Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Greatness Of Mariano And Papelbon's Challenge

As Vladimir Guerrero's go-ahead single settled into the outfield Sunday, you could hear the whole of Yankee Universe snicker.

Jonathan Papelbon, the closer Red Sox Nation loves to hold up as their answer to the Great Mariano Rivera, had just blown a save that put an end Boston's season.

Fans in Boston were able to hear Yankees fans laugh with glee.

Afterall, how dare the Rogue Nation compare anyone, never mind a closer in just his fourth major league season, with Rivera? Blasphemy!

The thing is, this postseason blown save does not rule out Papelbon as a great closer.

As Yankees fans, it easy to focus on all off Rivera's accolades and accomplishments.

But it's not Rivera's 526 career saves that makes him great. Nor is it his postseason record of 8-1 with a 0.74 ERA and record 35 saves. It's not even his four World Series rings nor his five Rolaids Relief Man Awards.

What makes Rivera great, what makes him truly special, is how he reacts to ... failure, especially postseason failure.

With exception of quarterback, there is no more pressurized position in all of sports. The closer role is a high-wire act with no net. If the closer does his job, his team wins. If he fails, the team loses. And if he fails in the postseason, it's devastating.

Four times Rivera has failed to close out a postseason game the Yankees went on to lose.

  • In Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS against the Indians, Joe Torre called on Rivera to preserve a 2-1 lead with one out in the eighth. Rivera surrendered a homer to Sandy Alomar Jr. and the Yankees went on to lose the game and series in 5.
  • There was Game 7 of the 2001 World Series with Luis Gonzalez's series ending single.
  • And of course there were blown saves in Games 4 and 5 of the 2004 ALCS against the Red Sox as the Yankees became the first baseball team to lose a best-of-seven series after taking a 3-0 lead.

    • For mere mortal closers, any one of those losses would have been devastating. And we have seen lesser closers fall apart.

      After surrendering Joe Carter's walkoff, series ending homer in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series, Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams saved just six more games, his career ending in 1997.

      Braves closer Mark Wohlers allowed Jim Leyritz's tying three-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 4 of the 1996 World Series. He did save 33 games the next year, but just was not the same. His fastball was not as dominant and he lost his closer spot in 1998.

      Byung-Hyun Kim saved 19 games after becoming the Diamondbacks' closer in 2001, but lost his appetite for the role after the Yankees tortured him in with dramatic two-out homers in the Games 4 and 5 of the World Series. He saves 36 games for the D'Backs in '02 and 16 for the Red Sox in '03, but he wanted to be a starter and his career flamed out quickly.

      One last example: Brad Lidge. Albert Pujols tormented Lidge during the 2005 NLCS between the Astros and Cardinals before Lidge took two losses in the World Series. He was a basket case the next two seasons. But this story has a happy ending. Lidge was traded to the Phillies prior to the 2008 season, went 41 for 41 in his regular season save chances and helped Philadelphia win the World Series.

      Mariano never went through any of that, simply excelling season in and season out, as if those four blown postseason saves never happened. He reactions were almost robot-like. And that's how his toughness and greatness were forged.

      Now Papelbon is at a similar crossroads.

      Papelbon has had a brilliant start to his career, saving 151 games in four years to become Boston's career saves leader. He was even better in the postseason, going 2-1 with seven saves and not allowing and earned run through 27 innings ... until there were two outs in the ninth Sunday.

      When Terry Francona summoned Papelbon with two outs in eighth, it seemed as if the Sox had the victory locked up. Papelbon was automatic. Surely the Sox would get to a Game 4, it seemed, especially when Papelbon got two strikes on Bobby Abreu with two outs in the ninth.

      But it unraveled quickly. The loss devastating.

      And now Papelbon faces a test.

      Will he be able to move past this October failure? Will he be able to put it behind him and continue to dominate as if nothing had happened, like the Great Mariano has?

      Or will it consume him, erode his confidence and cause him to second-guess himself? Will he go the way of the Kims, Williamses and Wohlerses?

      It's not a question any of can answer, right now.

      The fact of the matter is that we won't begin to find out how Papelbon will respond until the 2010 season begins in April, and even then it will take some time.

      But that's when we'll learn if Papelbon is a truly great closer, like Mariano, or if he's simply been a pretender to the throne.

      2 comments:

      Kayla said...

      I love the RedSox and was so sad to see them lose, especially the way they did.

      Unfortunately I think the hated Yankees are going to win it all this year. HORRIBLE.

      Aviv said...

      A nightmare scenario for the Rogue Nation. I love it!