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Monday, August 12, 2013
Robertson shows sneak peek of 2014

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Ninth innings are kind of like commercial airline flights.

You know you've had a good one when you've either slept through the whole thing or watched it with a kind of bemused detachment and a pulse of no more than 72 beats per minute.

They're not supposed to be exciting. And they better not be scary.

Since 1997, those are the kind of ninth innings Yankee fans have become accustomed to. Metallica plays, Mariano Rivera trots in from the bullpen, everyone goes home happy.

David Robertson
David Robertson retired the last batter with the bases loaded to secure the Yankees' 2-1 win.

Not even the outlandish events of the past six days can erase the memory of what a comfortable, even tranquil, time the ninth inning of a Yankee game has been for nearly the past two decades.

Well, that is about to change, and Monday night at Yankee Stadium provided a sneak peek at what ninth innings might look like in 2014.

Sort of like an airliner caught in a thunderstorm.

Those generally end well, and so did this one, but for a moment there, it was a little frightening to watch.

With Mo getting the night off, it took two relief pitchers -- Boone Logan and David Robertson -- to do the job one man has handled exclusively for the past 17 seasons.

And while, when he is right, Rivera does his job with an effortless grace that makes it appear that literally anyone could go out there and do it just as well, Logan, and especially Robertson, generally turn the job of getting three outs into a kind of performance art played out on a high wire.

Robertson, of course, is the heir apparent to Rivera when the incomparable one walks off into retirement at the end of this season. And the situation he was thrust into on Monday night -- a runner on first and one out in the ninth with the Yankees clinging to a 2-0 lead over the Angels -- is one Rivera generally does not have to face. Rivera usually gets his own squeaky-clean inning to work, without inheriting anyone else's baggage. Still, the way he has handled that inning, night in and night out, can only serve to make his successor's task that much more difficult, like Andrew Johnson trying to follow Abe Lincoln in the White House, or Larry Holmes attempting to live up to the brilliance that was Muhammad Ali.

So it was almost inevitable that when Robertson walked his first batter, Mike Trout, and surrendered a most Rivera-like bloop double fisted into left by Josh Hamilton that cut the lead to 2-1, the Yankee Stadium crowd would respond as it did:

"We want Mo! We want Mo!"

They had served up the same chant at the start of the inning, when Logan emerged from the bullpen instead of Rivera, who for the first time in his career, had blown three consecutive save opportunities, but you could hardly blame them for that.

Robertson, however, seemed to warrant a little more support and confidence, especially since he specializes in impossible escapes, and it is generally assumed that next season, the ninth inning will belong to him.

"That was a little different," Robertson said with a sickly little grin on his face. "It's not easy to pitch when the crowd is chanting, 'We want Mo,' but you just got to deal with it. Go out there and try to finish the game."

Which is what he did, but not before being ordered to walk Erick Aybar to load the bases with one out and try his luck with Mark Trumbo, who has 25 home runs this season, and Chris Nelson, who had a handful of forgettable games as a Yankee earlier this season.

And Robertson wound up silencing the chanters, and bringing the rest of the crowd to its feet, by mowing down both of them -- Trumbo striking out on two of the weakest swings seen at Yankee Stadium since poor Travis Ishikawa had his one game in pinstripes, and Nelson chasing a fastball up around his eyes to end the game -- to preserve a 2-1 Yankees win for Hiroki Kuroda and post his first save since Sept. 20 of last season, when Mo was on the DL recovering from knee surgery.

Afterward, Robertson acknowledged that there was a difference in getting the last three outs of a game as opposed to nailing down the eighth inning, which has been his bailiwick for the past two seasons.

"I do think that not having another inning to fall back on makes a difference," he said.

And it was clear last night that the Yankee Stadium crowd, accustomed for so long to eight-inning games followed by a three-out exit recital, is not entirely happy with the idea of a roller-coaster ride at the end of the game.

"I'm not him," Robertson said, jerking his head toward Rivera's locker, which adjoins his in the Yankees clubhouse. "I'm never going to be him. It's not going to be silky smooth."

But it will be exciting, which might not be exactly what you want in a ninth-inning specialist.

With his effortless efficiency, Rivera has spoiled a generation of baseball fans who have forgotten the kind of angst and agita that baseball fans in 29 other ballparks experience on a nightly basis.

On this night, a day after he had allowed home runs to Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez to enable the Detroit Tigers to tie Sunday's game in the ninth inning, Mo was given the night off. The official reason was that he had thrown 81 pitches in his past three outings -- beginning last Wednesday night in Chicago -- and all three ended badly for him, although implausibly enough, the Yankees wound up winning two of those games. But it would not be outside the realm of possibility that Joe Girardi and his pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, might have decided to put a little more air between Rivera and his next outing, just to give him a little breather.

"There's no issue. Just a day off at the office," said Rivera, who was likened by a TV reporter to a fictional superhero. "Well, I'm not a Superman, for sure, but definitely, we all need a day off."

On his day off, Mariano Rivera got to experience the bittersweet pleasure of hearing a crowd chant his name, a crowd that still believes in him despite his age (43), his recent human failings and the fact that his likely successor for next season has a live, 28-year-old arm that gets a lot of strikeouts.

Still, his will be an almost impossible act to follow, and everyone knows it: the crowd, Rivera and Robertson.

"It was hard. I was feeling for Robby," Rivera said of the chanting. "But he was good, very good."

Still, one could detect a touch of pride in Mo's voice and more than a little awareness of the fact that what he has done over the past 17 seasons has not been nearly as easy as it looked.

"It was time for Robby to close," he said. "Which he did good, too. For one game. A beautiful game."

Beautiful if you like sweaty palms, hyperventilation and a racing heart. This was not a Mariano Rivera ninth inning. It was a David Robertson ninth inning, and, luckily for Yankee fans, there is always more than one way to reach the end of a ballgame.

Robertson just happens to prefer taking the rough way home, a route that will take some getting used to.

"I guess Yankee fans are just going to have to learn to adjust," Robertson said. 

Like watching anyone other than Mariano Rivera pitch the ninth inning, it won't be easy.