Both the Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles know how important a shutdown closer is after losing their respective playoff games Wednesday night (Oct. 10).
Jose Valverde came on to save a 3-1 lead for the Tigers in Game 4 of their ALDS vs. the Oakland Athletics. But he gave up three runs and four hits in the ninth inning, allowing the A's to steal a 4-3 win and force a deciding Game 5 on Thursday.
In the Bronx, Jim Johnson was given a 2-1 lead to close out in the ninth. But he served up a game-tying home run to pinch-hitter Raul Ibanez and the New York Yankees eventually nabbed a 3-2 win in 12 innings.
Though obviously coincidental, it was interesting that these two blown saves occurred on a night during which Mariano Rivera threw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium. Rivera's appearance on the mound was ceremonial, providing both a fitting tribute to a legendary player and an opportunity for fans to get even more excited for the Yanks-Orioles game to come.
But it was also a reminder to Yankees fans—and baseball fans—of what an important role Rivera has played in the team's championship success during his major league career. The longtime Yankees closer has 42 postseason saves in his 18 seasons. In 96 playoff appearances, he's blown only five saves.
As Ibanez circled the bases after his game-winning homer and jumped into the mass of celebration awaiting him at home plate, did it occur to anyone in the Yankees clubhouse or front office, any reporters in the press box, anyone watching at Yankee Stadium or on television just how rare such an occurrence has been when Rivera was closing out a playoff game?
It's possible that no one made note of that because seeing Rivera blow a postseason save was so rare. But after watching Valverde struggle to get three outs and Johnson fail to protect the narrowest of margins, the magnitude of Rivera's accomplishment seems even more impressive.
With 608 career saves, Rivera is obviously the best closer we have ever seen. His dominance is just as pronounced in the postseason with 42 career saves. Rivera has 24 more postseason saves than the next closest player, Brad Lidge with 18.
Obviously, Rivera has had more opportunities to earn saves in the postseason because of the Yankees' frequent, consistent success since 1996. He's pitched 141 playoff innings, nearly 100 more than Lidge has thrown.
But even if the Yankees have had more postseason games to close out than any other team in recent memory, Rivera wouldn't be getting all those saves if he wasn't clearly the best reliever to pitch for the Yankees in the ninth inning. No other closer would be able to deliver as often and as successfully as the guy wearing No. 42 in pinstripes.
Perhaps it's because we've learned as baseball fans not to judge a closer's merit solely by how many saves he earns in a season, but it feels like the value of a ninth-inning stopper has been less regarded in recent years.
That's not to say that fans, reporters and analysts don't know how valuable a great closer is. Many advocated for Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves and the Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman to get consideration for—or win—the NL Cy Young Award.
But Kimbrel and Chapman have drawn notice and acclaim for their velocity and monumental strikeout totals, rather than their save numbers. Kimbrel was third in MLB and tied for first in the NL with 42 saves. Chapman ranked eighth, tied for second in the NL, with 38 saves. They racked up those totals not only by pitching so well but by being called upon in the ninth inning.
Johnson led the majors with 51 saves for the Orioles this season. He was a huge reason for Baltimore's run to the playoffs. Valverde saved 35 for the Tigers this year after converting all 49 of his save opportunities in 2011. They have been two of the most successful closers in MLB.
However, the postseason is a much different ballgame. Call that a cliché. Call it an obvious statement. But with the extreme pressure of a playoff game and the leverage of a ninth-inning situation dialed to the highest setting, two terrific closers failed to come through in big moments.
No one would put Valverde or Johnson in the same sentence as Rivera, except perhaps to point out that all three share the same occupation. But Wednesday night's blown saves were a reminder of just how difficult it is to close out a playoff game against the top competition in MLB.
Rivera made it look easy—and will likely get another chance to show us again next season just how accomplished he is. No closer has ever been better during the game's most important moments.
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