One of the defining features of a closer is his entrance music, the song that plays as he jogs out from the bullpen in the ninth inning looking to seal a victory. The two greatest closers in MLB history are nearly as famous for their entrances as they are for their pitching dominance — Trevor Hoffman and his 601 career saves are inextricably linked to AC/DC’s “Hells Bells”, while Mariano Rivera’s unhittable cut fastball and his entrance to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” earned him the nickname of “Sandman.”
Redshirt junior Jackson Lamb has a long way to go before he nears the legacy of Rivera and Hoffman. But Michigan’s closer at least has the entrance music nailed down.
It’s not just that Eminem’s “Cinderella Man” is an intimidating introduction, with the rapper’s forceful delivery and lyrics on top of a monstrous beat. But the song’s theme — coming back from adversity to earn a second chance — is almost a perfect description of Lamb’s career.
Lamb’s first chance began with terrific promise. He was a highly-touted two-way player out of Temperance Bedford High School, as he was named the Gatorade Michigan Player of the Year as a senior and was selected in the 20th round of the 2013 MLB Draft by the Texas Rangers. Lamb displayed his vast potential his first year at Michigan — while he pitched only sparingly, recording a 2.84 earned-run average in 6.1 innings, he went 3-for-3 with two doubles in his college debut and appeared on SportsCenter’s Top 10 for his diving catches in the outfield.
But injuries quickly derailed this initial promise. Lamb’s freshman year ended with a back injury. Moving to pitcher full-time as a sophomore, he made just five appearances before he needed Tommy John surgery. Last season he appeared fully recovered — striking out 13 in 8.1 innings — but again, his season ended prematurely after he broke three ribs.
It’s not as if Lamb’s talent ever disappeared — his 6-foot-6 frame and mid-90s fastball enticed the St. Louis Cardinals enough to draft him in the 35th round last summer. He has always been a weapon when healthy — his 1.50 earned-run average in 24 innings prior to 2017 attest to that. But until this season, that wasn’t very often.
“He’s a guy who’s patiently waited for this opportunity — patiently or impatiently, his road to getting here has been very curved,” said Michigan coach Erik Bakich. “He’s a guy who came in with a lot of expectations and his first three years had not gone as expected.”
In the opening bars of “Cinderella Man,” Eminem shouts, “Some of us don’t get a second chance, but I ain’t blowing this one.”
Fortunately for the Wolverines, Lamb was lucky enough to get a second chance — or to be precise, he’s finally healthy. And he hasn’t blown this chance, either.
This season, when “Cinderella Man” begins to echo throughout Ray Fisher Stadium, it almost invariably results in a bitter end for opposing hitters. In 23.2 innings this season, Lamb has struck out 23 while holding opponents to a .188 average. He ranks second in the Big Ten in saves with 10, and most incredibly, hasn’t allowed an earned run all season.
Tuesday against Central Michigan was not Lamb’s most flawless outing, but it may have been his most important. He took the mound with one out in the eighth inning and two runners aboard, Michigan ahead by three runs. Lamb promptly gave up an RBI double to left fielder Daniel Jipping and walked catcher Evan Kratt. His flawless ERA — and more importantly, the Wolverines’ lead — hung in the balance.
Lamb calmly retired the next two batters he faced, ending the inning with a strikeout. And after a single and a walk gave the Chippewas two runners in scoring position in the ninth inning, Lamb refocused and induced a game-ending flyout to left field to seal the win.
It was at this point in the season last year — the 47th game — when Michigan began its slide out of postseason contention. It was this kind of game — a low-scoring slugfest against a mid-major opponent — that would test the Wolverines’ resiliency as much as anything.
In this scenario, Lamb’s performance epitomized what any team hopes for out of their closer — someone who everyone has faith in to calmly put a team away when crisis could occur with any swing of the bat.
“(Senior right-hander) Mac Lozer and Jackson Lamb are terrific in late innings,” said junior third baseman Drew Lugbauer. “When you see them on the mound, you just have complete trust in their ability to close the game out and get the job done.”
Bakich — who has stressed mental resolve all season long — sees much more in Lamb than just an overpowering four-seamer, calling him a “fearless competitor.”
“The thing that we know about him is that he’s got a winning mindset,” Bakich said. “He’s extremely tough, he’ll fight you on the mound and he’s not going to back down or give in. He’s not scared of anything.
“In an extended save situation, it’s not about the matchup, it’s not about lefty-righty. You want that type of makeup on the mound. You want Jackson Lamb makeup on the mound.”
Lamb, for his part, recognizes the impact that adrenaline has on the role of the closer, and emphasizes staying in a routine as an important part of his approach.
“If you get too amped up out there you get a little crazy, and if you’re too calm then maybe you sacrifice some attack,” Lamb said. “Sticking to a routine helps you stay in flow.”
Bakich has emphasized intangibles and character more than any strategic changes or tactics in describing the success Michigan has had this season. The impact of intangibles in baseball has always been hotly debated. It’s impossible to measure intensity, fearlessness or makeup in the way one can count strikeouts or saves, or measure command or velocity.
But so much of a closer’s job description focuses on these intangibles — that one needs a certain type of personality to succeed in that role, and record supposedly the toughest three outs in baseball. And based on his performance this season, it’s hard to debate Lamb has whatever it takes to succeed in that role.
As Eminem raps, “Technically, I’m not even really supposed to be here right now, so might as well make the most of it.”
Last season, based on his overall career trend, few could have pictured Jackson Lamb where he is right now.
But given a second chance, Lamb has emerged as the dominating closer he originally seemed destined to be.