By Ernie Palladino
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Spring training was but midway gone when Mariano Rivera threw the ceremonial first pitch of the Yankees’ Panama series to David Robertson. It represented the passing of the closer torch, from the grand old man of the ninth inning to that frame’s next generation.
We all know that flame had been exchanged well before the Yanks ever stepped up to the lip of Central America’s fabled canal last week. Robertson was always going to be Rivera’s successor. There were no doubts about that.
Whatever questions there encircle Robertson himself. A major part of the Yankees’ fate this year will revolve around the right-hander’s mastery of the ninth, which undoubtedly will take on a different look than the one-pitch wonder of the previous two decades.
In other words, prepare to be unspoiled. Though Robertson has shown a solid, “go get ’em” attitude on his six Grapefruit League outings, nobody knows how he’ll handle closer duties. About the only thing we can be certain of is that the pile of all those bats Rivera’s cutter sent to Louisville Slugger heaven won‘t be nearly as high anymore. Robertson is just not that kind of pitcher.
But who is? There’s a reason Rivera is regarded as the best closer of all time. No one was like him before, and it’s conceivable that no one will be like him again. Even Rivera said as much when he told Robertson to just be himself.
But who is Robertson? We know he was a good setup man. He has only pitched five innings in spring training, allowing one hit and a walk without a save opportunity. For the most part, he’s only been a pitcher or two removed from the starter, a far cry from what he’ll actually be doing in the season.
“It’s been almost like throwing the eighth inning,” Robertson told the Daily News’ Mark Feinsand on a recent podcast. “It’s not the same. I was always the guy who got in there and got out fast, to get the ball to Mo. This year, I’m going to be the guy waiting to get the ball in the ninth and shut the door.”
Everything is going to look different now. Robertson’s three-pitch repertoire, two more than Rivera had, includes a fastball, cutter, and curveball which, when breaking, can make hitters look as silly as Rivera’s bat-breaking cutter made them look futile. Things will sound different, too, both in the bullpen and as Robertson trots in to do his thing.
“It’s going to be a little different,” Robertson said. “Mo kept it pretty light out there. There’s not going to be as much gum thrown around. Hopefully, we can keep it light again. And everyone’s used to hearing ‘Enter Sandman.’ It’s going to be a different song this year.”
Not to worry. “Sweet Home Alabama” is a great song in its own right. The question is whether Robertson, solid as he was in an eighth-inning setup role, can handle the ninth.
His pedigree points to the positive. His 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings ratio ranked among the highest of active pitchers last year. He does tend to get out of jams, but that means, unlike the ever-smooth Rivera, he will get into them, too.
In other words, the Yanks are going from Superman to an Olympic weight lifting champ — a good option, but far from invincible.
Consider this, though. The seven-year Yankee is in his walk year. Free agency beckons. If he needs any more motivation to succeed, he can always think dollars and cents.
For now, though, he’s focused.
“We’ll see at the end of the year,” Robertson said of his next contract. “Right now, I’m focused on this. I’m focused on getting us back to the World Series this year.”
It’s a nice goal. Though Tampa Bay is regarded by numerous observers as the team to beat this year, the Yanks might have a shot at a division title. But Robertson’s ninth-inning work will serve as a big determining factor in that.
The only certainty is that the look of that work, and quite possibly some of its results, will look a lot different than they did during the Rivera era.
Get ready to be unspoiled.
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