Last week I did a top-five on the Browns; this week I will shift gears to baseball and choose the five best seasons by relief pitchers in Indians' history since 1960.
Why begin only 50 years ago and disregard all the years beforehand? A couple of reasons, really. First and foremost, the further back in time one goes, the less "saves" appear. Pitchers used to be workhorses, and if they began a game and were effective, they finished what they started. The glamorous category of saves did not come into true favor until the days of Rollie Fingers and Bruce Sutter. In other words, in "ancient" baseball history a reliever with a terrific ERA often accumulated that ERA in blow-outs. A relief pitcher mopped up; he was not a key cog in a team's plans, as he is today. To be blunt, a relief pitcher was good enough to be in the majors, but not good enough to be a starter, basically.
Will the list be subjective? Yes, no doubt it will be, and as with the list last week, a lot will depend on the success of the team itself in spectacular seasons out of the pen. A wonderful ERA and a bunch of saves looks nice, but it looks better when the team isn't out of the race by Labor Day.
As a side note, researching this little column was a lot of fun. (I highly recommend Baseball-Reference.com; that site is an absolute gold mine for all sorts of numbers and history. The site will also link you to reference sites about other sports, if baseball isn't your cup of tea or thermos of coffee.) The fun, for me, came in seeing some names I had forgotten after all these years, names such as Sid Monge and Vicente Romo, Indians of yore whose exploits I followed on my cheap transistor radio "back in the day".
Oh, and one more thing. Three of these five will be individual pitchers, but in two seasons they will be a two-headed monster, because in the seasons in question, two pitchers were each so crucial to success that they both need to be included.
# 5 -- 1976 -- Dave LaRoche and Jim Kern
The first entry on this list comes in the least-successful season of the five, but it was, at least, a winning season in the bicentennial year of 1976. The Indians finished 81-78, which sounds mediocre but which was, in fact, the first season since 1968 that ended on the plus side of the ledger.
What made that possible, more than anything else, was a truly dynamic duo out of the bullpen. Dave LaRoche and Jim Kern not only accounted for 36 saves between them, but also added eleven wins, of which Kern had ten all by himself. Both pitchers had low earned run averages, LaRoche coming in at 2.24 and Kern not far behind at 2.37. And Kern's 10 wins finished fourth on the entire staff, a staff featuring Dennis Eckersley -- speaking of pitchers who made their mark as relievers.
Eighty-one wins, and Kern and LaRoche had a hand in 47 of them with either a win or a save. In my book, being involved in 58% of your team's victories qualifies as spectacular. It would be the equivalent of Mariano Rivera approaching 60 saves and wins combined.
# 4 -- 2001 -- Bob Wickman
Remember "Wick"? He certainly had a hand in the second-to-last playoff appearance for the Indians. 2001 was the last of the salad years of the mid-90s to early 2000s, as the Tribe went 91-71 and gave the Seattle Mariners all they could handle in the playoffs. That was the Seattle team which set a new record for victories by going 116-46, and the Indians pushed them to the limit before bowing out in five games.
Wickman was superb out of the pen that season. He would actually put up better numbers in 2005, but the Indians faltered down the stretch in '05, finishing behind the White Sox.
For the season Wickman went 5-0, and posted 32 saves in 70 appearances, to go with a 2.39 ERA. He was the glue in late innings that allowed the Tribe to finish six games ahead of Minnesota, and to make their sixth playoff run in seven seasons, and in my opinion, his work in 2001 earns him a place on my list.
# 3 -- 2007 -- Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez
It is easy, even though it was only three years ago, to forget just how effective Betancourt and Perez were in 2007. Betancourt is long gone and Perez fell on hard times beginning in 2008, and although he has shown flashes of coming back, he is still a long, long way from what he was in the last Indians' playoff year.
We all remember those playoffs: The breathtaking series against the Yankees, Joba Chamberlain trying not to inhale "Canadian Soldiers" as the Tribe took advantage of his lapse in focus, the startling feeling of having dispatched the Evil Empire and then jumping ahead of Red Sox Nation three-games-to-one to find themselves on the cusp of the World Series with CC and Fausto all lined up to go, and then...
The Tribe made it that far in no small part due to the efforts of Perez and Betancourt, who contributed mightily to the Indians finishing eight games ahead of the Tigers with a mark of 96-66 during the regular season.
Check out these numbers -- they really are astonishing. Betancourt: 68 games, three saves and a 1.47 ERA to go with five victories; Perez; a 1-2 record with an ERA of 1.78 in 44 games.
Of course, the closer that year was Joe Borowski, who did have 45 saves, but an ERA of over five. That saves' number would never have approached what it did without the one-two punch of the setup men out of the pen.
# 2 -- 1998 -- Mike Jackson
Flash back to October 1997, before we focus on Jackson's year in 1998.
The Indians hold a one-run lead over the Florida Marlins going into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game Seven in Miami. It is winner-take-all tonight, and the Indians are six outs away from their first championship since 1948.
Mike Jackson comes out of the bullpen to pitch the eighth, and just mows down the two batters he faces, mows them down with ease, as if it were a spring training game, before giving way to Brian Anderson, who finishes the inning and sets the Indians up for just one more scoreless frame.
Then, in the ninth, here comes Jose Mesa, and suddenly we are in extra innings, and then in the eleventh there is Charles Nagy on the mound and Edgar Renteria is at the plate, and then...it is over, the ultimate tease.
The point of this little flashback is that, even on that night when he wasn't the Indians' closer, all I could think was: "Leave Jackson in, Hargrove, he is un-hittable tonight, give him a chance to finish it!"
Alas...and all that.
Mesa would garner precisely one more save in 1998 and then was moved to San Francisco, while Jackson stepped into the closer's role.
And he delivered.
The Indians bounced back from the heartbreak of the previous season and won the Central Division with an 89-73 record, but were knocked out of the playoffs by the Yankees in the ALCS after defeating Boston in four games. Sticking with the theme of my earlier entry on 2001, the Yankees set the record for wins in 1998 with 114, a record which lasted until the Tribe's 2001 opponent, Seattle, beat it.
Mike Jackson appeared in 69 games in the '98 season and saved 40 of them, with an ERA of 1.55 and a 1-1 record. That is lights-out pitching in a tough spot, going from set-up man to closer with a winning team, and Jackson handled it splendidly, and earns the second spot on this list.
Which brings us to...
# 1 -- 1995 -- Jose Mesa
Here is Mesa's redemption, for his 1995 season was absolutely brilliant. Yes, the Indians won their division by a shocking 30 games, and so one might say that the pressure was off for much of the season, but the salient point is that the Indians were on their way to their first post-season in 41 years and Mesa never flinched, never wavered as he marched to the mound to seal the deal, with a breathless and incredulous city waiting and waiting for the bubble to burst (as it eventually did, through no fault of Mesa's).
Sixty-two appearances. A record of 3-0, and a 1.13 ERA to go with 46 saves. A hand in 49% of the Indians' 100 wins, on a team with Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, Nagy and Bud Black, among others.
Just a brilliant, brilliant season.
A pity it did not last, but for one year, Jose Mesa was at the top of the pitching hill, and for that, he deserves the top spot on this week's Top-Five.
And there you have it, a list and a little history to go with it.
As in all such subjective lists: If you can think of something better, please feel free to share, and if you agree or disagree, I hope that you have at least enjoyed this particular ride.