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Bottom of the Ninth

You could start a club this winter for elite closers whose blown saves sent their teams to early ends. Jonathan Papelbon, Huston Street, and Joe Nathan can start a therapy group. Or maybe they just need one more to make a golf foursome.

What people are forgetting is that Mariano Rivera could join that group. Rivera’s hall of fame credentials and consistency over so many years have softened the sharp facts that he, too, has several high profile blown saves in his career.

Take a look at 1997. It was his first year as closer. After spending 1996 being the 7th and 8th inning guy in the “Mo and Wett Show,” Mariano moved into the closing role when the Yankees let World Series hero John Wettland (who was always a heart-attack closer) move on. At that point, there was no dynasty yet, just a World Championship in 1996, the first since the 1970s, and the team could have faded back into the doldrums of mismanagement that had crippled them for so long. Instead, they managed to win the Wild Card and then faced Cleveland in the ALDS.

Going into game four, the Yankees held a 2-1 series lead and needed just one more win to advance, and they held a 2-1 lead in the game going into the 8th inning.

The Retrosheet recap tells the tale in bald language:

INDIANS 8TH: Justice was called out on strikes; RIVERA 
REPLACED STANTON (PITCHING); Williams flied to right; 
Alomar homered; Fernandez grounded out 
(first unassisted); 1 R, 1 H, 0 E, 0 LOB.
Yankees 2, Indians 2.

It was Ramiro Mendoza who then gave up the walkoff in the ninth, on a single-sacbunt-single, but it was Rivera who blew the save, and who meditated on it all winter. (They had to lose the next day also to be bounced out, but as with Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series, no one remembers the next day.)

Mariano, and the whole team, came back with stronger resolve. The 1998 team won a then-record 114 games — 125 if you include their cruise through the postseason. World Championships followed that year, and in 1999, and in 2000, making it three in a row.

And nearly four, when in 2001, the Yankees and the Diamondbacks went to game seven of the World Series, and went into the 8th inning with a 2-1 lead, thanks to an Alfonso Soriano solo shot off Curt Schilling. With everyone emotionally exhausted from the aftermath of 9/11, the incredible events of the two back-to-back walkoffs in the Bronx, and all the rest of it, no one had any nerves left to fray. Rivera struck out the side in the eighth, but then sat in the dugout looked utterly spent. When he went back out for the ninth inning, disaster loomed. Then crashed in.

DIAMONDBACKS 9TH: Grace singled to center; DELLUCCI
RAN FOR GRACE; On a bunt Miller reached on an error 
by Rivera [Dellucci to second]; BELL BATTED FOR JOHNSON; 
On a bunt Bell forced Dellucci (pitcher to third) [Miller to second]; 
CUMMINGS RAN FOR MILLER; Womack doubled to right 
[Cummings scored (unearned), Bell to third]; Counsell was 
hit by a pitch; Gonzalez singled to center [Bell scored, 
Womack to third, Counsell to second];
Arizona wins Series 4 games to 3
2 R (1 ER), 3 H, 1 E, 3 LOB. Yankees 2, Diamondbacks 3.

(from Retrosheet)

That surely has to be the mother of all nightmare scenarios for a closer. Not just to lose a game, but the entire World Series on your watch?

But there might be one even worse when you consider that it was Mariano on the mound not one, but two nights in a row, when the Red Sox finally reversed their curse. The Yankees had completely dominated the Sox in game three of the 2004 ALCS, beating them 19-8 and taking them to the brink of elimination.

But the next night wasn’t such a blow out. The lead was a slim one run when Mo entered the game in the eighth. Once again it wasn’t the eighth that was the problem. It was leading off the ninth inning that Kevin Millar worked a walk off Rivera. Many people don’t remember but Rivera arrived for that series physically and emotionally exhausted. A tragedy at his home in Panama just a few days before had left him with two close relatives dead on the property; reports were that both had been electrocuted in Rivera’s swimming pool after a housekeeper had left a live wire in the water to keep the dogs out. He had flown to Panama and back just in time for the series. But he never mentioned that or used it as an excuse. He walked Millar, and speedster Dave Roberts pinch ran and stole second, and the next batter, Bill Mueller, singled him in. Tie game, and the Red Sox would win it in the twelfth inning on a David Ortiz walk-off homer.

The next night the refrain had not changed, except that this time Millar had already walked and Roberts was already on the basepaths when Rivera entered partway through the eighth inning, and he scored on a Varitek sac fly. And this time Ortiz’s walk off came in the 14th inning.

That makes four rather high profile blown saves in a man’s career, and yet the fact remains indisputable that he is one of the best (if not the best) relief pitchers of all time. I know it hurts in New England and Colorado and Minnesota, but the lesson to learn is the one that Rivera learned himself back in 1997. “It happens.” If you are going to do the high wire act, sometimes you will fall. It happens, and you deal with it, and move on, and come back stronger. Or at least you do if you’re Mariano Rivera. It remains to be seen if Papelbon, Nathan, and Street will.

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One Comment

  1. Cecilia Tan wrote:

    P.S. I’ve asked my buddies at SABR if they can think of examples of other high profile closers who blew big saves but whose reputations didn’t shatter. Please feel free to leave your suggestions on those lines below, as well.

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] save. 2001 World Series, anyone? How about back to back games in the 2004 ALCS? (Follow the link to Why I Like Baseball to read more details of those […]

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