Saturday, September 4, 2010

Hanrahan learns how to close

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Joel Hanrahan blew away Ryan Zimmerman to earn his third save for the Pirates.
PITTSBURGH — There was a time when the last thing Joel Hanrahan wanted was to be handed the ball for the ninth inning with his team leading by three or fewer runs. May 2009, for example, comes to mind.

When the Nationals sent Hanrahan to the Pirates as part of the four-player trade that also included Nyjer Morgan, Sean Burnett and Lastings Milledge, there were plenty of people around the Nats organization who figured the big right-hander would never be successful as a big-league closer.

As good as Hanrahan's stuff was, he didn't seem to have the mental capacity to pitch the ninth inning of a tight ballgame. Five blown saves in 10 opportunities and a 7.71 ERA tend to raise some red flags.

In Pittsburgh, though, Hanrahan has rediscovered himself. And in blowing away the Nats during the ninth inning last night to preserve an 8-5 victory, he showed his former team why he's being viewed around these parts as a viable closer once again.

Hanrahan looked mighty impressive in striking out Adam Kennedy on a 97 mph fastball and Ryan Zimmerman on a 98 mph heater. He only threw a couple of sliders, but local reporters say he's displayed much better command of that pitch this season, making him all the more effective.

The real key, though, to Hanrahan's renewed success in the ninth inning — he's been successful in three of four save opportunities since Octavio Dotel was traded to the Dodgers on July 31 — has been his calm demeanor on the mound, no matter how tense the situation.

"I learned a lot from last year," he said. "I just go in there relaxed, try not to let the fans get me pumped up and try to stay pretty even-keel. When I do that, I feel like I have more success. When the crowd gets into it and I try to throw harder, then I'm all over the place."

How was Hanrahan able to make that important mental leap, treating the ninth inning like it was any other frame? The fact the Pirates eased him into the role this season helped.

"It just came with pitching in the eighth inning most of this year," he said. "I matured a little bit. I think that helped a lot. I just try to take that same mentality into it and try not to worry about getting the three outs and getting out of here. I just try to slow it down and take it one pitch at a time."

Hanrahan never expected to be a closer when he came up through the Dodgers' system as a top starting prospect. He debuted with the Nationals in 2007 as a starter, then converted to a reliever in 2008 before taking on closing duties late in the season after Jon Rauch was traded.

So he's never been one of those guys who was groomed all along to be a closer, a la Chad Cordero or Drew Storen. But he's come to embrace late-inning relief in a way he never expected.

"You know what, I like pitching in the eighth and I like pitching in the ninth," he said. "If I can be in one of those two positions, I'll be happy. I feel like I have the stuff that I can close. I feel like I've learned the mentality of it a little bit more. I like pitching in a tight game like that. You've got to be on your game. It's fun ... the 80 or 90 percent of the time when you do it."

Had he been successful 80 or 90 percent of the time last season, Hanrahan might still be closing in Washington.


Big Cat said...

I still don't think he can mentally handle being a big league closer. Time will tell. But I'll tell ya one thing, I sure would like to have that 98mph back in our bullpen. Wonder if the Bucs will swap him back to us for Nyjer. Heck, we could even throw in Maxwell to sweeten the pot

Doc said...

@ Big Cat: We might as well throw in Mock, Bergman, Atilano, and a few more etcs. I knew that being a closer had a certain mentality to it, but I didn't realize it was such a big emotional/mental leap for some pitchers.

It also sounds like the mental part is not always the easiest thing for a pitching coach to mentor. With Joe Kerrigan, Hanrahan has one of the best. Randy St. Clair tried his best with Hanrahan too, and he still ranks high in my estimation of quality coaches.

Doesn't sound like Hanrahan is quite there yet, and maybe never will be. But the heater is certainly impressive.

Us fans like to keep track of the ex-Nats. Nice article Mark.

JaneB said...

Im one of the fans who even ROOTS for certain ex-Nats when I see them play. Jon Rauch being one of them. And I will probably root for Nyjer, whenever he lands somewhere else, as seems inevitable. Interesting that we couldn't help Hanrahan to where he is now, and the Pirates gave up on Capps. Maybe there is something to the idea of clean slate that helps players turn a corner. Thanks for this update!

Anonymous said...

Hanrahan gave one of the great quotes of all time when he said as a Nat "I get good results when I throw strikes". He can be good, at least, if he ever gets control over his 98 mph heat. Of course, there are hundreds of guys through the years that have said that, too.

BinM said...

I'm as happy as any that 'Gas-Can' has found a role with the Pirates, but he is still another $1M arm with a two-bit head, imo. He turns 30 in the off-season, and that 98mph two-seamer is bound to lose some steam at some point in the near future.

I'd still take the trade of Milledge-Hanrahan for Morgan-Burnett, & call it a wash at worst. Two 'knuckleheads' off the roster, while getting one 'knucklehead' (Morgan), and a solid LHRP in return. Still a good trade, imo.

Sec3MySofa said...

The Cubs will probably be looking to dump some salary. Maybe the Nats could get Marlon Byrd back? Just a thought. I always liked that guy.

I'm assuming "We stand behind Nyjer" means "by dinnertime Oct. 3 he is SO out of here."

rogieshan said...

Doc said: "With [pitching coach] Joe Kerrigan, Hanrahan has one of the best."

Kerrigan was fired last month. Ray Searage is the pitching coach now.

Doc said...

@ rogieshan: My bad! But still think that Kerrigan is a good pitching coach. Thanks for keeping me up to date.

Souldrummer said...

To me, Hanrahan is a Bowden casualty. He was a prospect almost as valuable as Storen given his stuff. Last year, we threw him into a closer role and he had less time in big league camp and less innings over the spring since we was on the World Baseball Classic USA roster. I tend to think Rizzo, who likes to protect his prospects a bit more, would have found a better stopgap closer like he did with Matt Capps this year to help protect Hanrahan and that may have helped him ease into a closer role.

In the long run, I think Hanrahan is going to be better than Burnett. Morgan for Milledge is starting to look like a wash. Not a bad deal given where we were and our need to clean house after Bowden, but we shouldn't be married to Morgan either and we should still root for Hanrahan as he thrives in greener Bowden-less pastures.

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