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The first bars of
AC/DC's Thunderstruck came at precisely 9:54 p.m. PDT, Putz Domination Time,
which on the East Coast, where J.J. Putz is little more than a name at the
bottom of a box score, was almost one in the morning. Like the old-fashioned
milkman or the vacuous Hollywood party girl, the Seattle Mariners' closer
starts his day when much of the country is asleep. He emerges from the Safeco
Field bullpen in leftfield at a steady, almost stately, jog until he reaches
the mound to pitch the ninth. Heavy-metal accompaniment aside, there is no faux
air of menace about him. The hulking Putz is genuinely scary.
With Seattle leading the Detroit Tigers by a run last Thursday, Putz gave up a one-out double to Marcus Thames but retired the dangerous Gary Sheffield on a fly to right and then, in a confrontation between baseball's best closer in 2007 and its leading hitter, got Magglio Ordoñez to swing through a 1 and 2 fastball to end the game. Mariners 3, Tigers 2. The digital scoreboard clock read 10:05. All the games were over, and it was time for a nation's night owls to turn in.
J.J.'s work was done. Another day, another collar.
The name is Joseph Jason Putz although no one, except for one college teammate, ever calls him Joe. The surname is pronounced puts as in "puts up numbers so spectacular that they border on the implausible" (chart, page 56). Through Sunday, Putz had converted all 26 of his save chances, the last of which--a four-out, strike-out-the-side-in-the-ninth outing to nail down a 6-4 win over the Tigers last Saturday--set a club record for consecutive saves (28) and earned him a postgame beer shower. ("There was Bud," Putz reports. "And I definitely tasted Bud Light."). His streak is impressive but not necessarily unusual; there have been 14 longer streaks since 1990 according to the Elias Sports Bureau. But in a specialized line of employment former Seattle manager Mike Hargrove once characterized as "three days of boredom followed by 15 minutes of sheer terror," Putz's mastery has been staggering. The statistics tumble like his splitter. At week's end he had allowed only one more runner (27 in 43 1⁄3 innings) than he had accumulated saves. His ERA was 0.83; in save opportunities, it was a microscopic 0.30. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was nearly 7 to 1 and on the road, away from the AC/DC adrenaline, he had yet to give up a run. His walks and hits per innings pitched, or WHIP, was 0.58.
To put that number in context, Eric Gagné's WHIP was 0.69 in 2003, when he was in the midst of his streak of 84 straight saves for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And during his run of excellence with the Oakland A's from 1988 through '92, Dennis Eckersley's lowest seasonal WHIP was 0.61. "When I see [Putz], I see dominance," says Eckersley, a Boston Red Sox studio analyst. "I see punch-outs. If I'm going to get a closer, I like one who doesn't give you contact, who doesn't let you hit ground balls. Who doesn't?"
But the 30-year-old Putz, three classes shy of his degree in sports management from Michigan, is not a numbers man. He prefers letters. One letter, actually: W. "If I come into a game with a three-run lead and give up a two-run homer and we win by a run, so be it," Putz says. "Bottom line. Get a W so we can have some fun in the clubhouse." In the late-night world of J.J. Putz, WHIPs are for jockeys. Thanks largely to a Putz-anchored pen that had the American League's third-lowest ERA through Sunday, the surprising Mariners were only three games behind the Los Angeles Angels in the American League West and two out of the wild card. That's it.
"Maybe he's not one of a kind, but there aren't a lot of guys out there like J.J.," says Eddie Guardado, the former Seattle closer now with the Cincinnati Reds. "He cares about the team, cares about the game. He understands the unwritten rules of baseball, about doing the job on the field but enjoying things and keeping the team loose."
Although Putz proudly proclaims that his hero is his younger brother, Brian, a firefighter in Taylor, Mich.--J.J. is the latest in a long line of firemen, although unlike his maternal grandfather, an uncle and Brian, he doesn't rush into burning buildings and douse actual flames--his mentor is Guardado, who showed Putz the big league ropes when he finally stuck with the Mariners in 2004, at age 27. Guardado, who is to baseball humor what Meryl Streep is to accents, also showed him the hoary gags. Putz generally eschews cutting up teammates' clothing like his buddy Eddie Scissorhands, having made the shaving-cream pie his signature bit. He claims to be a veritable pie-in-face ninja. "I come out of nowhere," he says. "Some guys even think they know it's coming, and I still get them." True, that eye-burning pie that marked reliever Sean White's first career victory in May was underbaked (you should always go with foam, never gel), but really, isn't it all about making sure a teammate gets his just desserts? "I haven't done anything new," says Putz, who also hoses players with cold water as they come out of the sauna or bubblegums the odd cap. "I'm just continuing the baseball tradition of the childish prank."
But Guardado's lasting impact on Putz's career has less to do with slapstick turns than with a simple rotation of the baseball. Like so many strapping righthanders with 90-plus fastballs, Putz had been a starter at Michigan and for most of his first four years in the Mariners' system. In Triple A four years ago he was switched to the bullpen; once in the majors, he learned he'd need a second pitch. During a three-day stretch in May 2005, the Red Sox' Trot Nixon and the Yankees' Bernie Williams, sitting on Putz fastballs, hit seventh-inning grand slams. After Williams's homer, Guardado and reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa marched into a sauna and encouraged Putz to stay aggressive while stressing the pedagogical value of getting your brains kicked in. It was an early lesson in selective amnesia, one reinforced every time Putz goes home. "I'm lucky in that way," he says. "My wife [Kelsey] was a two-time All-American softball player at Michigan, a second baseman, so she understands pressure and disappointments, knows when to give me space and when to give me a little needle. And with the twins now [20-month-old Lauren and Kaelyn], when I get home from the ballpark, they don't care how I did. They just want a hug from Daddy."
On that dark May day two seasons ago, Guardado was reminding Putz to get a grip. Ten months later he was showing him one. Playing catch late in spring training in 2006, Guardado suggested that Putz turn the ball slightly so that neither index nor middle finger rested on a seam in his splitter grip. Like his suddenly biting splitter, a meandering big league career found an entirely differently plane. Putz supplanted Guardado as the full-time closer in early May 2006, and two months later, Seattle shipped the lefthander to the Reds. "I think J.J. felt a little guilty because Eddie was his best friend," McLaren says, "but he just got an opportunity and ran with it."