Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Joel Hanrahan blew away Ryan Zimmerman to earn his third save for the Pirates.
When the Nationals sent Hanrahan to the Pirates as part of the four-player trade that also included Nyjer Morgan, Sean Burnett and Lastings Milledge, there were plenty of people around the Nats organization who figured the big right-hander would never be successful as a big-league closer.
As good as Hanrahan's stuff was, he didn't seem to have the mental capacity to pitch the ninth inning of a tight ballgame. Five blown saves in 10 opportunities and a 7.71 ERA tend to raise some red flags.
In Pittsburgh, though, Hanrahan has rediscovered himself. And in blowing away the Nats during the ninth inning last night to preserve an 8-5 victory, he showed his former team why he's being viewed around these parts as a viable closer once again.
Hanrahan looked mighty impressive in striking out Adam Kennedy on a 97 mph fastball and Ryan Zimmerman on a 98 mph heater. He only threw a couple of sliders, but local reporters say he's displayed much better command of that pitch this season, making him all the more effective.
The real key, though, to Hanrahan's renewed success in the ninth inning — he's been successful in three of four save opportunities since Octavio Dotel was traded to the Dodgers on July 31 — has been his calm demeanor on the mound, no matter how tense the situation.
"I learned a lot from last year," he said. "I just go in there relaxed, try not to let the fans get me pumped up and try to stay pretty even-keel. When I do that, I feel like I have more success. When the crowd gets into it and I try to throw harder, then I'm all over the place."
How was Hanrahan able to make that important mental leap, treating the ninth inning like it was any other frame? The fact the Pirates eased him into the role this season helped.
"It just came with pitching in the eighth inning most of this year," he said. "I matured a little bit. I think that helped a lot. I just try to take that same mentality into it and try not to worry about getting the three outs and getting out of here. I just try to slow it down and take it one pitch at a time."
Hanrahan never expected to be a closer when he came up through the Dodgers' system as a top starting prospect. He debuted with the Nationals in 2007 as a starter, then converted to a reliever in 2008 before taking on closing duties late in the season after Jon Rauch was traded.
So he's never been one of those guys who was groomed all along to be a closer, a la Chad Cordero or Drew Storen. But he's come to embrace late-inning relief in a way he never expected.
"You know what, I like pitching in the eighth and I like pitching in the ninth," he said. "If I can be in one of those two positions, I'll be happy. I feel like I have the stuff that I can close. I feel like I've learned the mentality of it a little bit more. I like pitching in a tight game like that. You've got to be on your game. It's fun ... the 80 or 90 percent of the time when you do it."
Had he been successful 80 or 90 percent of the time last season, Hanrahan might still be closing in Washington.