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When it comes to puttin' out the fire

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When it comes to puttin' out the fire

by Rob Smaal (May 30, 2008)

What can you say about Yomiuri Giants closer Marc Kroon that hasn't already been said? Dominating and intimidating come to mind. So does effective.

One NPB pitcher, who previously played in the major leagues, told me Kroon was the toughest closer to hit off that he'd ever seen up close and personal on either side of the Pacific.

When Kroon bounds up the dugout steps to start the ninth inning, there is a palpable buzz of excitement in the building--something special is about to happen. When he lets fly with his first few 155-kph-plus warm-up pitches, there is nearly always a collective gasp that ripples through the ballpark.

Kroon says he is so focused when he enters a game that the only two people he even notices are his catcher and his first baseman, "because he's the last guy to give me the ball."

Kroon, whose fastball has been clocked at an NPB record 161 kph, saved 84 games over the past three seasons with the Yokohama BayStars. This year, the 35-year-old Bronx native has already saved 16 of the Giants' 25 wins, including Monday's 4-3 victory over the Fighters at Tokyo Dome that brought his total in Japan to an even 100.

I recently asked Kroon to walk me through his game-day routine and to give our readers a peek into what goes through the mind of a closer, one of the most pressure-packed jobs in all of professional sports.

On game day:

"Once the game starts, I might get a massage or I'll go into the oxygen tank. Right about the fifth inning I start getting prepared. I get dressed the same way every time and that's when I start looking at the score of the game. I try not to look too early because the score might change so many times that I don't want to go through mental fits.

"In about the sixth inning, I'll put my uniform on, do some stretching. Top of the seventh inning I'll go down to the bullpen and run a couple of sprints in there, then I just sit. I watch the game (on the TV monitor), check the lineup--who's hitting where, who might be coming up in the ninth inning, how many hits they have on the day, if they're 0-fer, home run, whatever they have.

"In the top of the eighth inning I start playing catch until the bottom of the eighth. That's when the catcher gets down and I start firing away some pitches. In the top of the ninth, it's time to go to work."

On controlling his nerves:

"Even after all these years, I still get real nervous before I come in. Last night (a 6-5 Giants' win over the Hanshin Tigers in May), my adrenaline was pumping real fast because we were losing pretty much the whole game and the next thing you know we get a three-run homer and I'm in the game. I look over and I've got the No. 3, 4, 5 guys batting--(Takahiro) Arai's hitting .350, (Tomoaki) Kanemoto is Kanemoto--it's a situation where your team has busted their butts to get all the way back, got a huge home run, and now is your chance. So my adrenaline starts going, you get your nervous fits.

"All the way up until I step foot on the field I'm real nervous, but after I'm done with my warm-up pitches I'm OK."

On the optimum save situation:

"I love a two-run lead. If it's a one-run lead, I'm always begging for a two-run lead. Every closer would love a two-run lead because you have a little room for a mistake. A one-run lead, they tie the ballgame or you lose it. A two-run lead, you can afford to give up a run and still get out of it.

"I'm not real big on a three-run lead because sometimes mentally as a closer you think, 'Oh three runs, I won't give up three runs,' and the next thing you know you've got runners on first and second, second and third, they're bunting, they're hitting-and-running, you know. So my favorite (situation) is probably a two-run lead."

On playing in front of large crowds with the Giants:

"The way I approach the game it doesn't matter how many fans are there, but your adrenaline gets pumping when there are more fans. It just gives you a little extra motivation. So even though my game won't change, the more fans and the louder they are, the more intense the situation might be. I love pitching in front of many, many people, it's just a bit more motivation."

On getting over a blown save:

(Here, Kroon refers specifically to an April 27 game at Koshien Stadium against the Tigers where he gave up a game-tying single then walked in the winning run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth. Incensed with the ball four call, which was borderline, Kroon charged the home-plate umpire and had to be restrained.)

"That particular (blown) save, I'll carry with me forever, for a long, long, long time, just because of the way it happened. I felt in that situation I threw a strike. I made a mistake to (Norihiro) Akahoshi the batter before (who singled in the tying run). It cost me a loss, cost the team a loss, cost me two earned runs. But I'm able to put that in my back pocket and the next day come out and do my job. I think I ended up getting a save the following day against Hiroshima.

"But it's still very difficult knowing ... if I go out there and give up hit, hit, hit, hit, hit and we lose, that's just part of the game. But my fingernail broke off, I couldn't feel my finger, I battled, I had three walks, I gave up a run. I'll still hold onto it forever, I'll never forget that day, but it won't affect my job the next night."

On the pressure of being a closer:

"It's the hardest three outs to get in the ballgame. For the starters, the hardest three outs to get are in the fifth inning, so hopefully they can get a win. But to get three outs in the ninth inning is very difficult.

"I like to play golf and I know that hitting a golf ball is probably the most difficult thing I've ever tried to do, but that's you as a golfer, you're an individual. As a closer, your team depends on you to go out there and save the game. There's a lot of pressure, especially playing on this team where the expectations are so high. The job is 98 percent mental."

(IHT/Asahi: May 30,2008)

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