David Robertson: The Answer to the Yankees' Post-Rivera Pitching Woes

The reliever is the team's best hope now that their legendary closer is injured.


In the ninth inning of Wednesday night's Yankees-Rays game, Tampa's Matt Joyce hit a three-run homer off New York reliever David Robertson. It proved to be the winning margin in a 4-1 loss for the Yanks.

No big deal. Something like this happens a couple of times a week in the big leagues. Except that it was a big deal. It was the first home run allowed by Robertson this season. It produced for the first runs Robertson had allowed this year. In fact, they were the first runs he had allowed in the 26 1/3 innings going back to August of 2011.

The irony of the loss is that it highlighted precisely how important Robertson has become to the Yankees. Since 2009 Robertson has been something of a mini-legend in the Bronx. He has already earned several nicknames: "The Hamma from Bama" (he was born in Birmingham, attended the University of Alabama and is the fifth Crimson Tider to wear a Yankees uniform), "Houdini" (named by Yankee pitcher Joba Chamberlain for his uncanny ability to escape bases-loaded situations, 22 in a row so far), and "The Silent Assassin" (from Yankee outfielder Nick Swisher, who admires the way Robertson walks in, does his job, walks off, and has little to say to reporters later). "He's only been on the team for about five years," cracks Swisher, "and he's already got three nicknames. One more and he should be in the Hall of Fame."

Though fans in New York and millions around the country have not yet really absorbed the fact, the era of Mariano Rivera—the greatest closer, the greatest relief pitcher in baseball history—is over. The sight of the great Rivera doubled over in pain on the warning track dirt after suffering a torn ACL was enough to make one heartsick. (He had been simply shagging flies, as he had done nearly every game of his Yankee career.)

Mariano had announced before the season that this would probably be his last, so one could rationalize and say, what the hell, he only lost about 40 or so more appearances off his career total. But of course it was oh so much worse than that. Whether or not we got to see him walk off the mound a winner in his final game, we at least wanted that chance; we wanted—and I guess there's no better word to apply to the game's greatest closer—closure.

What happened to Rivera was the closest thing a baseball fan gets to trauma. And yet, it wasn't the worst possible scenario. Ask yourself this: Would you rather see him go out that way or, at age 42, suddenly lose his magnificent power—like Thor losing his hammer or Iron Man's transistors burning out—as he did on opening day when he gave up 3 hits in the 9th inning and lost the game? Yes, Mariano righted himself after that, but at his age who knows how much longer he could have continued?

One thing we were definitely robbed of is experiencing the greatest set-up/closer team the game has ever seen—Robertson/Rivera. Last year Robertson's ERA in the set-up role was 1.08, lower than any ever posted by Rivera (Mo's best was 1.38 in 2005). Essentially, this meant that through all of the 2011 season and so far this year, in every game the Yankees were ahead by the 7th inning they stood about a 98 percent chance of winning. With former ace closer Rafael Soriano in the role of "hold" man, who pitches the 7th and then hands the ball to the set-up guy, the Yankees were repeatedly able to "shorten" a game to six innings.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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