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

"The only thing you have to be is an adrenaline freak persistent in the face of failure. Obviously, that doesn't describe most people."
-- Tom House, sports psychologist and former professional baseball relief pitcher, on the type of reliever known as a closer

This is the moment a closer is supposed to live for: There are two outs in the ninth inning of a close game, and thousands of people stand in unison, clapping feverishly, feeling victory. This is when the adrenaline rush usually pushes the closer's fastball to nearly triple-digit speeds and restores his focus. But tonight, there's a trace of doubt in the applause and, just maybe, in the closer himself.

Tonight, in fact, most of the 18,000 people at the Oakland Coliseum are pissed off at Jason Isringhausen.

Just a few weeks earlier, the mere sight of him sauntering in from the Oakland Athletics' bullpen, with that gunslinger gait -- arms frozen at his sides, ready to draw -- would have put the whole park at ease. But making the all-star team doesn't mean much when you've blown two saves in a row in the middle of a pennant race, most recently surrendering back-to-back home runs (on back-to-back pitches) in New York, and, before that -- blunder of all baseball blunders -- balking in the deciding run in Chicago.

And now Izzy is threatening to screw up another one.

It started well enough: Isringhausen hauled his 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound frame up the pitcher's mound and hurled four successive rawhide beebees down at Cleveland's Travis Fryman. Two were strikes. The fifth pitch was a curveball thrown so hard and spun so tight that Fryman, convinced it was a fastball, turned to human Jell-O when the pitch dove -- as if on roller-coaster rails -- at the last possible instant. Swing (if you could call it that) and a miss.

One down.

But a groundout and two seeing-eye singles later, Cleveland runners are on first and third. At the plate is Omar Vizquel, a capable hitter representing the go-ahead run. Isringhausen is behind in the count, two balls to no strikes, and the grumbling in the crowd begins to morph into boos. He needs to throw a strike here. Instead, it's ball three, and the booing gets louder. The pitcher takes a violent swipe at nothing in particular, and after unfolding himself from the bent-at-the-waist, dangle-armed posture he assumes before each pitch, takes a deep breath, rears back, and delivers a scorching fastball, knee-high, that shaves the inside edge of the plate. Strike one.

He bends, hangs arm, and delivers again, but this time Vizquel smacks a sinking line drive toward center field, a seeming single that has "third straight blown save" written all over it.

Isringhausen spins.

He sees his center fielder, Terrence Long, chugging, bending, lunging, and then sliding headlong through the outfield grass -- with the ball, and the game, in his glove.

As he always does after a successful save, the closer leads the handshake line toward center field. When he reaches Long, instead of offering a hand, Isringhausen puckers up and plants one on his center fielder's head. And why not? Life seems good, at least for a few hours.

A little more than a year ago, Isringhausen was floundering, a former phenom who seemed unable to stay out of trouble or the hospital long enough to get his train-wrecked career back on track. Once a prized pitching prospect with the New York Mets and supposed heir to the pitching throne formerly occupied by Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, he'd let the pressure get to him, and then his drinking got out of hand. And then his arm gave out, all those times in all those places. And then tuberculosis entered his lungs. And then he was made into a mediocre mop-up reliever. And then the franchise he was supposed to save gave him away, to Oakland, for chump change.

So, after narrowly escaping his third blown save in three tries, on the verge of the most crucial stretch of the season, Isringhausen will cling to one thing as if it were as important to him as his next breath: being the closer.


Jason Isringhausen, all of 4 years old, is standing on top of the two-story house he lives in on the outskirts of a speck-on-the-map southern Illinois farm town named Brighton (pop. 2,770). Because the house is still fairly new, no railings have been installed on the roof yet. This is unfortunate because, at the moment, Jason is boasting to his two older sisters that he can fly. They think he is kidding.

All three of them are wrong.

"No, he couldn't fly, but he made a pretty good thud," recalls his mother. "But that was typical. He was always climbing, falling, cutting himself, you know, getting on a first-name basis with everyone over in the emergency room."


Almost from the moment Jason Derik Isringhausen was born to Chuck and Georgene Isringhausen, a Shell Oil refinery machinist and a secretary who happened to be a pretty good softball player, he showed a penchant for collecting scars. His mother learned when he was just a toddler to keep the knives in their cabinets, and out of his reach, but that didn't stop him from reveling in situations that could, and did, result in bodily harm. During a 17-hour family jaunt to Virginia, when Jason was 12, she recalls, "he spent most of the trip counting his scars. I think he got up to 114."

Isringhausen eventually found an outlet for some of this daring and energy at Southwestern High School, located in nearby Piasa and affectionately derided as "Cornfield High" by those who've attended. There, he is remembered as an average student, an exceptional athlete, and -- more generally -- "a Huckleberry Finn kind of guy," according to his old Spanish teacher, Tom Slusser. In sports, the positions Isringhausen played tended toward the hazardous: He was a gritty baseball catcher, a backboard-pounding basketball power forward, and a football middle linebacker. But his appetite for adrenaline was hardly confined to organized sports.

"I was always doing stuff other people wouldn't do, getting hurt all the time," the closer recalls. "Jumping over creeks on our bikes, making the ramp as big as we could and seeing how high we could jump. Stuff like that."

"He was crazy then, and he's crazy now," says Shawn Watson, the closer's oldest friend. "He'll do anything."

Watson, incidentally, was the reason New York Mets scout Terry Tripp found his way to Piasa, and, therefore, a major reason Jason Isringhausen found his way into professional baseball. Watson, a dominating, hard-throwing 6-foot, 6-inch pitcher was the marquis player on a high school ballclub that finished fourth in the state. The Mets drafted Watson out of high school; they liked his catcher enough to take a 44th-round flier on him a year later.

"Izzy" didn't immediately turn pro, instead playing center field and pitching in relief for two years at Lewis & Clark Community College in Godfrey, Ill., while silently suffering from the pain of bone chips stuck in his elbow ligaments. He joined the Mets in 1992, a season after being drafted. They cleaned out his elbow, and made him a pitcher.

It did not take the Mets long to discover they had struck gold with the 1,156th pick in the 1991 amateur draft. Isringhausen's fastball topped 90 miles per hour, and he picked up the knuckle curve they taught him faster than anyone expected. But during spring training in 1993, the Mets discovered firsthand what the closer's friends and relatives could have told them to expect.


It is either just past twilight or well past curfew at the New York Mets' Port St. Lucie, Fla., spring training complex -- depending on whom you ask -- and Jason Isringhausen, 20 years old and more than "a little inebriated," as he puts it with a chuckle, is dangling from a third-floor balcony of a local hotel. He may or may not be, depending on whom you ask, calling on a young lady. But that is irrelevant.

What is relevant is that the kid with an arm that most everyone suspects could soon be worth millions of dollars is hanging from a third-story balcony railing, sloshed out of his mind. It's also fairly relevant that the railing soon breaks, sending the kid with the million-dollar arm plunging three stories, head first. When the paramedics arrive, they find him lying on the ground with his head bloodied, his sternum cracked, and a few of his toes broken. They tell him that if he hadn't been so, heh, inebriated -- and therefore, so relaxed -- he'd be dead.


Jason Isringhausen, saveless since the narrow escape against Cleveland 10 days ago, has been "up in the zone" lately, and high is nowhere for a closer's fastball to be.

This is a crisis.

In two non-save situations on his team's two-win, five-loss road trip, he looked both wild and hittable. He walked two batters in Detroit and, given an eight-run lead to work with, was putrid in Cleveland, giving up four hits, a walk, and three runs in two-thirds of an inning.

Aside from a pair of poor outings in early May, which were followed by a streak of consecutive save conversions that lasted well into July, this is the first sustained period of adversity Isringhausen has faced during his first year in this high-stakes role. And it's gnawing at his insides.

"He's not himself right now," says Terrence Long, the hip-hop-loving, cornrowed close friend of the cornfed closer. "I was talking to him on the plane last night, and he was like, "Man, I don't know, I don't know what I'm doing out there.' ... He's beating himself up pretty good."

Now, back in the home clubhouse, Izzy quickly deals with a reporter. ("Jason, before you left for the road, you said you were in a bit of a funk. How do you feel about the way you're throwing the ball now?" "Shitty.") And then he wanders off to a quieter corner, where the somewhat square-faced, broad-shouldered former farm-town kid with the close-cropped, faintly blond-tipped brown hair begins ranting away -- red-faced, arms flailing -- at his Zen-placid, wavy-haired, puny-by-comparison pitching coach. He's telling Rick Peterson that he feels like he's letting the team down, that he's desperate to be ready the next time he's asked to guard a lead on the line (which might very well be later today).

"The thing to remember here," Peterson says a few moments later, "is that he's in uncharted waters. He's never done this for a whole year. And, really, I think this is one of the best things that could happen to him. ... From a closing standpoint, the question isn't are you ever gonna blow a save. Of course you are. The question is: When? And how are you going to react when that happens? That's where we are right now. Is he ever gonna blow another save? Of course he is. [Dennis] Eckersley went through this, Doug Jones went through this, Rollie Fingers went through this.

"Jason will too."

So Peterson, in that drawn-out, almost-whispered way of his, essentially tells Jason Isringhausen to shut the hell up and take a look around, because today he's an all-star closer for a team in a pennant race.

A year ago, he was a cautionary tale.


Just 22 years old, Jason Isringhausen makes his major-league debut at Chicago's Wrigley Field on July 17, 1995. A beanpole kid with a hat pulled tight over his forehead, he is pitching, as a starter, in front of about half the population of his hometown and showing no nerves whatsoever. He retires the first 10 and the last 10 batters he faces, giving up only a pair of hits and walks in between.

Suddenly, the cartoon-idea light bulbs go off in the rickety Wrigley press box, where, weary of covering a non-contender, members of the infamous New York media begin putting together the pieces of a larger story. Isringhausen's outing comes only a month after another impressive young Mets hurler, Bill Pulsipher, made his major-league debut. And there's another kid pitcher in the minors, Paul Wilson, who's supposed to be even better than the other two. This trio -- "Generation K" as they were eventually dubbed -- becomes The Story of the 1995 New York Mets.

"I just went up there and was doing exactly what I was doing in Triple A. I don't think I ever threw the ball better in my life," Isringhausen recalls.

He certainly never put up better numbers. Isringhausen posted a 9-2 record with a 2.81 earned-run average in 1995, good enough to finish fourth in the race for National League Rookie of the Year despite only playing half the season in the majors.

Writing at the dawn of spring training during the following winter, New York Daily News columnist Mike Lupica summed up the expectations of the Mets' young arms: "They are supposed to make history for the Mets the way Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Nolan Ryan did in the 1960s, the way [Dwight] Gooden and [Ron] Darling and [Sid] Fernandez did a decade ago."

He had pitched three months in the major leagues after ripping through the minor leagues in a hair over three years -- approximately as long as he had considered himself a pitcher -- and he was a star. It seemed too easy.

It was.

"We were like gods in the minor leagues," he recalls. "And when we got to the big leagues it was the same way. And that's where the immaturity part starts. I went home in the off-season thinking the game was easy. I didn't hardly work out. I came back, like, 20 pounds heavier. And I got my brains kicked in the next year."

There were not many comparisons to Seaver or Gooden during the 1996 season, when Isringhausen went 6-14, allowing nearly three times as many runs per game as he had during the previous season. The other members of the Generation K triad weren't faring any better: Pulsipher's elbow blew out during spring training, and Wilson's arm was beginning to crumble as well.

Isringhausen pitched most of 1996 with torn cartilage in his throwing shoulder and bone spurs piercing the ligaments in his elbow. But his psyche was in even worse shape. He knew what the expectations were for him, and he saw how spectacularly short he was falling. His 1996 ritual after a bad game -- and there were a lot of bad games -- involved icing his throbbing arm, driving to a neighborhood bar near his place on Long Island, and drinking until the pain subsided. Then he'd drive home.

"[Partying and drinking] is a part of New York, and I wasn't able to control it real well," he says. "When I went 6-14, the pressure got to me, the papers got to me, and that's how I relieved myself. I was a time bomb."

Trying to be a starter was turning the closer into an alcoholic.

On Sept. 20, 1996, in what must have felt like a mercy killing, the Mets announced that Isringhausen's sophomore season would be cut short a start early, so he could have his shoulder and elbow operated on. In a conference call with reporters, he expressed confidence that he would be back in the majors the following spring.


Jason Isringhausen pitched the following spring, but not in the majors. After spending the entire off-season rehabbing and reliving the horrors of a 6-14 year, he did not suffer being consigned to Triple A well. During his second start of the 1997 season, against the mighty Toledo Mud Hens, he gave up a first-inning home run to Bob Hamelin, another one-time-phenom-in-exile. Isringhausen stormed off the field, slugged a water cooler, and went on to pitch six more innings. The next morning, he found his hand swollen.

His pitching wrist was broken.


Thirteen games removed from his last save opportunity, Jason Isringhausen is sitting in the dugout talking -- or, not talking -- about pressure.

This seems like a suitable topic because he is, after all, the closer for a team that has been vying throughout the year for its division championship or a "wild card" spot in the post-season playoffs, and is presently only a game behind in the race for the American League West pennant. Every game during the next month will have visible playoff implications, and his job is to finish any of them Oakland leads narrowly in the ninth inning. But lately he's been struggling, and a pennant race isn't the easiest time to get problems worked out.

Isringhausen knows failing closers seldom fade away. They explode, often blowing up their team's fortunes along with their careers. Donnie Moore was an all-star closer who gave up a huge home run to Boston's Dave Henderson during the 1986 American League Championship Series. Boston went to the World Series; Moore's California Angels stayed home. Three years later, he shot himself. The Moore case is, of course, extreme, but there have been many promising closing careers ended by failures in situations such as the one Isringhausen finds himself in now.

Wearing his practice uniform -- green mesh jersey, white game pants, and a pair of mirrored wraparound shades under his cap -- the closer dismisses this as routine job stress, which -- in this job -- it is. "Usually it's just three outs," he says. "You have to put a lot of things behind you, not worry about a lot of things, and have a very short-term memory. You go in and try to get three outs as quickly as you can. Sometimes you do it, sometimes you don't. That's the life of a closer."

One thing Isringhausen has to keep out of his mind is that he is pitching on medically borrowed time. He has had four major arm operations, the last of which reconstructed his right elbow in 1998. It's easy to forget his medical history watching him pitch: He throws harder today than he has at any other point in his career.

But his arm occasionally likes to remind him what it has been through. Lately the source of discomfort, and some grumblings-in-print, is what trainer Larry Davis describes as a "microscopic" tear in his right biceps that tends to flare up after -- never while -- he pitches. Davis said it worsened after Isringhausen pitched both games of a July 17 doubleheader in Colorado, the day a streak of 14 consecutive saves snapped.

"You never know when that last throw is gonna be," Isringhausen says, the afternoon sun bouncing off the mirrored shades. "So you just try not to think about it. Everybody knows that it's possible, so if something happens you deal with it then. ... I know I never really had a Plan B, but I'm sure I'll come up with one if I need one. And hopefully I'll just do this for eight or nine more years, retire, and then play golf and fish every day."

The need for a "Plan B," of course, could be rendered somewhat moot by the contract he doesn't yet have for next season -- something else he can't think about. "I'm not worried about it because it's out of my control," he says, apparently forgetting that any pitch he throws during the pennant race might be worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars that are, or are not, in his next contract. "We're gonna deal with it after the season. That's the way I want it."

But blocking out the future gets tricky when the bad outings are piling up while the games become more and more important. In August, the A's went 11-16, and their closer suffered with them, blowing two of his five save chances and pitching wildly in non-save situations. The A's are still in the pennant and wild card races, but that has more to do with the ineptitude of the teams Oakland is chasing than with the A's.

Isringhausen's struggles were evident to anyone who saw his last outing of the month.

Called upon in the ninth inning to keep the A's within a run of the White Sox, the closer gave up a hit, walked three, and handed Chicago a run by hitting a batter with the bases loaded. He was pulled after getting only a single out.

Three days later, in Toronto, the A's carried a small lead into the ninth inning, and Manager Art Howe would call on Jim Mecir, a reliable "setup" reliever who does not usually close out a game, to pitch the ninth, while Isringhausen sat and watched from the bullpen. He declined to chat with reporters after the game. He knew he might lose it.

Which is the reaction his coaches were counting on.

"Anger will bring him out of this," says Rick Peterson, the pitching coach who is trying to get his first-year closer through something of a positional rite of passage. "It got to the point where, all right, we're gonna give him a break for a little bit, let him catch a breath of fresh air. And, all of a sudden, you know, you get angry at yourself. You say: "Hey, that's my job. That's my role. Ishould be out there.' And you ask yourself: "How am I letting this slip away?'"


At the age of 24, not even two years removed from his enormous initial success, Jason Isringhausen is locked away in a New York City hotel room, crying, scared, and alone, as doctors try to figure out what has eaten through his esophagus and filled his right lung. They think it is cancer, but cannot rule out AIDS or tuberculosis. Because whatever is making it hard for him to breathe might be contagious, he will not allow anyone to visit him. So Isringhausen sits awake in bed, staring at the television, or the ceiling. He is alone in a place that feels farther from home than any other.

And this is what he remembers thinking: "I'm gonna die here soon."


While it certainly didn't feel that way at the time, his bout with what turned out to be tuberculosis was good for Jason Isringhausen. Doctors ordered him to take 12 pills a day for nine months and to stop drinking. He responded to the treatment in every sense. "TB really changed my life," he says. "I couldn't drink or anything. For nine months. So now I really don't do it all that much. I mean, I might have a beer here and there. I'll go out with the guys. I'll have crazy nights once in a while. But it's not like it used to be."

New outlook notwithstanding, Isringhausen's luck didn't change when he resumed pitching. After six mediocre September starts for the Mets, he was sent to the Puerto Rican Winter League. He performed brilliantly there as a starter, going 5-1 with a 2.93 ERA. But, he says, "it felt like if I threw one more pitch my arm would explode."

The tiny holes that had been poked in his elbow ligaments by the bone chips he played with in college had been stretching ever since. So, after pitching with a torn elbow ligament for five years, the closer opted for reconstructive surgery that would cost him the entire 1998 season.

Doctors placed tendons from his wrist into his elbow, and Isringhausen went home to Illinois to rehabilitate. He spent loads of time with his childhood buddy Watson.

"It was definitely good for him to get away from there [for a year]," Watson says. "We hardly ever talked about baseball. We just played a lot of PlayStation [video games], a lot of cards, a lot of bowling. Well, he couldn't bowl, but he went with us. I mean, he was struggling a lot in New York. And, well, Brighton is kind of the opposite of New York: We don't even have taxicabs here."

Isringhausen also spent his time at home courting Lorrie Reis, a jet airplane saleswoman from nearby Jerseyville. They were introduced at a Super Bowl party and married almost exactly a year later. The closer credits Lorrie with keeping his wild side in check. And not just because she won't let him buy motorcycles.

"Pretty much now when I think about doing something stupid, I have to think about her too," he says. "It's her reputation, not just mine. And I don't want her to think she's married to some idiot."

Isringhausen returned to spring training in 1999 with his mind and arm rehabilitated. He still had his stuff, but the snap, crackle, and popping noises coming from his elbow told him -- and the Mets -- that he couldn't take the physical burden of starting once every five days.

Isringhausen took an ensuing demotion to relief work in stride, but as easily as he accepted his new role -- middle relief -- he also knew something was wrong. The curve was still working, and everybody noticed how much harder he could throw when he didn't have to worry about saving himself so he could pitch six or seven innings. He just wasn't getting anybody out: After being up with the Mets as a starter, sent down to the minors to learn to be a reliever, and then being called back up again, his numbers -- 1-3, 6.41 ERA -- simply weren't very good.


A closer often pitches poorly when the game is not on the line. It's not that he doesn't want to pitch well when he's not closing; it's just that he does not see pitching in "those types of situations" as his job.

A few days after being temporarily benched in the wake of a frightening 8.41 August ERA, Jason Isringhausen described the situation this way: "I lost my job without even doing it."

On the surface, this is an absurd statement (he's paid to pitch, after all), but it is not wholly without merit. Of his 11 appearances in August, only five were in save situations. And many closers admit having to fight to focus when they are asked to do something other than protect a tiny lead in the last inning.

"When I closed," recalls former big league pitcher and pitching coach Tom House, now a practicing sports psychologist, "I was one of those ADD, the-world-doesn't-spin-fast-enough-for-me types. I was most at ease when I knew the batter had as much to lose as I did. I didn't do well when there was nothing on the line, and I think most of these guys are the same way."

That Isringhausen had a natural affinity for closing seems painfully obvious in retrospect, but A's General Manager Billy Beane saw it first. He jumped at the chance to send Billy Taylor, Oakland's broken-down, 37-year-old journeyman closer of the moment, to New York at the July 31, 1999, trade deadline for Isringhausen and another reliever, Greg McMichael.

"We just thought that, from a mental standpoint, it takes a different type of person to be a closer," Beane says in his office as Isringhausen -- just a few feet away -- rummages through a closet. "Izzy was sort of a hyperactive, high-energy guy who might respond better at the end of the game. I mean, no one ever questioned his stuff: It was always just whether he'd pull his head out of his ass."

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.

Lawton hits a harmless grounder to second. And that's it.

The closer has recorded his 27th save of the season, and his first in three weeks, but he's not happy about the way it happened.

"Yeah, I can say I'm upset about it," he says, doing that boxers-on-without-taking-the-towel-off trick in front of his locker while he talks to reporters eager to measure his ire. "I don't know what their plans are. They said I was the closer, but look what happened. I just shake my head and go about my business."

In another corner of the clubhouse, the coach who is in charge of teaching the closer how to close will not give any of these comments a second thought: This is, after all, a closer talking.

"Very few of these guys are calm and composed," Peterson says. "I mean, these are the true warriors, these are the guys who want to lead the team, lead that mission up Bunker Hill. They're the first ones up Iwo Jima. Those are the closers. And there's no question that he's one of them.

"Everything about him says that."

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