Regardless of inning, Robertson a stud
NEW YORK -- David Robertson allowed men to reach base in the eighth inning, too. He's given up hits in the eighth, and he's given up homers in the eighth. And in case you'd forgotten, even Mariano Rivera was known to give up some runs in the ninth occasionally.
So as all of pinstripe-dom rushes to fret over whether Robertson has the "closer mentality," whether he's up to handling the pressure of the ninth inning, just stop. Take a breath. Remember that Robertson is an excellent pitcher, but not a perfect one. He has shown the ability to handle tough spots and to get good hitters out, and he's had bad games when he wasn't closing.
Robertson took a loss and a blown save in the Yankees' 4-1 home defeat to the Rays on Wednesday night, and the topic consumed 90 percent of manager Joe Girardi's postgame news conference. The outing wasn't pretty, but it wasn't because Robertson is somehow not cut out for pitching the ninth. It's because the top of the Rays order has some dangerous hitters, perhaps because Robertson threw 25 pitches the night before -- and because it's tough to get big league hitters out, in any inning.
The right-hander sometimes called "Houdini" is going to be convert a lot of saves. He's also going to blow some saves. Not because there's some magical mist that descends upon the mound when the ninth inning starts, but because all closers blow some saves. Even Rivera.
"We never take for granted what 'Mo' was, but let's not forget Mo blew a save the first game of the year," Girardi said. "I think we can over-evaluate this on two save opportunities. ... But let's give the kid a chance."
In baseball, there's great danger in assigning too much meaning to an inning, a game or even a week or a month of games. That danger is never more pronounced than when we're talking about relief pitchers and the ninth inning. Robertson has already held one of the hardest jobs in baseball, and he's done it well. One bad game shouldn't cause anyone to lose sight of that.
For proof, just look at Robertson's game logs from last season. In the season's final five weeks alone, he entered a tied game with the bases loaded in the eighth, a tied game with men on the corners in the eighth and a tied game with a man on second in the eighth. Those are situations where one mistake means a loss. When Robertson entered Wednesday night's game, even one disastrous pitch meant only a tie.
Robertson pitches a high-risk style, even when he's going well. He walks more hitters than you'd ideally like to see, and more than Rivera ever has. His unintentional-intentional walk to Ben Zobrist was the sixth free pass that Robertson has issued in 13 2/3 innings this year, which is nearly as many as Rivera handed out in 61 1/3 innings last season.
But that's the pitcher he is. He also strikes out more batters than Rivera, which makes up for it. But the truth is, sometimes Robertson's games are a high-wire act. And sometimes when you walk a high wire, you fall.
Overall, Robertson's night Wednesday was pretty short on truly disastrous pitches. Sean Rodriguez's leadoff single wasn't crushed. Brandon Allen should have been on first after his single, but an ill-advised throw by Nick Swisher in right field allowed him to take second, leading Robertson to pitch carefully to Zobrist. Robertson threw a nasty fastball that froze Carlos Pena for out No. 1. B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly was very nearly a double play, with Rodriguez scoring on a close play at the plate.
If Swisher's throw home is a fraction of a second earlier, Rodriguez is out and the narrative is completely different. Suddenly, the postgame news conference is all about how Robertson escaped once again, and how he has just the kind of cool needed to pitch the ninth. The story about the pitcher turned on a play by the right fielder.
Even before Matt Joyce's game-winning homer, Robertson came close to escaping. Joyce barely fouled off a 1-2 curveball. If he misses, Robertson escapes with the tied game intact, and again the talk is about his fortitude.
Instead, Joyce stayed alive, Robertson followed with a fastball, Joyce jumped on it and the Rays celebrated. Girardi answered a slew of questions about the "closer mentality" and the absence of Mariano Rivera. Robertson faced a scrum of reporters several people deep, asking him about the difference in the ninth and how he'll bounce back.
"You give up a lead in the eighth, it feels terrible [too]," Robertson noted.
This is the same guy who, as a second-year pitcher, finished the 12th and pitched the 13th in Game 2 of the 2009 American League Championship Series, getting the win -- the same guy who got knocked around in four straight outings in 2010, then was scored upon in three of his next 36 outings.
He's going to have a lot of good outings and a few bad ones. He's going to close out a lot of games and blow a few. He's going to pitch in the ninth like he did in the eighth, striking out a lot of guys, walking a decent number of guys and being hard to hit.
"He's going to be fine," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He's good. We just happened to get to him tonight."
Matthew Leach is a writer for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. MLB.com reporter Paul Casella and regional editor Kristen Zimmerman contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.