|Wednesday, September 11
A's and Koch survive blown saves
By Keith Woolner
Special to ESPN.com
On September 4, the Oakland A's went up on the visiting Kansas City Royals 11-0 after the third inning. Three hours later, the A's had reliquished all of their advantage, and entered the bottom of the ninth dead even with the tenacious and energized Royals. With Scott Hatteberg's dramatic ninth-inning bomb, the A's turned what could have been a laugher into yet another one-run victory (they are an MLB-best 28-9 in one-run games).
Hatteberg's blast marked the seventh time in 2002 that Oakland's winning pitcher was also one who had blown the save. That's the most in the majors this year, and more than any team registered in 2001. How have they done it? The answer, in short, is their closer, Billy Koch, who has been the goat and beneficiary of his team's late-inning offense in five of the seven games:
Blown save, dramatic win No. 1: April 2 (Billy Koch)
The blown save: Koch walked Rafael Palmeiro, and gave up a hit to I-Rod. Herb Perry sacrifices to get pinch-runner Mike Young to third. Koch strikes out rookie Hank Blalock swinging, then surrenders a single to Gabe Kapler to knock in the tying run.
The comeback: The first batter in the bottom of the ninth, Carlos Pena, hit a walkoff home run in the third pitch of his plate appearance.
Blown save, dramatic win No. 2: April 9 (Billy Koch)
The blown save: A week later, Koch blew another one. This time, he entered the game in the bottom of the 10th inning. Eric Chavez homered in the top of 10th to give the A's the lead, but with the bases loaded, Koch walked Rusty Greer on four pitches to blow the save.
The comeback: In the 11th inning, Greg Myers knocked in Terrence Long to again give the A's a one-run advantage. Koch redeemed himself with a 1-2-3 inning, ending with back-to-back strikeouts of Frank Catalanotto and the previous week's hero, Kapler.
Blown save, dramatic win No. 3: June 9 (Billy Koch)
The blown save: The A's started the 8th inning with a 6-1 lead over the Astros. After Jim Mecir allowed the first five batters of the inning to reach base, and Mike Magnante walked two of the three batters he faced on four pitches each, Koch entered the game. He walked Craig Biggio with the bases loaded to force in Richard Hidalgo. The run is charged to Mecir, but Koch blows a tough save opportunity before getting Lance Berkman to ground out to end the inning.
The comeback: In the bottom of the eighth, leadoff batter Miguel Tejada hit a 2-2 pitch over the left-field wall for a home run, giving the A's a 7-6 lead, which Koch preserved with a 1-2-3 ninth, getting Jeff Bagwell, Orlando Merced and Hidalgo.
Blown save, dramatic win No. 4: June 10 (Chad Bradford)
The blown save: The very next day, an Oakland pitcher again had a blown save. Bradford entered the game in the top of the seventh with runners on first and second. Jose Hernandez, the first batter Bradford faced, doubled to center field, knocking in Geoff Jenkins. Matt Stairs tried to score as well, but is thrown out the end the inning.
The comeback: Oakland rallied in the bottom of the eighth when Ramon Hernandez batted in Terrence Long with a double. Mark Ellis then knocked in Hernandez with a single to give the A's a two-run lead. Koch pitched the ninth to save the game for winning pitcher Bradford.
Blown save, dramatic win No. 5: July 20 (Billy Koch)
The blown save: Oakland led Texas 5-4 going into the ninth inning. Koch entered the game and surrendered a home run to the first batter he faced, Rafael Palmeiro.
The comeback: In what is likely the most improbable comeback on the list, Texas reliever Dave Burba got two quick outs in the bottom of the ninth, then walked Eric Chavez and Jermaine Dye. His first pitch to John Mabry was wild, leaving first base open. Burba then intentionally walked Mabry to load the bases. The next batter, Olmedo Saenz, is hit with the second pitch, to force in the winning run.
Blown save, dramatic win No. 6: August 31 (Jim Mecir)
The blown save: Oakland led 3-1 going into the seventh. Starter Cory Lidle struck out Luis Rivas, then gave up a homer to Dustan Mohr. Ricardo Rincon relieved Lidle and gave up a single and a walk before being pulled. Enter Jim Mecir. He struck out Matt LeCroy before allowing a single to Torii Hunter which knocked in Cristian Guzman, tying the game. Mecir allowed an inherited baserunner to score, and blows the save.
The comeback: In the bottom of the eighth, the A's had Eric Byrnes on third and Ray Durham on second with two outs. Miguel Tejada was intentionally walked by J.C. Romero to load the bases. Then Eric Chavez singled, scoring Byrnes and Durham and sending Tejada to third. Jermaine Dye singled, scoring Tejada. The A's score three runs, to lead 6-3 at the end of eight innings. Koch preserved the win for Mecir, and gets the save for himself.
Blown save, dramatic win No. 7: September 4 (Billy Koch)
The blown save: The A's have blown an 11-0 lead, and are up by just one run entering the ninth. Koch came in and promptly surrendered a single to Joe Randa. After Kit Pellow came in to run, Brent Mayne sacrificed him to second. Koch struck out Dee Brown for the second out of the inning. Then pinch-hitter Luis Alicea singled, scoring Pellow, completing the Royals' elimination of 11-run deficit to tie the game. Koch got into more trouble when a wild pitch sent Alicea to second, but escaped when he picked off Alicea as he started to break towards third.
The comeback: Well, this is the story that started this article. Jason Grimsley got Jermaine Dye to fly out to right, before Scott Hatteberg blasts a pitch to right-center for a dramatic, walk-off home run, giving the A's their 20th consecutive win.
Four of Oakland's such wins were like the September 4 game, where the team lost the lead in the ninth inning before rallying back to win. Surprisingly, the A's are only tied for the major-league lead in this category, with Arizona and San Francisco. The Diamondbacks recovered from three blown saves by Byun-Hyung Kim, and one from Mike Myers, while the Giants have rallied to pull Robb Nen from the fire on four occasions. The team who rallied from a ninth-inning failure the most in 2001 was Toronto, with five turnaround wins, including three in 12 days at the end of the season. There's a common thread between this year's A's and last year's Blue Jays; all five of Toronto's blown saves were charged to the Jays' closer ... Billy Koch.
Coincidence? Probably not. Koch has always allowed a lot of hits for a closer, and was just one blown save from leading the league in 2001 and thus far in 2002. But perhaps Koch is just channeling a pitcher of previous years. Since 1978, the team that has had the most comebacks from blown ninth-inning leads were the 1986 New York Yankees, who had seven such wins -- coming after one blown save by Brian Fisher and six blown saves by Dave Righetti.
Righetti still managed to do OK that season. He finished the season with a then-record 46 saves, won the Rolaids relief award, placed fourth in the Cy Young balloting and 10th in the MVP. Koch won't get that kind of recognition, but he might match Righetti's totals both for saves (46), and blown-save comebacks (5). While it is better to be lucky than good, the best combination is being lucky and good.
You can check out more work from the team of writers of the Baseball Prospectus at baseballprospectus.com. You can reach Keith Woolner at email@example.com. Baseball Prospectus is a registered trademark of Prospectus Entertainment Ventures, LLC.