Cook: Hanrahan's success measured in cigars

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Somewhere in Wexford, a man named Jay is out about $150 because of Pirates hammer Joel Hanrahan.

He wishes it were $250.

"He told me if I cost him $500 this season, it will be worth it," Hanrahan said, grinning.

Jay is Hanrahan's neighbor.

"Don't know his last name, but I see him all the time," Hanrahan said.

Each time Hanrahan gets a save, Jay puts a cigar on his garage door. Hanrahan is 15 in 15 opportunities.

"I don't want to break his bank, but, sure, 40 or 50 would be great," he said.

Nice thought, isn't it?

Hanrahan has been huge in the Pirates' surprising 30-31 start. Of the 14 National League pitchers with double-digit saves going into the Thursday night, he and Philadelphia's Ryan Madson (14 for 14) were the only ones who hadn't blown one. His 1.57 ERA was lower than any of the 14 with the exception of Cincinnati's Francisco Cordero (1.53). There are other impressive numbers to throw at you, but what's the point? Can't we just stipulate that Hanrahan has been terrific?

It's such a difficult job, the closer's job. The 25th, 26th and 27th outs are unlike any other in a game. Often, a team has to work three hours to build a lead after eight innings. A closer can blow it in minutes in the ninth. That's tremendous pressure, maybe the most in baseball. Those late losses are devastating to a team.

"I try not to think about it like that," Hanrahan said. "I've been in a situation where I put that pressure on myself. When I was with Washington, I thought I had to be perfect every time out. 'I've got to do it right now. I've got to strike out three in a row right now.' Obviously, that doesn't work. It didn't work for me. Now, I go out there, I try not to walk anybody and I let my defense do it for me."

The approach has worked well for Hanrahan and the Pirates. He has struck out 26 and walked just seven in 282/3 innings. His work against the Arizona Diamondbacks this week was fairly typical of his season. He struck out two of the three batters he faced in a perfect ninth inning Tuesday night to get his 15th save and-- yes-- his 15th cigar, which was waiting for him when he pulled in his garage. He pitched a one-two-three ninth in a tie game Wednesday night to give the Pirates a chance to win in 12 innings and, finally, get their record back to .500 at 30-30. They lost to the Diamondbacks, 2-0, Thursday night.

Hanrahan deserves All-Star consideration, although he downplayed his chances. He pointed at Pirates starter Kevin Correia, who was tied for the National League lead with eight wins going into Thursday, and to Neil Walker, who led all second basemen with 40 RBIs. Even if he doesn't make the All-Star game, his alternative isn't bad.

"I could go home [to Frisco, Texas, near Dallas] for four days, then we open the second half in Houston," he said. "I could spend a week in Texas."

There has been talk that Hanrahan will spend even more time there this season. There has been speculation that the Texas Rangers are interested in trading for him. Here's hoping it doesn't happen. Hanrahan came to the Pirates with outfielder Lastings Milledge from Washington in the '09 trade for outfielder Nyjer Morgan and pitcher Sean Burnett. It might be Pirates general manager Neal Huntington's best trade. Hanrahan, 29, is the type of player the team needs to build around, not trade. He's making $1.4 million this season and will be eligible for salary arbitration next winter. He can't become a free agent until after the '13 season.

"I'd like to stay here," Hanrahan said. "We've got a good thing going. I think we're really close right now. I think we're going to be a great team."

Hanrahan played on Pirates teams that lost 99 games in '09 and 105 games last season.

"We deserved all the ridicule we got," he said. "There were times I was embarrassed to go out to dinner. It was really bad."

Not so much now. It's not so bad being a Pirate these days.

The town is excited about baseball for the first time in a long time. Hanrahan kind of figured that out on his own. He hasn't been here long, but he knows the passion of Pittsburgh sports fans. He has been to a Penguins playoff game. He was at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas in February and saw all of the fanatical Steelers fans. Still, it was nice to get confirmation from Jay and his wife.

"She grew up here and knows the history of the team," Hanrahan said. "She said she can't remember anything like it. It's awesome. Everywhere they go, people are talking about the Pirates."

At the supermarket, at the bank and, of course, at the neighborhood tobacco store. Especially at the tobacco store.

Jay hopes to make a lot more trips for cigars this season. It's one time he won't mind seeing his money go up in smoke.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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