Fauber: Orioles failing to close

Normally at this time of the year, I’m in full-fledged football mode.

High school teams are a few weeks into their practices, there are two weeks until college football season officially kicks off, the NFL preseason is well underway and my fantasy football draft is scheduled for this weekend. But things are a little different this season, and baseball — which usually became an afterthought around the All-Star Break in past years after the Orioles were well out of playoff contention — still has a firm grasp on my brain.

The reason for that is simple — baseball in Baltimore is finally back, and being a fan that has spent most of his life waiting for the Orioles’ to return to postseason relevancy, I’m not about to let the last month and a half of the MLB regular season get moved to the back burner in my mind.

This is the most important time of the year for the Orioles, who are battling for their playoff lives as they sat 5 ½ games behind first place Boston in the A.L. East heading into Friday, and three games out of the second wild card spot. And because this is the most important time of the year for Baltimore, I’m starting to find myself getting more and more frustrated when the Orioles lose games that they should win.

The Orioles have let me down lately, losing five of their last six games, including a deflating three-game nightmare earlier this week in Arizona. Baltimore blew ninth-inning leads in all three of their games against the Diamondbacks and lost in walk-off fashion each time.

Some of the blame is on the offense, which has gone suddenly cold for some reason, but the Orioles’ bullpen has just been horrendous lately. Which brings me to the point of this whole rambling mess I’m calling a column.

Closer Jim Johnson — he of the league-leading 51 saves last season — has been far from the dominant pitcher that he was a year ago. Johnson was responsible for two of the Orioles’ three blown saves in Arizona, and his blown-save total has risen to nine so far this season.

That is nine times that Baltimore led in the ninth inning only to see that lead evaporate. I don’t know exactly how many of those blown saves ended in Baltimore losses, but the Orioles are not the same team that were virtually unbeatable in one-run games and extra innings last season, so I’m guessing they’ve lost a majority of those.

I’m not even going to place all the blame on Johnson either — the guy has been nothing but rock solid out of the bullpen for the Orioles for some time. Everyone is due for a bad stretch. Johnson is just a victim of baseball and its stubborn ways.

Why is it that closers are placed on this pedestal that seems to demand they be treated differently from every other pitcher in the bullpen? Why can’t a manager simply give a closer who is struggling a chance to work out the kinks in some low-stress situations?

The whole idea of the closer is kind of weird to me. I get that you want to have your best reliever come in with the game on the line, but does there really have to be this unwritten rule where they have to be used in every save situation?

When a manager chooses to turn to anyone but his closer in a save situation, suddenly that manager has “given up” on his closer, and some big controversy is started. It shouldn’t be like that, and it isn’t like that for any other position in baseball.

If a hitter is struggling, they are dropped down in the order with the rationale being that they will see some better pitches to hit. If a reliever struggles, he is placed in some low-stress situations in order to regain his confidence. But if a closer struggles, he is thrown in night after night until the situation gets so bad that fans are screaming for him to be traded or demoted to the minor leagues, and the manager has no choice but to name a replacement, which is often permanent.

Here’s a thought — let’s get over the whole closer thing. It’s dumb. If you want to have a guy that is your designated ninth-inning arm, fine — but don’t make his role out to be bigger than it is.

Baltimore manager Buck Showalter needs to give Johnson a break, put him in some relief situations where he can relax and regain his form and then plug him back into the closer’s role later in the year when he is ready.

But that probably won’t happen, because if Johnson’s replacement thrives in his new role, then replacing the new closer would be a travesty all its own, wouldn’t it?

As much as I love baseball, some of these “conventions” really drive me nuts. OK, I think I’m done ranting now.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com