HOUSTON -- No matter the situation, the ninth inning can be a whole different animal for a big-league reliever. Todd Coffey is learning this lesson on the job. The Reds' newly anointed closer was called from the bullpen to get three outs and preserve a 7-3 lead over the Astros on Saturday. Although he'd been dominant this season as a setup man, he struggled, hitting the leadoff batter, and then allowing three singles and two runs.
Suddenly, a relatively routine situation became a high-pressure learning experience about the perils of closing games. Had Ryan Freel not made a spectacular wall-crashing, game-saving catch on Mike Lamb's drive to the left-center-field gap, it could have been a very costly lesson for Coffey and the Reds. "It helped me a lot," said Coffey, who leads the pitching staff with 27 appearances. "I started pitching in one mode, and I can't do that. I have to step back and relax and go back to the same way that's helped me." Coffey didn't fare as well Sunday. This time, in a 10th-inning save situation in a one-run game, he was unable to close the door with two outs. Craig Biggio and Chris Burke hit back-to-back doubles to score the tying run. The Reds went on to win by a 6-4 score. In his last four appearances, Coffey has allowed five runs. He still has been Cincinnati's most consistent reliever this season, and he entered Sunday leading all big-league relievers with a 1.74 ERA. Long expected to be the closer of the near future, his four-out save in Wednesday's game at Chicago prompted manager Jerry Narron to promote the 25-year-old and put David Weathers in the setup role. "The ninth inning is different than any other inning," Narron said. "There's nobody behind you. It's one of the toughest things in sports to do." Before Sunday's game, Coffey felt he tried to put too much on his mid-90s mph fastball the previous night. It adversely affected his location. "Adversity makes you better, like in anything," said Coffey, who is 2-0 with two saves this season. "Last night, I learned it's not go harder -- it's go smarter." On a roll: Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr., who hit career homer No. 544 Saturday, entered Sunday with five homers and 16 RBIs over his last 13 games. He has 23 RBIs since returning from the disabled list May 11, after he missed a month with a knee injury. His 21 RBIs last month led the club. In 29 games, Griffey has 30 RBIs -- good for fifth on the club. "I said, along that, he missed [a month] and will still lead the team in RBIs," Narron said. "He's a very good hitter. There are a lot of players in baseball that get their numbers off mediocre pitching. He can hit anybody, always has." Crash, boom: Freel, who entered Saturday's game in the ninth inning, was sporting marks on his right arm from his hard crash into the fence. He hit the wall right in front of the Cincinnati bullpen, which is enclosed behind large windows under the left-field fan walkway. It should have given the bullpen's occupants a spectacular view of a great play, right? Wrong. A couple of wall signs and some padding obstructed everyone's view. "I didn't see it," bullpen coach Lee Tunnell said. "But several of us heard it." Black and blue: Freel's play overshadowed another body sacrificing catch by right fielder Austin Kearns, who made a nice shoestring grab at the foul line before sliding across the warning track and into the wall on Craig Biggio's sacrifice fly. Kearns had a deep bruise and some broken skin covered by a bandage on his upper right leg. "It opened up a strawberry that just healed," Kearns said. "Unlike the infield, it's gravel out there." Long time coming: The Reds' series win this weekend was their first at Minute Maid Park since Aug. 22-24, 2003. Coming up: The Reds' road trip moves to St. Louis on Monday for three games against the Cardinals. Lefty Brandon Claussen (3-6, 5.40 ERA) will start the 8:10 p.m. ET opener against righty Jeff Suppan (5-4, 5.06 ERA).
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.