If the only baseball you’ve watched over the past fifteen years has involved the Yankees, it’s possible you’ve come to believe what some will tell you — the closer is the most overrated position in baseball. Those last three outs are really no different than the first three outs. Far too much glory and farther too much money are heaped upon those few soles lucky enough to have been weeded out of the starting pitching pool and thrust into the last spot in the bullpen. Any pitcher, after all, could get those last three outs. If the only baseball you’ve watched over the past fifteen years has involved the Yankees and Mariano Rivera, it’s possible you think those last three outs are easy.
They aren’t. At least not always.
On Wednesday night the Yankees scored a run in the top of the first inning when Derek Jeter notched his 50th hit of the season and scored all the way from first a few minutes later on Robinson Canó’s double to left field. That 1-0 lead stuck for a long time, thanks mainly to an impressive start by Yankee rookie David Phelps.
Phelps got off to a rough start, giving up a leadoff double to Ben Zobrist and backing that up with a walk to Carlos Peña. He’d eventually issue another walk to Luke Scott to load the bases with two outs. He recovered to get Will Rhymes to ground out to second to end the inning, and then settled into a groove, setting down nine of the next ten batters to cruise into the fifth.
Baseball is a funny thing. If everything we read back in 2007 had come true, Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes, the one-time jewels of the Yankee farm system, would have about 150 wins between the two of them by now. Sure, Phelps was the team’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2010, but he hasn’t generated nearly the hype of countless other Yankee prospects. Still, it looks like he might stick around, even if his spot in the rotation is given to Andy Pettitte. His control is good, and his money pitch — a Maddux-like fastball that starts at a left-hander’s hip before darting back over the inside corner — seems perfectly designed to neutralize the scariest hitters he’ll face in Yankee Stadium.
With two outs in the fifth and still clinging to that 1-0 lead, Phelps looked to be in position to grab his first major league win. But with his pitch count climbing into the eighties, a walk to Peña, another to B.J. Upton, and Joe Girardi’s itchy trigger finger all conspired against him, and Phelps found himself walking off the mound an out too early.
Boone Logan quelled the rally by striking out Matt Joyce, then set down two more in the sixth before passing the baton to Cory Wade, who saw the game through the seventh. Things got a bit interesting in the eighth, thanks to a leadoff walk issued by Rafael Soriano and a throwing error by Canó, by Soriano wriggled free and passed the game to David Robertson in the ninth inning.
Robertson’s statistics coming into the inning were obscene. He hadn’t allowed a run since the end of last August, and he had struck out 23 hitters in just 13 innings in 2012. Sure, he had struggled a bit the night before, but this was the Hammer of Thor. Now that he had worked his way through his jitters, he’d surely get back to doing what the Hammer does — pounding the strike zone and blowing away any and all overmatched hitters who dared oppose him. These last three outs, after all, are no different than the three in the eighth.
All of this zipped through my head as Robertson came to a set and readied for his first pitch to Sean Rodríguez. Fifty-five seconds later the Rays had runners on second and third with no one out. Rodríguez singled to left on the first pitch of the inning, and Brandon Allen echoed that with a single of his own to right on Robertson’s second pitch. (Nick Swisher’s ill-advised attempt to nail Rodríguez at third was nowhere near the cutoff man, and Allen was able to take second.) Robertson was probably as stunned as anyone else, and he promptly walked Zobrist on four straight pitches to load the bases and bring the dangerous Carlos Peña to the plate.
Robertson’s teammates call him Houdini for his uncanny ability to squirm free of jams like this one; in his career fifty batters have faced him with the bases loaded and twenty-five of them have struck out. Peña became the twenty-sixth of fifty-one, and suddenly it seemed possible. On a 1-1 count to Upton, Robertson dropped a pitch that may or may not have (but probably didn’t) dance across the outside corner. It was the type of pitch that many umpires would honor, but Jim Reynolds had been squeezing pitchers on both sides all night, and he saw this as a ball. If Robertson had gotten that pitch, you can bet he would have pumped a 1-2 fastball up in Upton’s eyes, and you can bet that Upton would’ve swung right through it for strike three. But at 2-1, justifiably fearful of extending to 3-1 with the bases loaded, Robertson was forced deeper into the meat of the strike zone with his fourth pitch. Upton didn’t get all of it, but he got enough to float a fly ball to medium right. Swisher made one of the best throws I’ve ever seen him make, but Rodríguez slid in just ahead of Russell Martin’s tag. The game was tied, and the save was blown.
A few minutes later Matt Joyce hit a three-run home run to right (spraining his ankle on the swing and falling down at home plate), and the game was over. Rays 4, Yankees 1.
Should we worry about Mr. Robertson? Hardly.
[Photo Credit: Kathy Willens/AP Photo]