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The beauty of the 3-inning save

One third of Andre Jackson’s career major league appearances are three-inning saves

St. Louis Cardinals v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Dodgers attained a few goals and milestones on Sunday, clinching the No. 1 seed and home field advantage in the National League playoffs all while winning their 106th game, matching the franchise record for victories.

But they also completed another task, calling on Andre Jackson to do so for the second straight season. Jackson pitched the final three innings to close out Sunday’s win over the Cardinals, earning the Dodgers’ first save of at least three innings this season.

It’s no secret that I adore the three-inning save, very possibly my most obscure regular season baseball love. So it’s only fair that I explain why.

First, most three-inning saves are hilarious, especially when taken at its extreme. You don’t need to enter a game in a save situation — a lead of no more than three runs, or if the lead is larger, entering with the tying run on deck — to earn a three-inning save. You just need to finish out a win that was never relinquished on your watch, pitching at least three innings.

Steve Howe entered Game 6 of the 1981 World Series with an 8-1 Dodgers lead in the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium, and got the final eleven outs to close out the World Series, the most important three-inning save in Dodgers history.

When the Rangers shellacked the Orioles 30-3 in 2007, the box score was jumping with eye-popping stats, but what caught my eye was that Wes Littleton earned the save, by pitching the final three innings, despite entering with an 11-run lead. Littleton, to his credit, did not allow a run, but that’s the other oddity of a three-inning save — you don’t even have to pitch well.

Last year, Twins pitcher Randy Dobnak allowed five runs in three innings, but earned a save in Minnesota’s 15-6 win. In 1973, future Dodgers free agent train wreck Dave Goltz — then with the Twins — allowed eight runs in three innings and got a save. That’s funny to me.

Since saves became an official stat in 1969, the most runs allowed by a Dodgers pitcher in a save was Charlie Hough, who gave up four runs in a five-inning save in 1970. Don Sutton was pulled at Wrigley Field after only one out in the first inning, allowing five runs. Fred Norman relieved him and got the Dodgers through the fourth, and by the time he exited the Dodgers took the lead. Hough finished out the game for the save.

My other weird baseball obsession is for every spring training game to end in a tie, because the outcomes of those exhibition contests are meaningless, and ending with a tie is perfect to me. My two great sicko baseball kinks collided in 2015.

Dodgers pitcher Zach Lee nearly earned a six-inning save during spring training on April 1, 2015, but instead settled for finishing out a 4-4 tie, the most noble of all exhibition endings.
Dodgers pitcher Zach Lee nearly earned a six-inning save during spring training on April 1, 2015, but instead settled for finishing out a 4-4 tie, the most noble of all exhibition endings.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

On the final day of the Arizona portion of Dodgers spring training, the Dodgers were in Surprise to face the Royals. Clayton Kershaw in his final tuneup before opening day pitched three innings, allowing one unearned run before heading back to Los Angeles. The Dodgers took the lead in the top of the fourth, making Kershaw the pitcher of record (in spring training, starters do not need to last five innings to earn a win).

Zach Lee entered, and pitched well the rest of the way, allowing only a run heading into the ninth. With a 4-2 lead and in his sixth inning of work, the official scorer in the press box confirmed that if Lee finished off the win he would get a six-inning save. Needless to say, my interest was piqued.

Lee induced a groundout to open the frame, putting him within two outs of glory. But after a walk to Matt Fields, Lee allowed a home run to future old friend Brett Eibner, knotting up the game at four apiece. My dream of seeing a six-inning save dashed, I turned my attention to a tie game, the most appropriate of spring finishes. But two singles off Lee put even those hopes in peril, only to be rescued by Gabriel Noriega grounding into a game ending double play.

Lee didn’t earn the save, but he did save the tie, one of my greatest spring training memories. Happy April Fools Day, indeed.

I enjoy the three-inning save for it’s unusualness, and not to diminish the performance. Especially because there’s also value in simply soaking up all those innings.

We’ve seen that the last few years in the majors, with position players pitching skyrocketing in order to keep other, actual relievers fresh by not using them in a blowout. To save them, if you will. In other words, there’s value even in bad three-inning saves.

Sunday was not a blowout, as Jackson entered with a three-run advantage, fulfilling the normal save requirement had his outing been only one inning. Jackson struck out three in his three scoreless frames, working around one-out singles in both the eighth and ninth innings.

It was part of a nice turnaround for Jackson, who struggled was sidelined for a few weeks in June and July after more walks than strikeouts and a 6.34 ERA with Triple-A Oklahoma City. He recovered to post a 3.62 ERA over the next two months for OKC, culminating with a four-inning save on September 4, a scoreless performance that protected a one-run lead and, at the time, kept Oklahoma City in first place.

His other three September outings have been with the Dodgers, allowing a total of one unearned run in 5⅔ innings, with six strikeouts against only two walks.

Jackson on Sunday was the 11th different Dodgers pitcher to earn a save this season, matching the 1979 team for most in club history since the save became an official statistic. Jackson is one of only three pitchers to earn a save for the Dodgers in both 2021 and 2022, joining David Price and Alex Vesia.

In 2021, Jackson was also the first Dodger with a three-inning save. He was also the last, as that save came on the final day of the regular season. Which means that Jackson’s two major league saves have both been three innings in length, and both secured the Dodgers’ 106th win of the season.

How can you not love the three-inning save?