— Bringing Mariano Rivera in for a two-inning save worked in the clinching game of the ALCS and it worked again in Game 2 of the World Series, but it’s not going to work every night.
Joe Girardi wasn’t thinking of that Thursday night, not with a 3-1 lead and six outs to go in a game the Yankees pretty much had to win. All he knew was that he couldn’t afford to lose the game, and the best way to avoid that was to bring in the best closer baseball has ever seen to pitch two innings.
The strategy worked, as it did in the ALCS-clinching win against the Angels in Game 6. It’s hard to fault Girardi. Had the Yankees given up the lead and lost Game 2, they would have been in an 0-2 hole and going on the road. While a few teams — the ’85 Royals, ’86 Mets and ’96 Yankees among them — have lost the first two games at home and gone on to win the World Series, most teams that start that way find themselves watching the other guys pop the champagne corks.
Just the same, Girardi has hitched his wagon to a dangerous strategy. Keep sending Rivera out there for six-out saves, and he’s going to lose his effectiveness. That’s the way it was when former manager Joe Torre adopted the strategy. And if Rivera can’t hold a lead, it’s all over.
Rivera has already appeared in nine of the 12 games the Yankees have played in postseason this year. He’s thrown 12 2/3 innings, giving up just one run — so far.
He’s a phenomenal player who doesn’t seem subject to the wears of age or much of anything else. But at the age of 39, Rivera can’t pitch multiple innings every night. Yet that seems to be what Girardi is willing to do.
The real test is going to come starting Saturday in Philadelphia. Both teams get a day off after Game 2 for the long and arduous journey down the Jersey Turnpike, so Rivera would be rested for Game 3. But if it’s another one-run game in the eighth inning, does Girardi bring out Rivera for six outs again? And if it’s the same deal in Game 4, does Girardi keep rolling Mo out there for extra work for three straight days?
And if Rivera finally reaches the end of his endurance, what then?
You can understand Girardi’s dilemma. He’s lost confidence in the rest of his bullpen, including Phil Hughes, who was so great all year as an eight-inning bridge to Rivera, and Joba Chamberlain, who has forgotten how to get people out. Rather than risk giving up a lead, Girardi is going with the one guy who almost always gets the job done — Rivera.
There is something reassuring in a nostalgic way about watching a closer pitch multiple innings, too. That used to be the rule a generation ago. Goose Gossage frequently was brought in for two- and three-inning saves in the ‘70s. So it can be done.
But modern closers aren’t used to so much work. It’s a one-inning job these days, and meltdowns by pitchers who are asked to regularly exceed that workload are common. It all comes down to what an athlete is used to doing. Take them out of their comfort zones, and sooner or later it’s going to come back to bite you.
What the Yankees need to do to make it work is throw in a blowout every second or third game. It doesn’t matter if they win or lose those games. As long as Rivera doesn’t have to pitch, he might hold together for the nights when Girardi calls on him for another six-out save. He just needs to pitch in four games — if they’re wins. If there are three losses in there, too, it doesn’t matter.
All that matters is not getting into a situation where Rivera has to pitch multiple innings for two or three straight games. Unfortunately, that’s something that Girardi can’t control.
The Phillies have their own bullpen issues. Chan Ho Park gave up a run that was charged to starter Pedro Martinez and would have given up more if the umpires were competent, which they’re not. But Rivera was saved by another bad call in the eighth that gave the Yankees a double-play which replays showed to be undeserved.
And Philadelphia has yet to see which Brad Lidge is going to show up when a big game is on the line. So whatever anxiety Yankee fans may be experiencing over Girardi’s Rivera obsession has to be minor compared to the palpitations Phillies fans are feeling over the prospect of watching Lidge perform one of his meltdowns.
Girardi’s job would be a lot easier if he could rely on Philadelphia’s relievers to fail so his bridge guys can risk failure, too. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.
And so the Yankee manager seems determined to live or die with Rivera and not count pitches or innings. That it hasn’t worked before doesn’t seem to come into the equation. Girardi is betting it will work now.
It’s a bet he can’t afford to lose.