Any big league bullpen is a hodge-podge of players. There are the golden arms that have been ear-marked to close because of their lightning fastball. There are the set-up men that are either young up-and coming closers, or former closers on their way out. You have your side-armers, spit-ballers, knuckleballers, LOOGY’s, long-relievers, spot-relievers and nowhere-else-to-put-yous. Garnering the last spot in the All-Aught Indians bullpen is just that nowhere-else-to-put-you in Steve Karsay.
Karsay’s name likely isn’t one that will come up on your list of top-notch Indians’ relievers, although he was exactly that. Karsay was mostly lost in the shuffle of a career marred by injuries and untapped potential. He started in 1993 as a 21-year-old gunslinger in a late season call-up by the Oakland A’s. He had skipped Triple A and pitched 49 solid innings before manager Tony LaRussa shut him down before his 50th inning to keep his rookie-eligibility. The following season, Karsay made four electric starts before elbow pain ended his season. He didn’t pitch again in the majors until 1997, after two elbow surgeries, including Tommy John in 1995.
The Indians acquired Karsay in late-1997 as a potential starter for the 1998 season, but he lost the job as the #5 starter to some kid named Bartolo Colon. Karsay started in the rotation in Buffalo, but twice ended up on the DL before being activated by the Indians on the last day in July as a reliever. After another start and relief appearance, he was sent down to Buffalo in late August, only to be recalled in late September strictly as a reliever, and was shelled to the tune of an 8.31 ERA. It wasn’t looking good, but Karsay felt fantastic healthwise, and was really beginning to find himself. He’d begun playing with a Cleveland staple, the splitter, and was slowly re-discovering his fastball, that was now being clocked in the mid-90’s.
He’d break out in 1999 as a multi-purpose reliever after incorporating the aforementioned splitter and utilizing his refound velocity. He had a phenomenal year, going 10-2 with a 2.97 ERA. He started the year as a middle and long-reliever, twice pitching more than three innings of relief, with stints anywhere from the first inning, to the ninth. The further back in the game he’d pitch, the better he was, until the DL bit him in July with a strained oblique muscle. He’d return at the end of the month and return to form before manager Mike Hargrove moved Karsay to the rotation because of injuries to Dwight Gooden, Jaret Wright and Mark Langston. He looked brilliant in two starts, going 2-0 with a 0.90 but his third start ended with another stint on the DL with a strained tendon in his right forearm. He returned to the bullpen for the rest of the season.
Karsay officially began his Aughts as the closer for the Indians, and saved 19 games out of 24 attempts for the Indians prior to the trade deadline. He had impeccable stretches that year, saving seven straight chances from May 16 to June 10th, and his ERA was a respectable 3.09. The Indians wanted Karsay back in his role of set-up, and acquired Bob Wickman during the deadline. Karsay struggled for the next month with the demotion, but rebounded in September during the stretch run. He went 1-1 with a 1.42 ERA during his last thirteen innings of work.
2001 began as a frustrating year for Karsay, who wanted to be in the closer role. With the Indians, Karsay made 31 appearances, going 0-1. He didn’t give up a run during the month of April, which amounted to ten appearances and 14 innings. Karsay quickly became the most important reliever, going more than one inning in 11 of his first 17 games played. His final line with the Indians was an impressive one, finishing with a 1.25 ERA in 43.1 innings pitched. He struck out 44, with only eight walks, while giving up only one homer. He only recorded one save, however, and even though Karsay still brought his A-game, the frustration was building.
Karsay was dealt in late June in one of the most idiotic deals in Tribe history. Karsay was sent to Atlanta with sidewinder Steve Reed for John Rocker, the enigmatic lefty closer that was more bigot than pitcher.
Karsay won’t go down in the annals of baseball’s great relievers, but he certainly was a good one with the Indians. His strength was his ability to pitch in any scenario, from long-relief to closer. He could even spot start on occasion if you really needed him. He had more stuff than your average reliever, with a plus fastball, splitter and curve, to go along with a nice change-up. Cleveland revitalized his career, but in the end, didn’t give him what he wanted most, to be a front-of-the-rotation starter, or to come in and be the man to slam the door shut in the ninth inning.
What Karsay really turned into a jack of all trades for the Indians, and in that role in 2000 and 2001, was one of the best high leverage relievers in the game of baseball. Welcome to the decade’s best Indians Steve, as our sixth reliever, you can fill all the gaps for our All-Aught Bullpen.