by Harold Friend
When discussing the greatest pitchers of all time, only starters are ever considered. It is impossible to compare starting pitchers to relief pitchers, and it is impossible to compare the relief pitchers of yesteryear to modern closers.
Relief Pitchers Were "Firemen"
From the glory days of Washington's Firpo Marberry and the Yankees' Wilcy Moore, to the days of Hoyt Wilhelm, Elroy Face, Tug McGraw, and Steve Bedrosian, relief pitchers were "fireman" who came in to put out the fire. It was not unusual for a team's best relief pitcher to enter the game in the seventh or eighth inning in close games. They weren't specialists who were used only in the game's last inning to protect a lead.
Impossible to Compare a "Fireman" to a Closer
A few days ago, Goose Gossage stated that he considered Mariano Rivera the greatest of all closers, but that it was impossible to compare closers with relief pitchers. Gossage contends that he, Rollie Fingers, Dan Quisenberry, and Sparky Lyle were relief pitchers who did a job that requires three pitchers to accomplish today.
Why Rich "Goose" Gossage is Right
Rich Gossage is right on target. Starting an inning with the bases empty and no outs cannot be compared to entering the game with runners on base. The closer has the luxury of allowing a hit to the first batter he faces, and even to the second batter, because he has the opportunity to work out of his own jam. A relief pitcher that comes in with a runner in scoring position cannot allow a hit because he cannot let the runner score. It is an entirely different ball game.
Jonathon Papelbon and George Sherrill
Jonathan Papelbon would like to become the next Mariano Rivera. He may accomplish that seemingly impossible dream, but he will never be the next Rich Gossage.
Jonathan Allows One Hit and His Team Loses
On June 30, 2009, Jonathan entered the game in the eighth inning with Baltimore runners on first and second and one out. Boston was desperately clinging to a 10-9 lead that had been a 10-1 lead an inning earlier. Papelbon struck out Felix Pie for the second out, but then Nick Markakis hit a double to left center field to give the Birds the lead.
George Allows One Hit and His Team Wins
Baltimore brought in closer George Sherrill to pitch the ninth. Jeff Bailey greeted Sherrill with a ringing single to left. If Sherrill had entered the game in the situation Papelbon found himself in an inning earlier, he would have blown the save. The Orioles' closer retired Julio Lugo and Dustin Pedroia, hit Kevin Youkilis with a pitch, and struck out Jason Bay for the save.
Rich Gossage and friends didn't have the luxury of starting the last inning with the bases empty. In the Orioles-Red Sox game, Papelbon didn't have that luxury and his team lost. Sherrill had that situation, and although he allowed two runners, he "earned" a save. Closers have it much easier than the relief pitchers known as "firemen."