Bailey was credited with a blown save in his first career opportunity last April, but that came in a sixth-inning relief appearance in which he allowed a run. The A's promoted him to closer in June 2009, and he'd blown one save -- on June 16th -- over 28 opportunities before Tuesday night. Bailey was named an All-Star and American League Rookie of the Year for that effort.
Now that the streak is over, it can be analyzed in its entirety. Bailey had logged a 1.00 ERA since his last blown save, and he'd struck out more batters (49) than he'd allowed baserunners via hit (31) and walk (nine) combined. The 25-year-old had allowed just two home runs in his last 54 innings and had been working on a scoreless streak of 21 2/3 innings dating back to last year.
But you'd be mistaken if you thought he was taking his success for granted. On the contrary, Oakland's relief ace has kept his achievements in perspective, and he recently told reporters that he can't do his job without other people putting him in position.
"I'm the first one to say that the closer's role may be overrated," he said last week. "You don't win the games in the ninth inning. You win the games in the fifth, sixth [and] seventh innings."
That may be when you win them, but the ninth inning is where you close them out. And on that count, Bailey has been as successful as anyone in baseball over the last 18 months. His streak had several precedents in recent history, but only three relievers -- Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, the Angels' Fernando Rodney and Houston's Matt Lindstrom -- have a current streak in the same neighborhood.
Papelbon, a four-time All-Star, is nine-for-nine in save opportunities this season and has converted 22 straight saves in the regular season, the longest streak of his career. The right-hander does have a high-profile miss on his recent resume, though, having blown a save in Game 3 of last season's American League Divisional Series against the Angels.
Rodney, setting up for Brian Fuentes in Los Angeles, has 21 straight saves and is 45-for-46 dating to 2008. Rodney saved 37 of 38 games in 2009 for the Tigers before signing on with the Angels, and he's gone five-for-five in saves this season.
Lindstrom has closed and set up during his streak, and he has 18 straight saves in a run that started last April. They've taken different paths to late-inning invincibility, but Lindstrom thinks that the streaks are impressive in whichever shape they appear.
"I think the biggest thing is [that] some guys get more opportunities kind of more consistently than others," said Lindstrom. "Sometimes, it's easier to keep that streak going if you're getting your work in and having your pitches sharp all the time. I would say it's probably a little bit more difficult having a bunch of days off and keeping the streak going. You've got to do the extra things in order to stay sharp. My experience is not that extensive, but I think it's very impressive guys that keep their streaks going. Little things can happen in the later innings."
Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley set Oakland's franchise record with 40 consecutive saves over the 1991 and '92 seasons, setting Bailey in some impressive company. But the larger trend shows something else entirely: There have been at least 29 streaks of 27 consecutive games or more over the last 20 seasons -- 11 of them since 2005 -- and some of the best relievers in baseball have done it multiple times.
Eric Gagne, the all-time record-holder at an almost unfathomable 84 consecutive saves, also had a separate streak of 30 consecutive saves. Trevor Hoffman saved 41 consecutive games for the Padres in 1997 and '98, and he's posted three other streaks of at least 25 straight saves. New York's Mariano Rivera has five separate streaks of at least 27 straight saves, the most recent of which occurred last season.
On another note, less heralded relievers Chad Cordero and Francisco Cordero have both saved at least 26 consecutive games, and former closers Todd Jones and Jose Mesa both did it twice each. Interestingly, Bailey's direct predecessor with the A's -- Colorado closer Huston Street, the 2005 American League Rookie of the Year while with Oakland -- had a streak of 26 consecutive saves in 2009.
If Bailey had hung on another week, he likely could have separated himself from the pack. There have only been 16 streaks of 30 saves in the last 20 years, including two each by Gagne, Hoffman and Rivera. Brad Lidge has the third-longest streak (47 consecutive saves), a run that saw him move from Houston to Philadelphia and save 41 games without a blemish en route to the 2008 World Series title.
Tom Gordon, who saved 54 straight games for the Red Sox from 1998-99, is the only man between Lidge and Gagne. Baltimore reliever Mike Gonzalez has the longest streak in terms of time, a 39-save span that lasted from 2004-08 and saw him switched to closer from setup man and traded from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, in addition to missing nearly a year due to ligament-replacement surgery on his elbow.
Lindstrom, whose streak started with the Marlins, must know a little something about what Gonzalez went through. The right-hander has been moved between setup and ninth-inning duties over the last two seasons, but he's 7-for-7 in save opportunities as Houston's closer after closing the door in the Astros' 6-3 victory over the Cardinals on Tuesday night. Lindstrom said that his time pitching as a setup man helped prepare him to close and perhaps also to bide his time in between saves.
"Any time a pitcher comes in the later innings of the game, it's difficult because the team is counting on you to lock it down, and they need you to do their job," said Lindstrom, who last blew a save last April. "I don't have that many years of experience, but I'm learning [that] it's important to pound the strike zone and not let anybody on base with free passes. If they're going get hits or get on base, they have to earn it."