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Appreciating Mariano Rivera this Postseason

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Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees

The MLB Playoffs have been exciting to watch this year. Maybe the Yankees aren’t in it, but seeing the Red Sox get eliminated has to be the next best thing, right? As great as baseball can be at times, I don’t think there is anything that can ruin the experience of a game quite like a shaky bullpen performance. It’s something I’m not used to seeing, and it’s all thanks to Mariano Rivera.

Have you been watching the playoffs so far? If you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Playoff teams have allowed 22 runs in the eighth and ninth innings this postseason, and we haven’t even finished divisional play yet. It’s been incredibly hard to watch as inept reliever after inept reliever take to the mound, only to hand the ball off to the next guy without so much as getting a single out. It’s happened this year, and it’s now a much more common occurrence for me ever since Mariano Rivera retired.

We always said that Rivera made Yankees fans feel easy when he entered the game. That because of him, we didn’t really know what anxiety and fear was like at the end of the ballgame. Sure, we experienced it every now and then–even gods have their off nights–but to actually experience that feeling night after night is a completely foreign concept to Yankees fans. We’ve been spoiled, and we know it, but until you sit down and watch what baseball is like for other teams, you never really know the truth. That it’s a different game entirely when you get to a save situation.

We all know how good Rivera was over the length of his career, that doesn’t need to be rehashed; not here. What really needs to be remembered is that he somehow managed to maintain a 0.70 ERA over 141 playoff innings, which seems impossible to me now when I watch contemporary relievers just try to do their job. Of course people will say that he got so many opportunities because he played for good teams, but it’s also crucial to remember that it’s because of him that the Yankees were so good for such a long time in the first place. Imagine knowing that if your team took the lead in a game that you knew they were going to hold that lead. That’s what Rivera was to fans–a sense of calm and peace, not the panic we’ve been seeing over the last two weeks.

I mean, look at what bullpens are doing these days. In Game 3 of the NLDS between the Cubs and the Giants, Jake Arrieta left with the lead before the bullpen entered into the equation. The combined efforts of Alex Wood, Hector Rondon, and Aroldis Chapman coughed up the lead on three hits and a walk. Sergio Romo also allowed the tying run in the next inning before the Giants ultimately won in the 13th.

Then there was Game 4, where San Francisco took a three-run lead into the ninth inning and gave it all up. Derek Law, Javier Lopez, Romo, Will Smith, and Hunter Strickland came together to allow four runs before they could even get two outs in the frame. That’s five different relievers who weren’t able to do their jobs.

We even saw the great Kenley Jansen struggle in Game 3 of the Dodgers-Nationals series when the closer allowed four runs on two hits and a walk in the ninth inning. He could only manage one out before giving up the game. In Game 4, Clayton Kershaw left with the bases loaded. Pedro Baez threw only one pitch, which managed to hit the next batter and force in a run, and then Luis Avilan allowed two runs on one hit to tie the game up.

Eliminating Boston wasn’t the most simple of endeavors, even if they did end up getting swept. The usually immaculate Andrew Miller struggled to find the strike zone at times, making things difficult for the Indians, and my heart. Even worse was Cody Allen, who very nearly blew Game 3 with his inability to throw strikes. The last four batters all went to full counts before the Red Sox finally put themselves to bed. Imagine being a Cleveland fan through all of that?

Watching these guys pitch was scary, mostly because you never knew when someone would be on and when they were going to fall apart. Mariano Rivera was never human very often, so we never had to guess at what the result would be, we just knew until we didn’t. There are many amazing closers in baseball right now, but none of them are as automatic as he was, which is why he’s such an easy case for the Hall of Fame. It’s not the stats he accumulated over nearly 20 years, it’s the reputation he built for himself that was never really proven wrong.

During his playoff career, Rivera blew a total of five saves. That’s only five games where he completely blew the game, where our assumptions were finally proven wrong. That was once against the Indians in the 1997 ALDS, before we really even knew what we had. Then there was the dreaded Game 7 of the 2001 World Series and one against the Twins in the 2004 ALDS. The final two came against Boston during their magical comeback that year. That’s it. I can’t picture anyone else out there doing that, not even for just a little while.

The Yankees have been fortunate to have David Robertson and Andrew Miller to fill the gap since Rivera’s departure. There was that one year we had to deal with Rafael Soriano, and things turned out relatively OK with Chapman, but it could have been worse. Dellin Betances has a chance to step up and be the closer, but who knows what things will be like going forward. At some point, the Yankees will run out of luck when it comes to finding dominant relievers. When that happens we will all know what it feels like to know the true Bullpen Experience for ourselves. I just hope I’m long gone before then because the stress these guys have been causing so far has been unbearable. And I don’t even root for their teams!

All this is really just a long way of saying thank you, Mo. Thanks for not stripping years away from my life.