Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton brings the heat
It was shortly after 8 a.m., and Jonathan Broxton had already filled an old water bottle with brown tobacco juice.
“Not completely,” he said, shaking the bottle, shrugging.
The Dodgers’ clubhouse wasn’t half-filled, yet Broxton was fully dressed and talking about the nerve required to navigate those spit bottles amid his wife and young son in their Georgia home.
“None of’em have spilled yet,” he said, the smallest of grins creeping across his giant whiskered face.
Talking to Broxton is like pouring syrup over pancakes. It can be slow and messy, but you know exactly what you are getting. He is as simple as the “100 mph” that blinks at his fastball. He is as plain as the bat that freezes on his slider.
He probably suspects I have approached him this spring morning to talk about the most infamous four pitches of the Dodgers 2009 season, probably because he threw them. You remember. Ninth inning, one out, Dodgers on the verge of tying the National League Championship Series against the Philadelphia Phillies.
Four balls to Matt Stairs, one year after Broxton gave up a game-winning playoff home run to Matt Stairs.
The bases-empty walk eventually led to Jimmy Rollins’ two-run double that gave the Phillies a Game 4 victory and propelled them one game later into the World Series. It was a blown save for Broxton, another blown championship chance for the Dodgers, and throughout the winter, sparks from the hot stove flew.
Broxton was scared. Broxton was intimidated. Matt Stairs? Two straight years? You’ve got to be kidding me!
Even the kindly Stairs couldn’t understand it, telling me in a phone call this winter that, “Broxton is a tremendous pitcher, but from the first ball, you could see it in his body language — he didn’t want to pitch to me.”
Broxton knows that what folks were saying, and he probably guessed that’s what I was thinking, so on a recent morning at Camelback Ranch, he unfolded out of the clubhouse chair and swished his spit bottle and let me have it.
“I should have gone after him,” he said of Stairs. “I was thinking a little bit about what happened before, and I was throwing him these sinkers, and I should have just gone after him.”
There. He admitted it. He acknowledged the connection between 2009 and 2008, which says more about Broxton than anything Matt Stairs could do.
“I live to be in those situations, I can’t wait for it to happen again,” Broxton added. “But this year, I want it to be in the World Series.”
I believe him. I’m buying him. I’m guessing this is the season it gets even bigger for the 300-pound catapult, his second full summer as the Dodgers full-time closer, age 26 and only getting stronger. With the memory of Eric Gagne finally released, this summer could be when Jonathan Broxton becomes Game On.
Think about this: Last season batters hit only .165 against him with only nine extra-base hits. Marvel at this: At Dodger Stadium, opposing hitters batted .095 against him with 73 strikeouts and nine walks.
Here’s my favorite: In 25 at-bats, opposing leadoff hitters collected exactly one hit against him. One hit. Swarming pests swatted away by the bear.
Who, incidentally, cares about only one statistic.
“I don’t think much past three outs,” Broxton said.
It’s never been about Broxton’s body, it’s always been about his head. After what happened last year, Torre knocked on that head this spring with a story about a closer in his previous gig, a guy by the name of Mariano Rivera.
It was the 1997 American League division series, Rivera’s first year as a full-time closer. The New York Yankees were four outs from clinching a three-games-to-one series victory when Rivera gave up a 2-and-0 home run to Sandy Alomar.
The Cleveland Indians won the game, won the series a day later, and Rivera spent the winter in shame. The next season he was untouchable in the postseason, giving up no earned runs in 13 1/3 innings as the Yankees rolled to the first of three consecutive world World Series titles.
“Mariano made an inexperienced mistake against Alomar just like Jon did against the Phillies,” Torre said. “It made Mariano a better pitcher. It really got him started. It could do the same thing for Jon.”
After the Dodgers painfully lost last fall’s championship series, Torre grabbed Broxton in a tunnel hallway of Citizens Bank Park. He put his arms around the kid, pulled his face close, whispered into his ear.
“I told him, ‘Never underestimate your ability,’ ” Torre said. “I told him, ‘You never need to be tentative.’ ”
By boldly admitting he blew it last fall, Jonathan Broxton seems to be on the path to understanding. The next six months will prove it. One Stair at a time.