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A handful of big-name closers already demoted

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POSTED May 15, 2012 1:43 a.m.

OAKLAND (AP) — Closer by committee is taking on new meaning during this mix-and-match May.

Big names like Heath Bell and Francisco Cordero recently lost their ninth-inning jobs. Same with a handful of others around baseball, including Oakland’s Grant Balfour just this past week. Both Los Angeles clubs demoted their closers, too.

Many pitchers responsible for recording those final three outs are in a state of flux, with several managers already moving them into the less-pressured roles of middle relief or setup duties.

It’s been a muddled month to say the least as far as the back end of bullpens are concerned.

“I found out firsthand how hard it is — I lost a game this year with a two-run lead in the ninth,” Detroit ace Justin Verlander said Sunday. “I think closers are one of the toughest pitching positions there are in the game. Mariano (Rivera) and (Trevor) Hoffman made it look so easy for so long. Those last three outs are the toughest to get in baseball.”

From Bell in Miami to the Cubs’ Carlos Marmol and into Canada with Toronto’s Cordero, these typically reliable arms have been pulled from their late-game gigs and put on a short leash.

“Plain and simple, if you look at the bad month I had in April, if I throw strikes, I get the job done,” said Bell, who has pitched better of late and soon could be back in his old job. “So I’m focusing on just throwing strikes.”

Athletics manager Bob Melvin went with former closer Brian Fuentes to finish Saturday night’s 3-1 victory against the Tigers. He might stick with this setup unless Fuentes doesn’t do the job — and Balfour has been told he could return to the ninth inning.

“I’ve been on many teams where they’ve given the closer a little break, based on a period of time, to iron some things out, take a little pressure off and get back to it,” Melvin said. “Certainly he’ll have that opportunity. We’ll see what Brian does with it. I know he’s excited about having it. But it’s not uncommon that guys get pulled out of that role for a while and end up reclaiming it. Cordero was taken out with Toronto and I would think that they expect him to be their closer again. It just happens over the course of the season sometimes.”

Dodgers skipper Don Mattingly dropped Javy Guerra from closer and replaced him with Kenley Jansen. A little farther south in Anaheim, Mike Scioscia bumped Jordan Walden in favor of Scott Downs.

“Evidently in a situation like that, somebody’s just not liking what they’re seeing,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said.

Even last summer, Francisco Rodriguez went from closer to setup man when he was traded by the Mets to Milwaukee at the All-Star break — and K-Rod is still having problems.

In fairness to Cordero, the longtime closer with Texas, Milwaukee and Cincinnati was expected to be a setup man for the Blue Jays when he signed with Toronto during the offseason. The Blue Jays already had traded for Sergio Santos, who converted two of his four save chances this season before going on the disabled list with a sore shoulder.

“I understand it’s me,” Cordero said. “They gave me a chance and I’m not doing my job. Obviously, I’m not happy.”

Detroit’s Jose Valverde blew a rare save April 5 against Boston, snapping a streak of 51 straight he had converted dating to the 2010 season, and Leyland faced questions about whether he might consider moving Octavio Dotel into the ninth inning in place of his inconsistent closer.

For Leyland, at least, the sample size at this early stage of the season is still too small to justify a switch with a high-profile, proven closer.

“I decided to put Dotel in there to close one and got chewed out, so I don’t pay much attention to that stuff,” Leyland said. “Valverde’s my closer and I assume he’ll be my closer all year. Unless something drastic happened, obviously we’ll make an adjustment, but I have no intention of that.

“It’s a tough job and it’s one of those jobs where it’s like a third-base coach. You don’t get noticed until you get somebody thrown out. As a closer you don’t get noticed until you blow one, or give one up. When a guy goes 49 for 49, I don’t think 20 games into the season you decide to change your closer myself.”

Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Monday he is sticking with Henry Rodriguez as his closer despite the pitcher’s three blown saves in 11 chances.

“They’re not machines,” Rockies manager Jim Tracy said before his team played in San Francisco. “It takes a special person to do that.”

The 34-year-old Bell, who received a $27 million, three-year contract with the big-spending Marlins in December, had 40-plus saves each of the past three seasons with the San Diego Padres, including 43 in 48 chances last year with a 2.44 ERA. He leads the majors with 135 saves over the past three-plus seasons.

But Bell has hardly resembled his former dominant self. He threw 46 pitches and walked four in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Mets in New York on April 26.

“It’s also a mentality in your clubhouse,” Tracy said. “There is nothing worse for a major league clubhouse than to lead a game for 2 hours and 35 minutes and lose it in 10.”

Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen is encouraged by Bell’s recent progress. He earned wins on Friday and Sunday against the Mets and is 2-3 with a 10.03 ERA in 14 games spanning 11 2-3 innings.

Guillen figured Bell might bounce back from a rough opening month when the burly right-hander produced a 1-2-3 ninth in a 2-1 win at San Francisco on May 1. But Bell blew his fourth save in seven opportunities three days later against his former San Diego club and was demoted the following day — but now he might be headed back to his old role.

“I want him to be there. I’m going to give him a shot. He deserves another shot,” Guillen said.

Blue Jays manager John Farrell also would consider putting Cordero back in his old job once he shows he’s ready.

“A lot of this is still confidence and the mental side of it,” Farrell said. “We want to build positive outings to get him some momentum, so when those opportunities later in the game arise, he’s had some positive reinforcement to go into that.”

Balfour hopes to do the same. He didn’t hide the fact he is furious with the demotion — and even told Melvin so.

“It’s not an easy job. Obviously, you want to go back to that role,” Balfour said. “Some guys will be moved out, some guys will be moved back. I understand baseball. It’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ As soon as you’re doing well, you’re in a good situation again.”

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