New closer John Axford made his Indians debut Opening Night, after the team finally pushed 2 runs across in the top of the 9th. He issued a pair of walks, but recorded two strikeouts as well, including a game-ender. You'd rather the closer not let the game-losing run come to bat, but hey, all's well that ends well, right? Axford's first appearance got me wondering how other Tribe closers did in their first opportunity. The list below shows every pitcher who recorded 10+ saves in a season for the Indians during the last two decades. I tracked down the first time each of them was brought in to start the 9th inning (or in one case, with two outs in the 8th inning) in a save opportunity for the Tribe, and check to see the results:
Jose Mesa (April 13, 1994)
When the 1994 began, Mesa was a 27-year-old starting pitcher being converted into a reliever. He recorded a 1-out save on April 12, and the team decided that was enough to try him out as closer. He was brought in for the 9th inning the very next night, with a 5-2 lead. A grounder to Omar Vizquel meant one out, but the next man singled, and the next man walked, and then Bo Jackson hit a laser far over the right-field wall to tie the game. Mesa finished the inning and managed to vulture a win when Kenny Lofton homered in the 10th inning, but Mesa was removed from the closer role at that point. He was given two more chances later that year, but blew them both. In 1995 he was given another crack at the job, something flipped, and he put up the best season ever by an Indians closer. He wasn't as sharp in 1996, and in 1997 he was given the biggest save opportunity in franchise history. I don't recall how that one turned out.
Result: BLOWN SAVE
Mike Jackson (May 20, 1997)
Jackson is a tough one to peg a first proper save opportunity to. He recorded the final out on April 6, giving him his first save, and over the next few weeks he recorded three more saves, each of them a 2-inning job. It wasn't until May 20th that he was held back for the 9th inning and put in to try and get the final three outs. The Indians were up 4-3 on Kansas City. Jackson pitched a 1-2-3 inning and saved a total of 15 games that season, though Mesa was back in the job before the end of the year. Jackson was reinstalled as closer for 1998 and 1999, saving 40 and 39 games, respectively.
David Riske (April 3, 2000)
Riske actually recorded his first save for the Indians on June 13, 1999, but that was a three-inning job, not a game where he was put in to be tried as a closer. His first game of that sort came at the start of the next season. Karsay entered with a 4-1 lead against Baltimore. He went fly ball, single, ground ball, fly ball to close out the game without too much fuss. He went on to save 20 games for the Tribe that year, but was replaced at the trade deadline.
Bob Wickman (August 1, 2000)
Wickman was acquired at the deadline with the Indians 2.5 games out of the Wild Card. He got his first chance to earn a save 4 days later, when he entered a 5-4 game with 2 outs and 2 on in the 8th inning against Tampa Bay. He struck out Jose Canseco to escape that jam, but in the 9th he allowed two walks and a single to load the bases, then another single that ended the game. Despite that rocky start, Wickman would go on to record a franchise record 139 saves for the Indians before leaving in 2006.
Result: BLOWN SAVE
Danys Baez (August 28, 2002)
Baez had been in the starting rotation all season, and posting basically league-average numbers, when Wickman suffered an elbow injury that would require Tommy John surgery, and Baez was moved suddenly into the closer's role. His first chance came with a 2-1 lead on Detroit. He gave up a leadoff single, and the runner reached second on a stolen base, but a fly ball to left field gave the Indians the win, and Baez his first save. He saved another 5 games that season, and 25 more the following year before leaving as a free agent.
Joe Borowski (April 4, 2007)
Borowski was signed to be the closer for 2007; his first save opportunity came during the opening series in Chicago, when he entered with an 8-7 lead. He gave up a walk, then got a strikeout, then gave up another walk, then got another strikeout. The next batter hit a fly ball to deep left, but Jason Michael tracked it down for the final out. It was that kind of year for Borowski, who saved a league-leading 45 games, while also posting an ugly 5.07 ERA, the worst in MLB history for a pitcher with 40+ saves. The following year he was even shakier, and after he gave up a 2-1 lead on July 1, he was released, bringing his career to an end.
Jensen Lewis (August 8, 2008)
Lewis had been working as a middle reliever in 2008, and was sitting on a 4.26 ERA when he was inserted into the 9th inning of a game against Toronto with the Tribe ahead 5-2. Lewis walked the leadoff man, but then got a pair of ground-ball outs and then struck out Alex Rios for the save. Lewis went on to save a total of 13 games, with a 2.91 ERA over the remainder of the year. Despite his success, the Tribe went out and signed an established closer™ that offseason, and Lewis only ever saved 1 more game for the team.
Kerry Wood (April 15, 2009)
Wood was the new guy brought in, on a pricey 2-year, $20.5-million deal. Wood's first save opportunity didn't come until the tenth game of the year, because the Tribe got off to an awful start. Wood came into the game with the Indians ahead of Kansas City 5-4, and worked a 1-2-3 inning for his first save. He successfully converted his first 5 chances, then had the wheels come off. He ended the year with 20 saves and 9 blown saves. He saved another 8 games in 2010 before being traded to New York for a bag of baseballs.
Chris Perez (August 29, 2009)
Perez got his first proper chance at a save near the end of 2009, when he was put in for the 9th with the Indians ahead of Baltimore 5-3. After recording the first two outs, he gave up a single, but a fly ball to the warning track ended the game. Perez didn't enter another game in the 9th that season, but the next April he was given the closer job, and went on to have four and and down years there, which included the second-most save in team history and two trips to the All-Star Game.
Of the last nine pitchers to spend any real time as closer, seven of them converted their first real save opportunity. Ironically, the two who blew their first chance (Mesa and Wickman) went on to become probably the most accomplished of the bunch. Of the seven who earned a save in their first chance, only two of them recorded a 1-2-3 inning to do it, because things in Cleveland are rarely that easy.