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Unlikely closer emerges for Nats

- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 24, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO | Joel Hanrahan spent seven years working his way up through the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system, pitching every fifth day and always assuming his path to the major leagues would be as a starter.

And Hanrahan eventually made it, debuting for the Washington Nationals last summer and making 11 starts before the season ended.

So when the right-hander first heard through his agent over the winter that the Nationals wanted to convert him into a reliever, he wasn't sure what to think.

"Obviously the bullpen here had been one of the strengths," he said. "And with a full, healthy bullpen, there really wouldn't have been a spot for me."

The Nationals didn't just find a spot for Hanrahan. They found a way to hand him the most coveted job in the bullpen. When Jon Rauch was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday, manager Manny Acta named Hanrahan his new closer.

"He's been our most dominant guy out of our bullpen and has the best numbers," the manager reasoned. "So he'll get the crack at it."

It's a position Hanrahan never dreamed he find himself.

"No, definitely not," he said.

The Nationals, though, had been eyeing the 26-year-old as a potential ninth-inning pitcher for some time. After watching him squander his dynamite "stuff" - a 95 mph fastball and biting slider - during some laborious starts in 2007, the organization decided he might be better suited as a short reliever.

Hanrahan's problem throughout his career was his penchant to rack up high pitch counts. In his 11 starts for Washington last season, he lasted an average of only 4 1/2 innings. Why? Because he also averaged 90.2 pitches an outing.

"I'd throw 100 pitches in five innings, and I could still have a shutout," he said. "That's not doing the team a whole lot of good."

So the Nationals came to a conclusion: Why try to coax six or seven substandard innings out of Hanrahan when they could see better results in only one- or two-inning bursts?

"We just felt that coming out of the bullpen would allow him to not have to pace himself and bring the heat for a couple innings," Acta said.

The transition wasn't entirely smooth. Hanrahan still struggled to locate the strike zone through the season's first couple of months. At one point, he actually led all National League relievers in both strikeouts and walks, testament both to his unhittable arsenal and his inability to control it.

But over time, he began to harness his stuff and began to realize success because of it. Along the way, Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire began to ease Hanrahan into more substantial roles, from a mop-up man to a middle reliever to a setup job.

And after watching him post a 1.50 ERA over his last 12 innings - a span that has included only four walks - they decided to give him his first crack at closing.

"When somebody has that type of stuff, you automatically think he's got closer stuff," Acta said. "But we also knew we had to take it slow and step-by-step because of his control issues. It was a matter of him being able to feel comfortable pitching in the sixth, seventh, eighth. We'll see. We'll have two months to find out what he can do."

The Nationals appear committed to giving Hanrahan a prolonged audition. With little left to play for in 2008, the season's remaining 62 games will be used primarily for evaluation purposes.

On the surface, the transition shouldn't be a big deal. Hanrahan has been pitching effectively in relief for several months now. But anyone who has ever held the closer's role before knows pitching in the ninth inning is entirely different from pitching the eighth.

"I think you've got to kind of approach it the same, go out there and try to throw a scoreless inning like I usually do," Hanrahan said. "I'm excited, ready for the challenge."