THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 26, 2006

I had a bunch of things to write about today. I’d begun to organize my thoughts last night, right about the time that Antonio Alfonseca was brought in to protect a lead. I’d figured out how to kick this morning’s report off by time Akinori Otsuka had thrown his nine pitches, eight for strikes, in a quiet eighth.

But as a result of the ninth inning, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that most of what was going to go in today’s report could only be construed as beside the point. So those thoughts I’d collected have been neatly boxed up, and we’ll get to those another morning.

Two pitchers in the American League have more wins than Francisco Cordero.

Never a good thing to have your closer among the league leaders in victories.

Cordero leads baseball with four blown saves. It’s obviously a testament to his teammates that he also has three wins on his ledger.

When A’s first baseman Dan Johnson, who came into his ninth-inning at-bat with five hits in 50 at-bats this season, stepped up to the plate, it set up a confrontation between baseball’s most unproductive hitter in 2006 and the game’s most beleaguered reliever. Someone had to prevail.

Cordero had already allowed a leadoff single followed by a four-pitch walk, so, as a fan, I was pretty much resigned to what was going to happen. Two straight groundouts cut the Rangers’ 5-3 lead to 5-4, and there stood Johnson, who should have had as much chance against Cordero as you or I would.

An out away from securing a win, with the tying run on second, Cordero started Johnson off with a called strike.

Then ball one.

Ball two.

Ball three.

Johnson then swung through a pitch, and Cordero was one pitch away from the save.

And one pitch away from the blown save.

Johnson ripped a fastball to left center, and the game was tied.

Cordero seems to have lost his edge, if not his confidence. But his teammates have lost neither, and somehow, despite the way the season started and despite the way Cordero has pitched, Texas is tied for first in the AL West.

After the win, the manager said to the press what you and I have been thinking, with regard to his closer. “He was one pitch away again. He just could not get it done for us. The situation is a concern to our bullpen because we are going to need to get it straightened out if we are going to get to where we want to go this season. If it is not something we can figure out, then we will have to come up with a solution.”

The reason Buck Showalter’s comments are meaningful is that he made them publicly. Showalter doesn’t say things arbitrarily, or accidentally.

A contending team has no problems until it has closer problems, and it’s been 10 years since Texas has had serious issues in the ninth inning. I still think Cordero will get straightened out, but what do I know?

It’s ugly. Demoralizing. Hard to understand. What will Showalter do, in the short term, and what will Jon Daniels do, in the long term?

Cordero has a club option for 2007. Will Texas exercise it, choosing to pay him $5 million next year (or more, depending on how many games he finishes in 2006), or let him walk?

Here’s who I think will be the Rangers’ closer in 2007:

Candidate number four: Josh Rupe. Imagine that stuff if he was conditioned to bring it in 15-pitch doses. He’s got the head for it, too.

Candidate number three: Frankie Francisco. His rehab is coming along. We should get to see him before the All-Star Break. We’ll learn plenty about him in the second half.

Candidate number two: Akinori Otsuka. What an addition he’s been.

Candidate number one: Francisco Cordero.

Will Cordero break out of this stunning funk he’s in? Sure hope so. Walkoff wins are only possible at home, and even then, you certainly can’t count on the offense to step up in the ninth inning as often as it has lately. It’s far more practical to expect your closer to step it up.

I still expect that from Cordero, even if it’s a leap of faith at the moment. We need to keep giving him the ball to protect ninth-inning leads, and hope that just around the corner are a couple extra ticks on the radar gun, a little lower plane on the fastball and the slider, and a better look in his eye.

Then maybe comments like last night’s from the manager, and the uneasy feeling I’m now getting when Cordero marches in from the bullpen, will be distant memories. As will seeing Cordero’s name among the league leaders in wins.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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