Each time he takes the ball with a one-run lead and the hour turning late, Joel Hanrahan knows it's a learning experience, a chance for the 26-year-old reliever to find out how he holds up to the pressure of closing in the major leagues.
The Washington Nationals know that and intend to throw Hanrahan into key situations every chance they get over the season's final five weeks, hoping they have stumbled upon their relief ace of the future.
If the last two nights are a sign of things to come, the Nationals might have found someone capable of doing the job. Hanrahan, a starter throughout his minor league career who only began working out of the bullpen this spring, has finished off the playoff-contending Los Angeles Dodgers in one-run games on consecutive evenings.
Wednesday night's 5-4 victory was a particularly tense affair, with the Dodgers loading the bases in the eighth and forcing Washington manager Manny Acta to summon Hanrahan early to record a four-out save.
The 6-foot-4, 248-pound right-hander, who escaped a self-made jam Tuesday to secure a 2-1 win, came through again. He got Matt Kemp to fly out to left to quash the eighth-inning rally and then made it through the ninth to earn his sixth save and draw a roar from a crowd of 22,907 that was the smallest at Nationals Park since the second home game of the season.
"I've had that situation before and didn't get the job done," Hanrahan said. "Coming in there with the bases loaded, the game's on the line right there, and you've got to get that guy out somehow."
That kind of killer instinct, so critical to a closer's success, has become one of Hanrahan's hallmarks in the last few weeks.
"He looks aggressive like he's smelling blood when he's out there," Acta said. "He doesn't look as tentative as he was at the beginning of the season, even before he was saving ballgames. He came in today in a bases-loaded situation and didn't hesitate. I think he's taking a liking to the job."
Hanrahan's latest effort helped cap another impressive win for the Nationals, who earned their first series victory since taking three of four at Colorado on Aug. 4-7 and on Wednesday beat one of the greatest pitchers in the game's history.
At this stage of his 23-year career, Greg Maddux is only a fraction of his peak self, the guy who would post sub-2.00 ERAs and pitch 10 complete games a season a decade ago.
Maddux still manages to command his sharp-bending, two-seam fastball with pinpoint precision, and young hitters who have never seen it often have trouble picking the pitch up out of his hand. But Maddux's stuff isn't quite good enough anymore to guarantee success with command, and the Nationals took advantage of that fact Wednesday night in manufacturing four runs over the game's first four innings.
Washington racked up eight hits, all of them singles, a couple of them never leaving the infield. But that was enough, thanks to aggressive baserunning, well-placed grounders and a rare throwing error by Maddux (owner of 17 Gold Gloves, most in baseball history). Another error by second baseman Jeff Kent in the fourth allowed Emilio Bonifacio to score all the way from second, a tack-on run that proved important as the night played out.
"Right now, we don't score too many runs," Bonifacio said. "So speed is very important for us."
Nationals starter Tim Redding was in many ways the opposite of Maddux in the game, allowing six extra-base hits, including three solo homers. But Redding did limit the damage to that, and when he departed before the seventh he owned a 4-3 lead.
Washington might have added to that cushion had Maddux not deked Lastings Milledge on a comebacker in the fifth. With Milledge dancing off third, Maddux fielded the ball and faked a throw to first, leaving the Nationals' baserunner caught off base.
Ryan Zimmerman brought that elusive fifth run home two innings later when he crushed a pitch from reliever Chan Ho Park into the batter's eye beyond the center-field fence, Zimmerman's first homer since May 17 at Baltimore and the deciding run in the Nationals' second-straight impressive win.
"It's a process," Acta said. "And they're learning."