Giants desperately seeking closer

Giants desperately seeking closer

SAN FRANCISCO -- It may not yet be the time for a postmortem, but the moment is drawing near.

The Giants have been hanging on for weeks in a signature National League West race by virtue of the fact that the first-place -- and sub-.500 -- Padres haven't been able to ice the rest of the division. Thursday night's 7-1 loss to the Dodgers at SBC Park notwithstanding, there is one figure that stands out above all others in what ultimately can only be considered a lost season.

It's not significant games lost to injuries by veterans Barry Bonds, Moises Alou, J.T. Snow, Armando Benitez and Jason Schmidt. It's the 23 blown saves -- 51 over the last two seasons -- that spells out why this team hasn't been to the playoffs since 2003.

Bonds' return this week gave the team an immediate jolt of energy, but since he can't pitch, his impact was only temporary. On Thursday night, he came close again to his 704th homer and first since his return when he launched a splash shot into McCovey Cove off Dodgers' right-hander Derek Lowe. The drive was just foul.

"I don't really care about that," Bonds said after the game in which he went 0-for-3 before leaving again after seven innings. "How many games are we out?"

Well, 6 1/2 games back with 16 left to play.

"We're going to have to make some decisions," he added.

Last year, with Bonds having his seventh NL MVP season, the Giants missed the playoffs by one slim game, Wayne Franklin providing the punctuation point by serving up the grand slam pitch to Steve Finley that gave the Dodgers the title with only a day to go in the season. It was the last pitch that Finley, who is languishing on the bench for the Angels, hit hard.

That Franklin was tossed into that role is part of how the dominos have fallen for the Giants since Robb Nen threw his last pitch in the 2002 World Series. Soon after, Dusty Baker left for the Chicago Cubs, Felipe Alou took over as manager and Nen never came back, his fraying shoulder leading this year to an early retirement.

"You have to ask why all the blown saves?" Alou said almost wistfully before the game. "I never had Robb Nen. We waited for him for two years. We had a situation that turned out below our expectations."

Since the loss of Nen, it has been a tryout clinic at closer, perhaps the most important single position in this baseball era, and Alou deserves credit for patching it together. At one time or another, Tim Worrell, Matt Herges, Dustin Hermanson, Benitez, Tyler Walker and LaTroy Hawkins -- to name a few -- have all been tested in that key spot. All have proved wanting, and many of them are long gone.

Right now, Alou is relying on one guy who was run out of New York (Benitez) and another who was run out of Chicago (Hawkins). And the team has still saved a total of 40 games, despite the 23 that got away.

"It's hard to say anything about Benitez," Alou said. "He got hurt and we didn't even expect him back this year. He worked very hard to get back, and you've got to give him a lot of credit for that."

Of course, that situation will continue to play itself out next year.

Benitez was supposed to be the savior when he was signed last winter as a free agent for three years at $21.5 million.

He severely tore two tendons attaching his hamstring to his right leg covering first base earlier this season, missed 96 games and has been hit-or-miss both before the injury and after his surprising return on Aug. 15.

Alou is discovering that Benitez is neither the pitcher who couldn't hack it with the Mets, Yankees and Mariners two years ago, nor the one who saved 47 games in 51 opportunities for the Marlins last season.

"I don't know what he did before that; all I know is that we got a guy who saved 47 out of 51," Alou said. "I believe any team would like to take a shot at a guy like that."

Benitez has saved 10 of his 12 tries since he came back, but the two misses -- in Los Angeles last week and against the Padres here on Wednesday -- probably put the dagger in the Giants' season.

Benitez has a long history of problems in big games. Pitching for the Orioles in 1996, Benitez was on the mound at Yankee Stadium when Derek Jeter lofted a drive toward the right field seats. A 12-year-old named Jeffrey Meier interfered with the ball, which was ruled a home run, in one of the most notorious plays in American League Championship Series history.

The Yanks went on to win the game in extra innings and the series in five games.

Fast forward to 2000 and the Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets.

It's Game 1 and the Mets lead, 3-2, in the ninth inning, again at Yankee Stadium, and Benitez on the mound for the Mets. With one out, he loaded the bases, allowing the Yankees to tie the score on a Chuck Knoblauch sacrifice fly.

The Yankees won the game in extra innings and the series in five games, history eerily repeating itself.

By 2003, Benitez was so hounded by Mets fans at Shea Stadium he was traded. To the Yankees. There he lasted nine games, haphazard even in a setup role, before being traded again.

The anomaly of it all is that Benitez has put up substantial numbers.

He has saved 258 games in his 11-year career and came into the season having allowed opposing batters to hit just .195 against him, a figure that has leapt more than 50 points for this year alone. That opposing lifetime batting average is the best of any active reliever. Better than the Yankees' Mariano Rivera. Better than the Padres' Trevor Hoffman.

But because of his big-game failures, no one would mention Benitez in the same breath as either of those two.

The difference between Hoffman and Benitez was stark on Wednesday.

Benitez came in to protect a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning and recorded the first out. Twenty-five pitches later, the score was tied and Benitez had blown his fourth opportunity of a season in which he's appeared in just 22 games. When the Padres went ahead for good in the 10th, Hoffman came on and retired the side so quickly there was scarcely time to sit back in one's seat.

The save was his 38th of the season and 35th in a row. He is the Padres MVP and the reason that team has clung to first place since May 25, despite a 72-73 record with 17 games left to play.

How many pitches did he throw?

"I don't know. I lost count," Hoffman said with a laugh after that Wednesday performance.

Try seven -- six of them strikes.

Alou can only dream of that kind of production. If he had it last year, the Giants would've won the division and gone into the playoffs for the third year in a row. If he had this year, the Giants would've overcome what will ultimately be about 500 games lost to injury, Bonds alone counting for 142 of them.

But then, that won't be the key number when the book is closed on the Giants season. Never was and never will be. It'll be those blown saves.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.