Jason Isringhausen and the Night of Personal Triumphs

On the night of August 15, 2011, Jim Thome strolled into the batter’s box. His Twins narrowly led the Tigers in a back-and-forth night game under the Comerica Park lights.

The count was 2-1 as Thome brought his bat to meet Detroit’s Daniel Schlereth’s eyes, then set back and waited. A few moments later, Thome launched his 600th career home run into the Detroit sky and Thome began yet another jog around the bases. The world quickly exploded into a craze of Twitter one-liners, praise for the “nicest man in baseball,” and the mass media swarmed for quotes, insight, and discreet HGH allegations.

Meanwhile, four infielders in Milwaukee engaged in their own bit of history. In the top of the second inning with the Dodgers’ James Loney at bat, Josh Wilson, Yuniesky Betancourt,Prince Fielder and George Kottaras combined to do what had only happened once before in the 2011 season to that point. The Milwaukee infielders turned a sharply hit ground ball up the middle into a flip, drag, toss, toss, and tag, otherwise known as the triple play.

The following morning, water cooler talk consisted of those two moments. What wasn’t discussed was what happened later that night on the West Coast, after the baseball world had had its filling of memorable moments.

The Mets aren’t grabbing many national headlines these days, and based upon what’s been written lately, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Mets were really testing the old adage that “any press is good press” after blowing the division in the waning weeks of play multiple times over the last few years, ownership nearly bankrupting the team, and lately putting almost their entire roster on the market.

Yet the Mets had a reason for enthusiasm on this night. Their new, old closer, had returned to the ninth inning.

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When Jason Isringhausen tried out this past year for the Mets in Spring Training, he knew there was a slim chance of save opportunities coming his way. He entered the season with 293 career saves, 23rd on the all-time saves list; however that total was just 25 more than the Mets Opening Day closer: Francisco Rodriguez.

While Rodriguez’s personal life may have been troubled, he was still a force on the mound and showed no signs up surrendering the closer role any time soon. But when Rodriguez was shipped to Milwaukee, Isringhausen was given an opportunity to save games in the big leagues again.

Isringhausen had come full circle in New York, having started his career with the Mets back in 1995. He was drafted by the organization as a starting pitcher, and was part of “Generation K” along with Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher. After a few setbacks and injury trouble, Isringhausen was dealt to the A’s in 1999, and in Oakland he was moved into the bullpen. Later that year he picked up his first save.

“Izzy,” as he would become known as by fans, spent the majority of his bullpen days in St. Louis, where he shared a love/hate relationship with the city. It was mostly love in the early 2000’s, as he kept runs off the board, never exceeding a 3.00 ERA from 2002 to 2005. During that four-year stretch he racked up 140 saves and only blew 19.

In 2006, Isringhausen ran into some trouble and blew 10 of 43 opportunities. That was the same year the Cardinals won the World Series.

It’s also the year Isringhausen went down with a hip injury and missed the entire postseason.Adam Wainwright filled in with great success and the Cardinals took home some hardware. Izzy got his ring, but would have liked to get it another way.

Isringhausen continued to manage the ninth in St. Louis until the end of the 2008 season, a year that troubled the aging veteran. Injuries had played a toll on Isringhausen throughout his career and seemed to be urging the closer towards retirement. After the 2008 season, Isringhausen left the Cardinals due to elbow tendonitis, a partially torn tendon in his forearm, and a lacerated hand reportedly caused by throwing open hand punches on a clubhouse television set. Eventually, Isringhausen was forced to undergo Tommy John Surgery, leading some to think his career was finished.

Jason Isringhausen had other plans.

He continued to fight and do everything in his power to finish out his career on his terms. He made his recovery and got back into baseball, re-joining the Mets organization.

When Isringhausen arrived to work on August 15, he had racked up 299 career saves. Roughly 90 minutes before game time at Petco Park, four Milwaukee Brewers were turning a triple play. About 30 minutes after that, while Isringhausen was going through pregame preparations, Jim Thome homered for the 600th time in his career. Isringhausen remained oblivious to the MLB noise on the East Coast, unaware that he was about to make history of his own.

In the bottom of the 10th inning, the Mets took the field after claiming a lead in the top half of the frame. It was Isringhausen’s time.

Kyle Blanks was first up, then he was first down; a strikeout victim. Orlando Hudson and Nick Hundley both found ways on base, then Alberto Gonzalez grounded into a fielder’s choice for the second out.

Next, Isringhausen threw to Logan Forsythe, who slapped the ball to Ruben Tejeda at shortstop. Ruben tossed the ball to Lucas Duda at first base, and career save number 300 was in the books.

A smile crept around the face of the 38-year-old as he accepted congratulations from teammates. There wasn’t much more than that. Was it because after 15 seasons in the big leagues, Isringhausen had seen just about everything? Was this was just another day to him? Was it because he knew this meant the end was near?

Later, in the locker room, corks would pop and champagne would flow. The Mets organization might have valued the moment more than Isringhausen did at the time, but they’ve celebrated a few milestones before this one. Both John Franco and Billy Wagner notched career save number 300 with the Mets, only those two men weren’t originally drafted by the franchise.

The Mets knew how this moment would replay in Izzy’s head for years to come, and they wanted to do it right. Champagne isn’t usually popped for teams below .500 in mid-August, but the Mets knew that this was why the veteran laced up the cleats for one more year.

His milestone is worth celebrating. There have only been 22 men to reach the milestone Izzy reached that Monday night.

Isringhausen’s moment didn’t grab many headlines. There wasn’t the media swarm or five good minutes with the PTI crew. But for a man that’s battled through so much to get back in the game, his understated farewell may just be the perfect way to end a career that was always in jeopardy.

It was a personal victory, celebrated in the clubhouse of the team that first brought him into the league. And celebrated personally.

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