The Year of the Collapsing Closer

When people look back at the Yankees' 2009 World Series Championship (it's going to happen, sadly; get used to the idea), there will be talk of Alex Rodriguez finally breaking through and becoming the clutch genius we all knew he had locked away inside him, or Derek Jeter leading the Yanks to their first title since he took over the mantle of Captain. What will probably be missed, though, will be the biggest reason the Yankees won. The funny thing is, if the Yankees do win, the biggest reason will be the same as it was all those other times they won. Nope, not Jeter. No, not the high-powered offense. No, not even the enormous payroll. (Well, okay, maybe the enormous payroll.) 

No, if New York goes on to win the World Series this year, it will probably be because Mariano Rivera once again did his job better than anyone else in the game ever has. And when you really look at the way the rest of the closers have performed this postseason, it's easy to see just how remarkable that is. 

All you have to do is look around at the playoff teams this year, and you'll notice a pretty common theme: their closers have all, with two notable exceptions, blown at least one save. We all saw what happened to Ryan Franklin. (And by the way, I move we begin referring to Matt Holliday's drop in left field as Ballgate. Who's with me?) The Angels' big ticket closer, Brian Fuentes (who caused such strife here in St. Louis when the Cardinals didn't pony up to bring him in), blew the save in Game 2 of the NLCS when he threw Alex Rodriguez a belt-high fastball on 0-2 that A-Rod put over the wall in right. Huston Street of the Rockies was the losing pitcher in both Games 3 and 4 of the NLDS against the Phillies. Even Jonathan Papelbon and his crazy eyes were not immune to the spell of postseason closer disaster. 

And now, with Jonathan Broxton of the Dodgers blowing a one-run lead and taking the loss in last night's NLCS game to put LA down three games to one, there are only two closers who have yet to blow a save this postseason: Mariano Rivera and Brad Lidge

Kind of funny dichotomy, don't you think? You have perhaps the greatest closer in the history of the game (and certainly the greatest postseason closer), and then you have Lidge, perhaps the most enigmatic closer in the history of the game. So what does this mean? Hard to say, exactly. It certainly underlines just how important it is for a team to build a shutdown bullpen, something I've been harping on the Cardinals' lack of for quite some time now, but on the other hand, relief pitching in one of the least predictable things year-to-year in baseball. How in the world are you supposed to build a bullpen capable of putting the kibosh on any comeback plans by your opponent when it's almost impossible to predict what relievers are going to do from one year to the next? 

Honestly, I don't know what the magic formula is, or even if there is one. High strikeout rates are helpful, but even guys with huge K rates can vary greatly in performance year-to-year. It's just kind of a crapshoot, to be perfectly frank. You get the best pitchers you can, and hope they all have relatively good seasons at the same time, I suppose. 

I will tell you one thing it does mean: if it does end up Yankees/ Phillies in the World Series (and I'm hoping like hell it isn't, but that's what I think is going to happen), and I'm betting on which closer I think will blink first, Rivera or Lidge, I don't think I'm going to have to think very long about it. 

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