The Closer

He's fallen off a third-story balcony, survived tuberculosis, and come back from four arm surgeries to lead the Oakland A's to the brink of post-season play. His name is Jason Isringhausen, and he IS the closer

While Isringhausen at first felt betrayed and abandoned by the Mets, those feelings promptly evaporated when Beane told him, as soon as he arrived, that he would get a chance to close. "It was like being a rookie again," he says. "I'd never closed before, never really pitched in California. They gave me a new life, and it worked out."

On the mound, the Isringhausen New York traded and the one Oakland acquired were almost suspiciously distinct. With the A's holding the closer's job, carrotlike, in front of him, Isringhausen rediscovered his focus. He wasn't scored upon until his eighth appearance with Oakland. By September of last year he had become the full-time closer, finishing the season 8-for-8 in save opportunities with a tiny 2.13 ERA.

Rejuvenated, he spent the off-season lifting weights and looking forward to the opportunity to prove he belonged in the lunatic fraternity of elite big league closers. It's a group he certainly seems to fit in with. "Yeah, I'd say a lot of us are [kindred spirits]," he says. "Some of the guys get out of control a little bit. We have a lot of fun horsing around and stuff. Last year I went to the Super Bowl with [Mets closer John] Franco and [San Diego Padres closer Trevor] Hoffman, and I left with a black eye. Got hit with a street cone."

By April, the Hoffman-inflicted shiner was gone, and the closer had picked up right where he left off in September, converting his first five save chances of the new season. After a pair of rocky outings in early May, he became even more dominant, chalking up 14 straight saves, a streak he would ride into the All-Star Game.

To assume such a high-pressure role with such ease is far from natural, according to sports psychologist Dennis Sprague: "Usually, you have to learn how to harness the biochemicals that build up that extra focus and concentration in situations like [closing]. But some people are just hard-wired in a certain way, just kind of born with their brain wired in such a way that all that pressure creates something like a high for them."

In other words: Closers are born, not made.

And Jason Isringhausen is a closer. Always has been. This is an indisputable, scientific fact, predetermined by biochemistry and neurological wiring. He has tried denying this, and these attempts have come perilously close to stripping him of his livelihood, even to killing him. But he survived. So now he closes Major League Baseball games for a living. He does this because it has been realized that he should have been doing it all along.

And because he is out of options.

There is one out in the ninth inning of a two-run baseball game in September, and Jason Isringhausen -- saveless in almost a month -- is standing on the pitcher's mound in the bullpen, looking surly as hell.

Just a day after being told by Manager Art Howe that he is the closer once again, Izzy is watching Jim Mecir -- who sets him up -- pitch in a save situation. He has been told to be ready just in case Mecir gets in trouble, and he has finished his warm-up tosses. So now Isringhausen is watching stoically, standing alone with his arms crossed like a malcontent backbencher at a town hall meeting. Never mind that the A's starters have been throwing so many complete games lately that Isringhausen's was the only appearance by an Oakland reliever in the first four games of the homestand. Never mind Howe's concern that his bullpen might be getting rusty before the all-important road trip that starts in three days. Never mind that Mecir matches up pretty well against this stretch of Minnesota's lineup. This is a save situation, which makes it hissituation. He is the closer. This is his job, his time.

After Mecir gives up a run-scoring double to Minnesota's Corey Koskie, the closer, still standing in the bullpen, flips his arms skyward in a wounded, forsaken gesture.

He'd thought he had gotten past this yesterday, when Howe put him in to finish off Tampa Bay with a four-run lead. No, it wasn't a save situation, but the way that fist-pump inflated his smile after he struck out Fred McGriff and Greg Vaughn to end the game, it sure felt like a save situation. The relief on his face as he sat in front of his locker nursing a post-game Corona said as much.

Yet here he is in the bullpen, watching Denny Hocking, the otherwise-average utility player who happens to hit better than .400 against Oakland, crush Mecir's latest pitch, luckily right at left fielder Ben Grieve. This brings the tally to two very shaky outs.

So Howe calls for the closer.

As he walks in, the gunslinger gait is furious tonight; there's rage in those measured steps. Isringhausen gets through his warm-ups briskly. He wants at Matt Lawton, the .311 hitter Twins Manager Tom Kelly has inserted to face him.

There's fury in the first pitch, a cutting fastball that tails in on Lawton's hands, shaving the black edge of the plate for an unhittable strike. After missing with a curve, Isringhausen comes back with another heater inside. Lawton fouls it off. Now there are two outs, two strikes. The meager crowd (even by Oakland standards) of 10,000-plus is on its feet, screaming for the victory that will keep pace with Seattle. Everyone is up, wanting this game, needing this game.

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