Monday, June 19, 2006

Mickelson Joins Braves Bullpen

On the verge of winning his third consecutive major championship on Sunday, Phil Mickelson endured a historic collapse at the U.S. Open. Leading by one stroke at the 18th hole, Mickelson finished with a double-bogey to gift-wrap the title for Geoff Ogilvy. Afterwards Lefty announced that he will join forces with a group that is used to blowing leads. Mickelson has agreed to terms with the Atlanta Braves to join their bullpen.

Before his 2004 Masters victory, Lefty had been derided for coming up short in every major. However, with three major championships now under his belt and a fourth in sight, Mickelson was in territory only Tiger Woods could understand. Soon Tiger was replaced by Jean Van de Velde as Phil’s measuring stick. Sunday’s finish was the worst U.S. Open collapse since Tin Cup hit ball after ball into the water. Like Tin Cup, Mickelson’s playing partner on Sunday was Don Johnson.

Perhaps Mickelson could not finish effectively at Winged Foot because the sports gods had decided that there were already too many closers in New York. Mariano Rivera has stamped his ticket to Cooperstown during a sterling career with the Yankees. Likewise, Billy Wagner is a ninth-inning horse for the Mets, one of many acquisitions helping them to a dominant position in the National League East. However, unlike those two, Lefty was not allowed to have Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blaring before stepping up to the 18th tee. With no head-banging inspiration available, he badly missed the fairway and later became a man entering the sand.

The Braves endured a collapse of their own on Sunday, with the bullpen allowing six eighth-inning runs in a 10-7 loss to the Boston Red Sox. The defeat was Atlanta’s seventh in a row. John Smoltz was in line for the win, but for the fifth time this season the bullpen cost him a victory. As a result, Smoltz has reportedly requested that his Home Depot commercial get pulled from the air. In the ad, a substitute takes over for him when he cannot complete his duties at the grill. Smoltz feels that the public will not believe that he can receive quality relief, remarking that a realistic portrayal would have the substitute griller setting the yard on fire.

The numbers for the bullpen are brutal. Braves relievers have an ERA over 5, and they have blown 14 of 29 save opportunities. Perhaps longtime pitching coach Leo Mazzone had good reason to bolt for Baltimore in the off-season. Even during the frequent good times for Atlanta since 1991, Mazzone was famous for his habit of rocking back and forth in the dugout. This season in the late innings, Mazzone might have chosen instead to repeatedly bang his head against the wall.

Things are so bad, the rotten luck has spread to other bullpens in Atlanta. Georgia Tech exited the College World Series after blowing late leads in each of its two games. At this point, the only quality closer from Atlanta is Brenda Johnson, the character played by Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer. In her case, TNT is a network. Otherwise, TNT is a substance less explosive than the Braves bullpen. They know drama.

Joining the Braves staff makes sense for Mickelson, since he has enjoyed his time in Georgia this year. Phil won his second Masters and third BellSouth Classic in 2006. In his first appearance at Turner Field, Lefty plans to wear a green jacket over his Braves uniform. Jim Nantz will take a turn on the P.A. system, telling Atlanta fans that they are witnessing a tradition unlike any other. The main difference from the Masters is that women have a better chance of playing at Turner Field than at Augusta National.

Smoltz, an avid golfer, is looking forward to having Mickelson as a teammate. He will have plenty of opportunities to use Phil’s insight on the course. Compared to past years, Smoltz will have far more time for golf this October.