Perhaps one of the most under-appreciated storylines in this wonderful season for the Twins has been the dramatic turnaround of Jesse Crain. His performance in the early weeks of the season had most Twins fans clamoring for his dismissal, but since seeing his ERA swell to a season-high 7.31 on May 18, Crain has been one of the league's most dominant relievers.
In 46 2/3 innings of work since that date, the right-hander has allowed only 27 hits, including 22 singles and just one home run. He's struck out 46 batters and walked 18. He's been charged with only five earned runs -- good for a 0.96 ERA. I never would have expected to say this back in mid-May, but right now Crain is pretty much automatic.
His season highlight came on Tuesday night. With the Twins seeking to bury the dagger on a White Sox club that would be effectively eliminated from contention with a loss, Crain entered the game in an extremely sticky situation. The Sox, trailing by one in the bottom of the seventh, had put both of their first two hitters on against Matt Guerrier and were heading into the heart of their lineup with nobody out.
Alexei Ramirez moved both runners into scoring position with a sacrifice bunt. Crain then walked Alex Rios, loading the bases with one out for Chicago's No. 4 and 5 hitters. It's a nightmare scenario for any pitcher, but Crain employed his devastating slider/fastball combo to strike out both Paul Konerko and Manny Ramirez, ending Chicago's threat. The Twins tacked five runs to their lead in the next inning and slammed the door on any realistic postseason hopes for the White Sox.
It's quite clear that Crain is the Twins' best reliever at this point, and that has some folks wondering why the team acquired Matt Capps to fill the closer role when they could have simply had Crain and Jon Rauch swap roles.
It's a fair question, but I tend to think Crain's current role is perfect, and Tuesday night's game illustrated exactly why.
Managers in today's game (and Ron Gardenhire especially) tend to use their closers in a strict, rigid manner. That seventh-inning spot was the perfect time for Gardenhire to call upon his most dominant reliever, but I don't think I'm going out on a limb in saying that Gardy never would have gone to his closer in that spot. How many times have we seen Joe Nathan called upon in the seventh inning of a game?
If Crain had been labeled closer, he'd be pigeon-holed into pitching the ninth inning regardless of circumstances. In Tuesday night's game, he may have never gotten the chance to throw a meaningful pitch, because against a lesser reliever (like Rauch, who would have probably been the guy if he and Crain had simply switched duties) the middle of the Sox lineup might have broken the game open in that seventh inning.
It's for that reason that I'm persistently vexed by the way managers tend to limit the impact of their best reliever just because he tends to carry that "closer" label. For now, though, I'll just be glad not to have to worry about it with Crain. He's the bullpen's ace, ready to be called upon when the game is on the line and the opposing team's best hitters are in a position to do damage.
It's in that role that Crain can be most impactful, more so even than Capps, regardless of whether or not he racks up a bunch of saves.