Today is an interesting anniversary in Philadelphia Phillies history. It was on this date five years ago, May 13, 2015, that Jonathan Papelbon set the franchise record for career saves. That record was clinched under dramatic circumstances, which is why many Phillies fans remember it so clearly.
Brought into the game by manager Ryne Sandberg to protect a 3-2 lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the top of the 9th inning at Citizens Bank Park, Papelbon promptly walked leadoff hitter Francisco Cervelli.
Rather than leaving his slow-footed catcher on base as the tying run, Pittsburgh skipper Clint Hurdle sent in Steve Lombardozzi as a pinch-runner. Papelbon then struck out Neil Walker for the first out. Then things got interesting.
After falling behind Jordy Mercer with a first-pitch ball, Papelbon tried to pick-off Lombardozzi. His throw to first baseman Darin Ruf went wild, allowing Lombardozzi to roll all the way around to third base on the error, which was charged to the pitcher.
So, Mercer now stood in with the tying run just 90 feet away. After taking a strike, Mercer lifted a fly ball to right field where one of the best defenders at the position of the last two decades, Jeff Francoeur, was playing. ‘Frenchy’ had a long run, and finally caught up to the ball in foul territory.
As Francoeur made the catch for the second out of the inning, Lombardozzi had tug up and now took off for home plate with the potential tying run. Francoeur, however, is the owner of what can rightly be described as a howitzer of a right throwing arm. His throw to the plate was true, strong and on a frozen rope. It arrived to catcher Carlos Ruiz, who easily applied the tag on Lombardozzi for the final out of the game.
Papelbon raised his fist in victory as he roared a mixture of thanks and admiration in Francoeur’s direction, and the Phillies celebrated the victory. It was the 113th save while with the Phillies for Papelbon in what was then his fourth and final season with the club.
That save also gave Papelbon 334 saves for his career. Before signing with the Phillies as a free agent in November 2011, the right-hander had been a closer with the Boston Red Sox. Over seven seasons in Boston he set their franchise record for saves as well with 219, making him just the second pitcher in MLB history to hold the saves record with two different teams.
Papelbon would record 10 additional saves in 2015 before being dealt to the Washington Nationals at the trade deadline in exchange for Nick Pivetta, finishing with the current Phillies record of 123 career saves while with the team.
The Phillies have featured any number of strong closers over the course of their history. The late Tug McGraw is a Phillies Wall of Famer, was a 1975 NL All-Star, and finished fifth in the 1980 NL Cy Young Award voting. Brad Lidge was a perfect 48-48 in save opportunities during the 2008 championship season in which he was also an NL All-Star and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
Jim Konstanty was the 1950 NL Most Valuable Player with the Whiz Kids. Steve Bedrosian won the 1987 NL Cy Young Award. Jose Mesa is second on the club’s career saves list with 112, and with 87 of those coming over just the 2001-02 seasons.
Al Holland was a 1984 NL All-Star who also finished sixth in NL Cy Young voting and ninth in NL MVP voting as closer for the 1983 NL champions. Mitch Williams has 102 career Phillies saves and registered 43 of those with the 1993 NL championship team.
Heathcliff Slocumb, Ricky Bottalico, and Billy Wagner were NL All-Stars in 1995, 1996, and 2005 respectively. Hector Neris has been the man filling the Phillies closer role for the better part of the last three years. At age 30 the right-hander still has just 67 saves with the club and is stuck on that number as the game pauses due to the pandemic. During a normal season he might have taken a run at 100 for his career.
The simple fact is that the Phillies have never really prioritized the closer position to the extent that they turn the role over to one pitcher and ride him in that role for years. McGraw, the lone Wall of Fame closer, was with the team for a full decade.
However, his 20 saves during the magnificent 1980 campaign were the most ‘Tugger’ ever recorded with the club. There were times during his decade with the Phillies that others such as Holland, Ron Reed, Gene Garber, and Willie Hernandez were utilized to close out games.
If you are thinking that 123 is a small number for a franchise saves leader, you would be correct. Only four franchise saves leaders have fewer, and all are from expansion teams. Here are the current all-time career leaders in saves for each of the 30 MLB ball clubs:
Yankees: Mariano Rivera – 652
Padres: Trevor Hoffman – 552
Athletics: Dennis Eckersley – 320
Angels: Troy Percival – 316
Royals: Jeff Montgomery – 304
Dodgers: Kenley Jansen – 301
Mets: John Franco – 276
Twins: Joe Nathan – 260
Tigers: Todd Jones – 235
Astros: Billy Wagner – 225
Red Sox: Jonathan Papelbon – 219
Cardinals: Jason Isringhausen – 217
Blue Jays: Tom Henke – 217
Giants: Robb Nen – 206
White Sox: Bobby Thigpen – 201
Pirates: Roy Face – 188
Braves: Craig Kimbrell – 186
Reds: Danny Graves – 182
Cubs: Lee Smith – 180
Orioles: Gregg Olson – 160
Nationals: Jeff Reardon – 152
Rangers: John Wetteland – 150
Indians: Cody Allen – 149
Brewers: Dan Plesac – 133
Mariners: Kazuhiro Sasaki – 129
Phillies: Jonathan Papelbon – 123
Rockies: Brian Fuentes – 115
Marlins: Robb Nen – 108
Rays – Roberto Hernandez – 101
Diamondbacks: Jose Valverde – 98
That record set by Papelbon on a Wednesday night in South Philly has now stood for five years. Unless Neris remains in the role for a few more seasons, it is likely to still be standing with a place in the Phillies record book for years to come.