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ON BASEBALL

Timlin's mind open on subject of closing

CLEVELAND -- It's on those nights when every pitch is a struggle, if not an adventure, for Keith Foulke that you wonder whether Mike Timlin would be a better alternative for the Red Sox.

But Timlin, who could very well be an All-Star for the first time in 15 seasons, is probably not going to replace the $8 million closer. The consensus in the Sox organization is that Timlin is best-suited for his current set-up role, even though he closed fairly well for three of those 15 years.

Sometimes relievers get typecast.

Tom Gordon said recently that he would like to pursue a closing role when his Yankee contract runs out at the end of the season. Many set-up men long to be closers. In Gordon's case, he was a very good one until he had elbow and shoulder problems. Others have gone from set-up to the big stage and flopped.

''It would be nice to close," said Timlin. ''What comes with it -- there's more fame, there's more money -- but setting up, I guess, is more my personality. I've always been more of a team player. I'll let Foulke have the glory. I'm fine without it. My family loves me if I'm a set-up guy or middle relief or whatever."

His renaissance at age 39 -- he can still throw 95 and 96 miles per hour -- certainly gives credence to his desire to close. Timlin will be a free agent at the end of the season, and with good relief pitching at a premium, he could be an attractive choice to some team as a closer.

''Closing takes a special mind-set, to be able to forget about what you've done yesterday," Timlin said. ''Younger guys have trouble taking positives out of a bad situation. The older you get, the more mature you are about what happens.

''As a young guy, I'd go out and give up three bombs and we'd still win by one and I'd dwell on the fact that I gave up so many hits. Now, I'd dwell on the fact I got the save and we won the game. That's the whole point, the whole point is to get the win and take the positives out of that."

He was a closer for the Blue Jays in 1996, at 31, and recorded a career-best 31 saves in 38 chances. He was 8 for 9 in September. With Seattle in '98, he had 19 saves in 24 chances, and the next season with Baltimore, he had 27 saves, 18 of 19 opportunities after the All-Star break.

Being a closer isn't everything, of course. Sometimes set-up guys have the tougher job.

''Most of the time, if you ask a lot of people, there's not a whole lot of difference between pitching the eighth and the ninth," Timlin said. ''If you look at set-up guys and where they have to pitch, the seventh or eighth innings, either they're pitching to the leadoff guys or in the 4-5-6 hitters. They're pitching in the meat of the lineup. You come out of it and then the closer comes in for a clean inning, 1-2-3 and the game is over. You can ask closers time and time again, they know they're saved even before they get in there.

''Most of the time when you bring the closer in, the game is usually over. You have the closer coming in usually throwing in the mid 90s or low 100s with a nasty slider and breaking ball or you have the other type guy who has surprise control and a Bugs Bunny off-speed pitch. You're a hitter looking at this guy and saying, 'We're done.' "

Whatever you call Timlin, it doesn't matter to him. Just call him effective. He's 1-1 with a 1.31 ERA in 33 appearances. In 28 of those appearances, he did not allow more than one run. He had a stretch of 15 appearances without allowing any runs. Batters are hitting .206 against him with runners in scoring position and .150 with two outs.

''It's knowledge of the game and knowing what I can and cannot do," he said. ''You don't try stupid stuff. You think things through when you do it. You have an idea of the hitters. Even the hitters you don't know, you have an idea of what they're trying to do, so you try to get them to do what you want them to do."

With three championship rings, Timlin isn't losing sleep over whether he will make the All-Star team. He knows the chances are better with Terry Francona in charge.

''It really won't mean anything to me until it happens," Timlin said. ''It would be great if it does. It hasn't happened in 15 years, so I really don't expect it to happen.

''Yeah, I'm having an OK year, throwing the ball pretty good. I'm not going to worry about it. I don't think about it. That's three days I'd get to spend with my family. We get to hang out and we've gone to different places and enjoyed this great country of ours."

Timlin is a deeply spiritual person, and doesn't fret about his future.

''We'll see what God wants to do," he said. ''We're going to pray about it and see what God wants. He'll put some stuff out on the table for us. He'll take us where we need to go. If [the Sox] want to talk about something, we'll probably talk about something. They'll have first crack at it, obviously. I've enjoyed my time here in Boston. Not just because we won the World Series; I've just enjoyed playing here. The team, the city. That's what's made it nice to play here."

He has no timetable on when to hang it up, either.

''I talked to my wife and she says, as long as you can pitch, keep pitching," he said. ''If my body can handle it, I'll go out there. Once it starts saying that's enough, that'll be it. Right now, my body responds pretty well. There are still some spots with the soreness sometime, but most of the time it's still the same.

''God has provided me with a body that has been able to last, and I've been able to do really well. It's a tremendous blessing."

He has been something of a blessing in the Red Sox bullpen. Maybe even a savior. One thing is true: In Timlin We Trust.

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