Closing Time

Giants: All business, Nen won't monkey around with Angels' rallies.

World Series

October 19, 2002|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

ANAHEIM, Calif. - If San Francisco Giants closer Robb Nen takes the mound at Edison International Field this weekend, the most popular primate in World Series history will be waiting for him.

It's Nen's own fault. The Rally Monkey might have been a one-hit wonder if Nen had just done his job that night two years ago.

On June 6, 2000, the Giants had a one-run lead against the Anaheim Angels, when Nen came on to pitch the ninth inning. On a whim, the Angels' scoreboard production crew flashed a clip of a monkey from the movie Ace Ventura, superimposing the words "Rally Monkey" on top of it.

The normally docile Edison crowd went bananas. Nen, who had blown a save one night earlier against the Angels, unleashed a few of his 100-mph fastballs and 90-mph sliders, but Anaheim rallied for two runs to win the game.

From that point forward, the Rally Monkey became a recurring character at Angels home games, and now that they have reached their first World Series, he is gaining popularity on Mickey Mouse.

Nen says he has no recollection of the monkey's debut. He arrived at this, his second World Series, in typical businesslike fashion, with few words and fewer smiles. He has been one of baseball's top closers for the past five years, but that two-game stretch in Anaheim wasn't an aberration.

Even though Nen is one of the hardest-throwing pitchers in the game, many of his save opportunities have been nail-biters, especially this postseason. And anyone who watched last year's World Series, with the struggles of Arizona's Byung-Hyun Kim and New York's Mariano Rivera, knows how much pressure Nen is facing.

"Nobody's going to be perfect," Nen said. "No one's going to go through a whole year without blowing any games."

Nen blew eight of his 51 save opportunities this season, and though he has converted all five of his chances in the postseason, little has come easy.

Consider:

Game 1 of the Division Series against Atlanta. Nen gives up a hit and a walk, bringing Gary Sheffield to the plate representing the tying run. But Nen makes a big pitch and Sheffield hits into the game-ending double play, as San Francisco wins, 8-5.

Game 5 against Atlanta. An error and a single bring Sheffield to the plate again, this time representing the winning run, but Nen strikes him out, then gets Chipper Jones to hit into a double play, as the Giants win, 3-1, to advance to the National League Championship Series.

Game 4 of the NLCS against St. Louis. Benito Santiago's eighth-inning homer gave the Giants a 4-2 lead. But the Cardinals score once against Nen and put the tying run on third base before Nen strikes out Albert Pujols and J.D. Drew to end the game.

Like his unorthodox pitching motion, which features a brief stutter step with his left foot prior to his delivery, Nen keeps giving the Giants reason for pause before ultimately completing the task.

"You name me a 1-2-3 closer, and I don't know who that guy is," Giants manager Dusty Baker said. "That's the toughest job in baseball, I think, other than being a utility player. You take the last breath out of a team, especially on the road, that's a heck of a job."

Anaheim Angels closer Troy Percival has looked much more stable during the playoffs, but he doesn't have World Series experience, and Nen does.

Not that all the memories are fond. Nen saved two games in the 1997 Series, as the Florida Marlins squeezed past the Cleveland Indians in seven games. At one point, Nen lit up the stadium radar gun with three consecutive pitches that registered 100 mph, 101 mph and 102 mph.

But the Indians seemed unimpressed and pounded Nen, leaving him with an ugly 7.71 ERA for the Series.

"I went out and tried to [throw 100-mph fastballs], but I didn't have a good slider and I kind of got my [rear end] handed to me," Nen later told The Press Democrat, of Santa Rosa, Calif. "It doesn't matter how hard you throw. It's location, changing speeds, movement. ... When I go out and don't mix my pitches, I get hit around as much as anyone else."

When the Marlins held their infamous fire sale following that World Series, Giants general manager Brian Sabean swooped in and grabbed Nen in a four-player deal.

"You could see he was on the cusp [in 1997]," Sabean said. "You couldn't deny his stuff. He just needed to get regular opportunities."

Nen became an All-Star, posting a 1.50 ERA in 1998 and converting 40 of 45 saves. He needed elbow surgery after the following season, and it took him until the middle of 2000 to rediscover his old form.

For all the anxiety Nen has caused Giants fans this postseason, he has only allowed one run - on Jim Edmonds' run-scoring single in Game 4 of the NLCS.

So this time, the Rally Monkey might have met his tranquilizer.

"Robb was a good closer when we got him," Baker said. "We feel he's gotten better and better ever since."

Pitching matchup

Today...Starter.........Time/Line...........W-L.......ERA

San Francisco Schmidt (R)8:0014-93.45

at Anaheim Washburn (L)-12519-63.12

NOTE: Stats include postseason

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