the high five’s but he was actually in a very nice groove for Boston, having successfully converted 11 of his last 12 save opportunities. That hot streak and an impressive appearance against the Mariners just before the deal went down were the only reasons the Seattle brain trust, who were desperate for a closer, made the trade for the right-handed native of Jamaica, NY at the 1997 trading deadline. As we all know now, Slocumb’s career propelled downward from that point, but not before he registered 10 saves during the second half of that ’97 season to help the Mariners reach the postseason.

Slocumb had come to Boston in a trade with the Phillies in a 1996 preseason deal. He was coming off a breakout 32-save season with Philadelphia just one year after his 27-year-old high school sweetheart wife had died from cancer, leaving him with two young daughters. The pitcher used his grief and parental responsibility as a motivator and became one of the more effective closers in baseball. When he saved 31 more games during his first season in Boston, it did look as if he was on the cusp of a great career. Than a horrible start to the ’96 season combined with Seattle’s refusal to part with a pitcher who never made it, changed the course of baseball history for fans in Boston and maybe those in Seattle too.

April 3 – Happy Birthday Koji Uehara

ueharakWhen you look at the overall team and individual player stats for the 2013 Red Sox season, its pretty amazing that nothing jumps out at you as particularly spectacular. You’d think that a team that went from 69 victories and last place during the 2012 season to 97 wins, a Division crown and a World Championship a year later would have a couple of hitters in their starting lineup who had spectacular seasons or at least one 20-game winner in their rotation. Not the 2013 Red Sox. They truly had a team that won as a team, with everybody doing a good enough job to more often then not, outscore the competition. There’s no doubt that getting rid of Bobby Valentine’s toxic “divide and conquer” management style and replacing it with the much more harmonizing leadership of John Farrell, was a huge positive. But face it, with David Ortiz leading the team with just 103 RBIs and Jon Lester the only Red Sox starter to win as many as 15 games, its really difficult to point to one player who was indispensable….well not that difficult.

The Red Sox do not win those rings in 2013 without Koji Uehara. When they signed him just before Christmas in 2012, all Boston GM Ben Cherington was hoping was that this right-hander from Osaka, Japan would be a good setup man for whoever turned out to be the team’s closer in 2013. Two weeks later, Cherington acquired Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, two potential candidates for that closing role in separate trades. Injuries ended both their seasons before the All Star break and suddenly, by process of elimination, Uehara took their place. He had some limited closing experience with the Orioles during his second big league season in 2010. Before that, he had spent a decade as a starter in his native Japan.

All he did was go 4-1 with 21 saves and an amazing 1.09 ERA. He became the first big league pitcher in history to strike out more than 100 batters while giving up fewer than 10 walks. He also compiled a streak of 29 consecutive scoreless innings and at one point, retired 34 batters in a row. He was the MVP of the ALCS, appearing in five games, saving three and winning another and he then saved two of Boston’s World Series’ victories over the Cards. It was indeed an incredible stretch by a veteran pitcher who turns 38-years-old today.

April 2 – Happy Birthday Dick Radatz

radatzI remember watching an interview during which the great Mickey Mantle called Dick Radatz the toughest pitcher he ever had to face. That’s saying a lot since the Mick faced some of the greatest hurlers in big league history. But from his rookie season with the Red Sox in 1962 until his heater began slowing down in 1965, nobody in baseball dominated hitters the way this right-hander did. Mantle faced him 63 times during his career and Radatz struck the legendary switch-hitter out 47 times. The only homer Mickey ever hit off him came on a pitch that broke his bat.

The story goes that it was also Mantle who gave Radatz his nickname, which was “The Monster.” It was supposedly coined after a memorable Yankee-Red Sox game in 1963 in which Radatz had come in with the bases loaded and nobody out and struck out Mantle, Roger Maris and Elston Howard on just ten pitches. After the contest, in the clubhouse, Mantle was allegedly asked by reporters to talk about Radatz’s incredible performance and he started out by referring to him as “That monster…” One thing’s for sure, at six feet six inches tall with a 95 mile per hour fastball and a willingness to pitch inside on demand, this guy frightened every hitter he faced.

He led the AL in saves as a rookie and again in 1964 and he set a strikeout record for relievers that still stands, when he fanned 181 batters during that ’64 season. His combined ERA during his short three-year prime was a nifty 2.17.

A native of Detroit, before signing with the Red Sox in 1960, Radatz starred in both basketball and baseball for the Michigan State Spartans. It was while pitching for Boston’s triple A team in Seattle that he developed a sore arm and the team’s manager, Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky told him he was being sent to the bullpen. Radatz begged Pesky not to take him out of the rotation but it was that move that put him on a fast track to the big leagues.

Long-time Fenway faithful probably still remember Radatz’s signature gesture of punching the sky with his right hand while walking off the mound after getting the game’s last out. And don’t forget, back when Radatz pitched, closers were usually called upon to throw multiple innings.

Things began to unravel for Radatz during the ’65 season when the velocity on his fastball started dropping pretty dramatically. The Red Sox actually made a good trade in April of 1967 by sending a past-his-prime Radatz to the Indians for two decent pitchers named Lee Stange and Don McMahon.

Radatz ended up a journeyman, bouncing around the big leagues until 1969. Toward the end of his life, he blew up to over 400 pounds. He died tragically, from injuries received when he fell down the stairs at his Easton, Massachusetts home in March of 2005. He was 68-years-old at the time of his death. I borrowed the following from his Boston Globe obituary: “Mr. Radatz won or saved 33 of Boston’s 76 wins in 1962; 40 of Boston’s 76 wins in 1963; 45 of Boston’s 72 wins in 1964; and 31 of Boston’s 62 wins in 1965. He led the American League in saves in 1962 and 1964 and made the All-Star team in 1963 and 1964.”

At the time of his death, he ranked second on the Sox all-time list of saves leaders with 104. He now ranks third behind Jonathan Papelbon and Bob Stanley.

Former Red Sox outfielder Reggie Smith and former starting pitcher Al Nipper were also born on this date.