Valverde provides entertaining theater
D-backs closer has given fans plenty of ninth-inning drama
PHOENIX -- Gyrations at Chase Field.
The fist pumps and the Guitar Hero-like rock kicks. The screams and the struts.
Sometimes what happens after Diamondbacks closer Jose Valverde delivers a strike to home plate in the ninth inning is more amusing than the pitch itself.
"I have fun out there," he said. "What's wrong with that?"
Valverde is an athlete who also considers himself an entertainer, which is fitting for a player who always seems to provide drama, either intentionally or unintentionally. The approach led to a Major League-leading 47 saves in 2007 and one save so far in the National League Division Series against the Cubs.
The ninth-inning theater continues Saturday at Wrigley Field, with Valverde's Diamondbacks leading the NLDS 2-0. The right-hander, who has pitched in both games, can't wait to get back on the mound.
"The best part about being a closer, for me, is getting that last out and letting my emotions out after we win," Valverde said. "The fans are amazing. The adrenaline they give you is unbelievable. The adrenaline -- that's the best part. I love it."
If that's the case, boisterous crowds at Chase Field this week were the perfect scene for the Dominican closer. He was in his element and it showed.
In Game 1 of the NLDS on Wednesday, Valverde faced four hitters in the ninth -- walking one and striking out one -- to earn the first postseason save of his career. In Game 2 of the NLDS on Thursday, he allowed one hit to Alfonso Soriano but struck out three hitters, including Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, to end the game and start his trademark celebration.
Thursday's outing was a non-save situation but it didn't matter. Valverde's friendly competition with countryman and Brewers closer Francisco Cordero for the most saves in the league is over. Valverde won. He's counting team wins now, not personal stats.
"We are in another season, a new season," Valverde said. "Now it's about playing the best, about who will have the best fundamentals and not make mistakes. Those 47 saves don't mean anything anymore. Once you get a save in the postseason, those others are gone. Those 47 are the past. I have one save now."
Forty-eight total saves so far in 2007. It's no surprise D-backs manager Bob Melvin gushes when asked about his pitcher's season and how he has evolved into a premier closer. Valverde has come a long way. He came into the 2007 campaign with 51 saves since making his debut in 2003. He was demoted to Triple-A last season because of erratic performances on the mound.
"I don't know that there's been a better closer in baseball this year," Melvin said. "He's come a long way from last year starting out closing and ending up at one point in time in the Minor Leagues and kind of fighting his way back to claim the closer's role at the end of the year.
"I think this year it served him well," Melvin continued. "I think he's tougher this year because of what happened last year, and he realizes every time he goes out there he has an opportunity, and I think that the thing he's done better than anything this year is being able to respond to the games that maybe he has blown, and he's always come back and responded."
The view from the dugout when Valverde is on the mound is exciting, if not nerve-racking for his teammates. That said, they wouldn't want anybody else on the mound in the final inning of the game. It might not be the greatest show in Phoenix, but it's close. It might be the most watched few minutes in the Valley of the Sun on a nightly basis.
"He's done a great job and he's a big reason why we are here," D-backs Game 3 starter Livan Hernandez said. "He has his family and his loved ones, things that are important to him off the field, so he can go on the field and have fun. You can see that."
Valverde is not alone. He is joined in the bullpen by Tony Pena, Brandon Lyon, Juan Cruz and Edgar Gonzalez. Successful performances by the relievers this weekend against the Cubs will be crucial if the D-backs expect to advance to the NL Championship Series next week.
NLDS hero Stephen Drew expects nothing but the best from the bullpen. He has been witness to the Sedona red and Sonoran sand Theater Company all season, so excuse him if he seems accustomed to the late-inning drama and Valverde's theatrics.
"[Valverde] had a great year," Drew said. "He's picked us up in times that the offense has struggled a little bit. [The relievers] come in the eighth or the seventh, and it really helps out when you've got one run and you know the pitching is going to do their job."
Valverde, part showman and part pitcher, is determined to do his part on the mound -- before, during and after each ninth-inning pitch.
"My goal is the same as the rest of my teammates -- win these three games and go on," Valverde said. "We'll see what happens in Colorado and wait. We are going to keep doing what we are doing."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.