Hoffman carries weight of another NL defeat

PITTSBURGH -- There's an old, perhaps tired saying that the best closers need a strong arm and a short memory. After every blown save, another opportunity to succeed or fail is just a day and a ninth-inning lead away.

Sometimes, big shoulders and a strong back come in equally handy. They sure help carry the weight of all that remorse.

Barely a half-hour after turning a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 disaster, Padres closer Trevor Hoffman walked out of the trainers room into the home clubhouse at PNC Park with an ice pack on his right shoulder and a sense of obligation.

He'd just blown a chance to bring the National League its first All-Star Game victory in a decade, and there were lots of questions to be answered and crucial moments to dissect.

This is the way Brad Lidge must have felt after serving up that monumental homer to Albert Pujols in the National League Championship Series in October. It's the way Eric Gagne felt after serving one up to Hank Blalock three years ago in the first All-Star Game to feature the new World Series home-field advantage incentive carrot.

And it's the way Hoffman most certainly felt after surrendering that three-run Scott Brosius homer to lose the third game of the 1998 Series to the Yankees.

Hoffman, so ridiculously consistent for so long, has failed a couple of times on a national stage. It's the way he accepts responsibility and holds himself accountable that tells you why he's held in such high esteem by everyone -- from fellow closers to opposing hitters to the beat scribes.

"You're never going to forget these things," Hoffman said. "That's the type of stage we're playing on. At the same time, I'm not defined by these moments, either.

"You have two options. "It's like [former Padres coach] Alan Trammell used to say, 'You can either go home or come back and play.' I'm going to put the uniform on Friday."

Hoffman, 38, has reinvented himself to the point of making history. He ranks second on Major League Baseball's career list with 460 saves, and has a chance to pass Lee Smith's all-time mark of 478 with a healthy, productive second half. This year, he has converted 24 of 25 save opportunities while posting an ERA of 1.03. Not bad for a guy in his twilight years.

Hoffman the person is every bit as impressive as Hoffman the closer. When former Mets outfielder Mike Cameron was laid up in a San Diego hospital last summer after having his face rearranged in a collision with Carlos Beltran, he woke up one day and saw Hoffman standing at his bedside looking concerned and holding a teddy bear. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

"A lot of people who've played with Trevor say he's the best teammate they've ever had," White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said. "There are stories about him doing stuff for teammates that's exactly what veteran, classy guys do. It seems to me that he's a lot like Jim Thome. You'll never hear anyone say a bad word about them."

All of which made Hoffman's ordeal Tuesday night that much more painful to watch.

Hoffman posted a 10.80 ERA in his first four All-Star appearances, and No. 5 began rather oddly. He crossed the outfield to the sounds of silence, and it was only when he reached the end of his warm-up tosses that the PNC Park public-address system began playing his theme song, AC/DC's "Hells Bells."

Maybe it was just enough to throw his karma out of whack.

"Normally, I hear that coming out of the bullpen," Hoffman said. "I guess TV will do that to you."

After retiring Jermaine Dye and Miguel Tejada on harmless comebackers, Hoffman gave up a ground single to Konerko that might have been the final out of the game if NL third baseman Miguel Cabrera hadn't been guarding the line.

The single came off a fastball. "Even if he tells me his changeup is coming, I couldn't hit it," Konerko said. "I told myself, 'Just don't take a fastball for a strike because you're probably not going to get another one."

"We're all professionals. Guys understand the situation. Not only do you have 50,000 people in the stadium, but you've got about 300 million people watching on TV. There's not really much that can be said."
-- Trevor Hoffman

After Troy Glaus' ground-rule double, Hoffman and Michael Young engaged in a classic guessing game. Young fouled off a fastball, then a changeup.

National League catcher Brian McCann, operating under the assumption that Young was creeping up in the box in anticipation of another changeup, signaled fastball. Hoffman poured one in at 84 mph, and it went out a lot harder. Triple to the gap, and the NL's lead was gone.

"Maybe we should have gone with about eight changeups in a row," Hoffman said.

Hoffman acknowledged that this one will stick with him a little longer than most. It was deathly quiet when he walked into the dugout before the bottom of the ninth, and all the backslaps and glove taps in the world weren't going to turn that errant fastball into a changeup.

"We're all professionals," Hoffman said. "Guys understand the situation. Not only do you have 50,000 people in the stadium [actually, 38,904], but you've got about 300 million people watching on TV. There's not really much that can be said.

"Obviously, there's a sense of disappointment in letting this get away. You feel like you've let some people down."

At the other end of the National League clubhouse, Brian Fuentes could relate. He's in his second year as full-time closer in Colorado and, like many closers, regards Hoffman and Mariano Rivera as the gold standard of the profession.

"This is a shock to everybody," Fuentes said. "But if anybody can handle it, it's Trevor."

If Padres manager Bruce Bochy makes the call Friday against Atlanta, Hoffman will be ready to go. As Trammell says, a true professional doesn't have much choice.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.