Last week, St. Louis Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen finished a very strong 2007 season by posting the top save percentage in the National League. That positioned him as a strong contender for recognition as the NL’s Comeback Player of the Year, an award taken by former Cardinal Dmitri Young, now with Washington.
This week, he was rewarded as Cardinals interim general manager John Mozeliak announced on Friday the club picked up their $8 million option on Izzy’s contract for 2008. The move returns the Southern Illinois native to the Cardinals for a seventh season.
In reality, this was a $6.75 million decision since the Cardinals were bound to pay Izzy a $1.25 million buyout if they didn’t want him back. It is also worth noting that Isringhausen has allowed his contract to be reworked in the past so the Cardinals could free up short-term money to sign others.
The 35-year-old is back on top of his game just 12 months after his career seemed in jeopardy. Izzy missed the final weeks of the 2006 season facing a degenerative hip condition that required a second surgery, necessary not just for him to try to continue pitching, but to ensure he could continue to walk and lead a normal life.
His surgery and recovery was a major success, though no one knew for sure what to expect when the 12-year veteran reported to Cardinals Spring Training camp in Jupiter, Florida in March.
Would fans see the highly-effective closer who posted a 2.13 ERA and converted over 90% of his save opportunities in 2005 or the aging veteran who finally had to call it quits last August in Washington after registering the highest ERA since his first year as a full-time closer at 3.55?
In 2007, the Cardinals starting pitching staff struggled mightily, tossing the fewest innings in the league. Though presented with fewer save opportunities than expected during the Cards’ disappointing campaign, Izzy always answered the bell when called upon.
In fact, as last Sunday’s final game illustrated again, Izzy was well enough that he could be asked to go more than the traditional maximum one-inning stint for a closer. Though he allowed a run by the Pittsburgh Pirates in that last contest, the bottom line showed that Isringhausen collected his 34th save of the season to end his and his up-and-down team’s season on a positive note.
Izzy finished the 2007 campaign with a phenomenal save record, registering just two blown saves all season long. He save percentage of 94.1% (32-for-34) was tops in the National League and second-best in the entire Major Leagues behind the American League pacesetter, Seattle’s J.J. Putz at 95.2% (40 of 42).
With that strong finish, Izzy has a current streak going that he will carry into 2008. At this point, Isringhausen has converted 18 straight save opportunities, with his last blown save way back on June 26 in New York. That represents the top active save streak in baseball.
Isringhausen’s save percentage in 2007 also just missed being the top single-season performance in Cardinals team history. He ended up trailing only Tom Henke’s 94.7% (36-for-38) mark set in 1995, which ironically was also Isringhausen’s rookie season as a starter with the New York Mets. He was part of the then-heralded “Generation K”, along with Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher.
Prior to this year, Izzy’s most efficient season for saves occurred in 2005, when he converted 90.7% of his opportunities (39-for-43). With last Sunday’s save, Isringhausen extended his Cardinals franchise career save lead to 205.
Though his return was once seriously in doubt, the combination of coming off a year as strong as this one, having full no trade protection and the lack of a less-expensive alternative for the Cardinals led to Friday’s expected announcement that Jason Isringhausen will be back for his seventh season as St. Louis’ closer in 2008.
While this move was easy enough, more difficult and nagging questions remain, such as who will be in the Cardinals starting rotation and the identity of the team’s manager and coaching staff next season.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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