While Yankee fans have always appreciated Mariano Rivera– to say the least– the fan base may have also taken him for granted. I grew up watching Mo pitch the late innings. That made it easy for me to forget that he makes something exceedingly difficult look deceptively easy. He just runs onto the mound, and far, far more often than not he gets the last three to six outs of the ball game without breaking a sweat, just a few bats. The last week without him has been a quick wake up call: Not everyone can do what Mo does. That’s what makes him special.
Last week I argued that the Yankees would be ok in Mariano’s absence because the team had David Robertson. If there was one player in baseball who looked primed to step into Rivera’s enormous shoes, it was Robertson. For more than a year he’d been lights out for the Yankees, a strikeout waiting to happen (in the good sense). Of course, no sooner do I write that and David promptly struggles mightily closing. He made us all sweat a bit before he picked up his first save against the Rays, looking a bit more relieved than a professional athlete should once the game ended. The next night, with the Yankees clinging to a one run lead, he imploded, allowing his first run of the year, blowing the save, and looking completely overwhelmed with his new responsibilities in the process.
It would be easy to dismiss Robertson as unprepared to close after those two shaky outings. He didn’t inspire confidence in his first audition for the job. He’s also extremely valuable as a lights out set up man, especially since the Yankees already have a proven closer on the team in Rafael Soriano. The Yankees have the option to end the Robertson as closer experiment, promote Soriano, and have David get back to doing what he does best: striking out the side in eighth.
There is one flaw to this logic, unfortunately. It is highly unlikely that the Yankees will keep the expensive, petulant Soriano after his current
grand theft contract expires. And, sadly, no matter how he returns from injury Mariano Rivera cannot be counted on to save games forever. This season has been a shocking reminder that the legendary Yankee closer is mortal, and one day he really will retire. One way or another the Yankees will need to find a new closer, and soon. David Robertson looks like he has the stuff, regardless of how this past week went.
Those of us who watched the series against the Rays may have noticed that Michael Kay pointed out several times that Rivera himself wasn’t lights out when he first began closing. As much as it pains me to write this, Kay was right. Rivera was anything but legendary when he first took over closing after John Wetteland left.
I’ve written this before, but I’ll write it again because I seem to enjoy writing it every time. I distinctly remember Mo breaking out in 1996. I remember it because I was certain that there was no way anyone could hit his fastball. I was certain Rivera’s 94 mph pitch was rising as it reached the plate (later I would find out that if this were true it would defy the laws of physics). It had a break, and that break appeared to send the pitch up and in on left handed batters. I wouldn’t find out until years later that Rivera was throwing the most devastating cutter the game has ever known, but I knew the Yankees had backed into something special. The Yankees knew it too. In 1996 Rivera tossed a ridiculous 107.2 innings (ridiculous for a reliever) with an ERA of 2.09 and a WHIP of 0.99. Wetteland’s numbers in 1996 were nothing to laugh at, but Rivera was better. When Wetteland left for free-agency, Mariano became the closer.
Mariano became the closer and promptly blew three of his first six save opportunities. He was stellar in his first two opportunities, allowing zero runs and just two hits while striking out four over three innings of work. Then, the wheels came off a bit. In opportunities three and four Rivera was mortal. He allowed seven hits in three innings of work, striking out just one and allowing a run to score in each inning. Rivera righted the ship in his fifth opportunity, before imploding in his sixth chance, allowing two runs to score on three hits in a single inning of work. While I have no memory of this, I trust that Kay is correct when he says the Yankees were questioning whether or not Mariano was up to the job of closing. In the end the Yankees kept running the skinny right-hander up there, he proved up to the job, and the rest is history.
The Yankees made the right decision giving David Robertson the opportunity to close now that Rivera is injured. Robertson hasn’t shined in his first couple of opportunities as the closer, but that doesn’t mean anything. I was a skeptic before, but I’ve now watched enough top flight relievers look like the guy trying to land the plane in Airplane when asked to close to believe that there is something challenging about finishing the ball game that defies the cold reason of numbers. There is something about the job that has to be learned and Robertson hasn’t been given enough chances to learn it yet. There’s no reason to doubt him. After all, not even Mariano was a natural, all those years ago before he was the Sandman.
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