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Iceman's Heat Triggers Diamondbacks' Title Run

October 03, 1999|BOB BAUM | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PHOENIX — The Iceman has brought pure heat to Arizona.

When the Diamondbacks pulled off the trade for closer Matt Mantei and his 98 mph fastball, everything fell into place, and Arizona ran off with the NL West crown. Going into the season's final weekend, the Diamondbacks were 51-21 since the July 9 trade with Florida.

When Mantei enters the game, Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby" blares from the loudspeakers. The "Ice Girls," teenagers who cheer his every move, are beside themselves with joy. The big board in center field announces "The Iceman Cometh."

And for Arizona, it's a very good thing he did.

In the days leading up to the trade, the Diamondbacks were in dire need of a closer. Gregg Olson had lost the job after a series of blown saves.

Manager Buck Showalter was using various pitchers in the role, and the results weren't good. The bullpen appeared to be the weakness that could prevent the Diamondbacks from contending.

Enter Mantei, just 26, with a big smile, bulging biceps and supreme confidence.

"I think me coming in here let everybody else in the bullpen know what their jobs were," Mantei said. "Before I got here, they were trying everybody out for the closer's role, and it's hard to pitch when you don't know what your roles are."

Mantei's role was savior, and he hardly seemed phased by it.

"He was looked upon to fill a void that was much-needed here, and he filled it," said Dan Plesac, a left-handed reliever who had 153 saves in his younger days. "There was probably more pressure on him when he got here than anybody on this team during the course of this season. We put all of our marbles in one bag when we went to get him, and it paid off."

With Mantei as the unquestioned closer, every other reliever's role became clear.

"All of a sudden, what was perceived of as a terrible bullpen has now become one of the best bullpens in the National League," Plesac said.

Mantei was selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 25th round of the 1991 June free agent draft just as he was graduating from high school in River Valley, Mich. By 1995, he was with the Florida Marlins, and he made it to the big club near the end of that season.

"My first two years in the big leagues, I was a mop-up guy, a middle relief guy, a young kid that came in and threw balls all over the place and didn't really know what I was doing," Mantei said.

It was about that time that teammate Al Leiter gave him his nickname because he thought Mantei looked like a certain rapper.

"He called me Vanilla Ice," Mantei said.

Last year, Mantei said, he had the Marlins play "Ice, Ice Baby" when he entered a game, and he struck out the side.

"I told reporters, and the players all started calling me Iceman," he said.

Mantei traces his arrival as a true closer to the spring of 1997, when he underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. He missed Florida's World Series run that year, but after extensive rehabilitation work came back stronger than before.

"It took arm surgery for me to learn how to pitch," he said. "I had more strength because I learned how to pitch. I learned how to throw real hard without muscling it up. Last year playing for Jim Leyland, he taught me a lot."

Mantei knows he needs more than just his smoking fastball for long-term success in one of baseball's toughest roles.

He's been working on a curve, and has used it for several big outs, even though he's yet to master it for a consistent strike. Now, he's trying to add a slider. The first time he threw it in a game, two weeks ago in Colorado, he struck out NL batting champion Larry Walker.

"He's always going to be a pretty good closer," Showalter said. "If he comes to command a curve ball and-or a slider, he's got a chance to be lights out."

Going into this weekend, Mantei had 31 saves in 36 opportunities, 21 in 24 since coming to Arizona. He'd been scored upon once in his last 16 outings.

Sometimes, he does it with a little too much drama.

On July 30 at Dodger Stadium, he got two outs, then hit a batter, gave up a single, and walked one to load the bases with the tying run on third. He ran the count to 3-0 on Trinidad Hubbard before striking him out.

"He's still learning," Showalter said. "You're going to like the finished product, but sometimes it ain't going to be real comfortable."

Now that a playoff berth is a reality, Mantei dreams about pitching the final out in the World Series.

"Plesac dances when they play my song when I come on the field out of the bullpen," Mantei said. "If I get the last out of the World Series, I'm going to dance all over the field. You can believe that."

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