Lincoln fits the mold of recent Pirates closers
Kent Tekulve saved 21 games for the Pirates from 1975-77 before becoming the team’s closer in 1978. That year, he saved 31 games on his way to a franchise-record 158 over his career.
Tekulve, now director of baseball operations for the Wild Things, said prior experience — such as what he gained — is a key to becoming a successful closer.
“It’s helpful,” he said. “Closing is a different situation; it’s different than just normal relieving. The game is shorter. When you have a one-run lead in the ninth, it’s different then when you have a one-run lead in the seventh or eighth. You have to be able to solve the puzzle right away.
“If you’re already experienced and have been in that situation before, it helps.”
If that’s the case, then Mike Lincoln entered his first game this season as the Pirates’ closer with the worst credentials possible. The 28-year-old right-hander had zero major-league saves when he faced the Milwaukee Brewers on July 20, just hours after Mike Williams had been traded to Philadelphia.
But his situation was far from unique and, in fact, has become commonplace for the Pirates in recent years. Since Tekulve saved his last game for the Pirates in 1984, the team has mostly employed closers who inherited the job with little-to-no experience.
“I don’t know why that’s been the case,” Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I don’t have the answer.”
What McClendon did know is that he didn’t have much experience to choose from in picking a new closer. At the time of Williams’ trade, the most career saves in the bullpen belonged to Brian Boehringer with three. Salomon Torres and Julian Tavarez had two each.
And although Mark Corey is having success at Class AAA Nashville (he has 29 saves through Sunday), he has zero major-league saves in two seasons and recalling him was out of the question.
“Corey’s doing a fine job down there,” McClendon said. “But you need to be careful with your evaluations of what guys are capable of doing at that level and what they’re capable of doing at this level. The competition is a little different. Pitches you get away with at the Triple-A level, you might not get away with that hanging slider, the fastball up in the zone. It’s just a little different.”
In the end, McClendon said he was comfortable in selecting anyone from the bullpen for the role.
“They’re all experienced,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be any situation where they are overwhelmed. They’ve certainly all been tested. I feel comfortable with all of them.”
Despite lacking in experience, Lincoln has quickly displayed a couple of characteristics of a quality closer — the ability to throw strikes and a short memory.
He needed just 12 pitches, 11 strikes, to get through two innings and record his first two saves, against the Brewers on July 20 and the next day against the Houston Astros.
“The key is to come in and get ahead in the count,” Tekulve said. “Everybody can throw the ball in the strike zone. When you are the closer, you’re in charge, and it’s the player, whether it be the pitcher or the hitter, that is the most aggressive who wins. As a closer, you have to have confidence. Right away, you have to say, ‘Here’s my pitch. Hit it if you can.’ ”
And although Lincoln experienced his first setback in his most recent appearance, blowing a save and losing, 4-3, at St. Louis on Sunday, he appears ready to put the outing behind him.
“It sucks right now, but I’ll be all right tomorrow and be ready to pitch tomorrow,” Lincoln said after the game. “If you’re a competitor, you’ve got to bounce back and be ready to play. I’m not going to quit. It sucks, but I’ll move on from here. This game is over.”
A look at Mike Lincoln’s statistics since he became the Pirates’ closer July 20:
Save opportunities: 4