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Closers become leading men in playoffs -- just ask Yankees


For all his greatness, Mariano Rivera never has finished higher than ninth place in voting for the American League's Most Valuable Player award.

That seems wrong, for the best closer any of us has ever seen. It seems wrong, for someone who has been such a big part in making the Yankees what they've been over the last 15 years.

When opposing teams see Mariano Rivera saunter in from the bullpen, it's usually lights out. (AP)  
When opposing teams see Mariano Rivera saunter in from the bullpen, it's usually lights out. (AP)  
It seems a little less wrong when you start to think about what has made Rivera what he is. Or, more precisely, when Rivera has become what he is.

It's now. It's this month. It's the postseason, and in MVP voting it doesn't count.

For everything else, it counts double or triple. It counts for everything, and while it sure helps to have the greatest closer ever for 162 games every year, it helps double -- or triple -- to have him for four postseason weeks.

"If your closer blows a game in the season, there might be 90 games left," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "If he blows one in the playoffs, there's not many games left for you to recover.

"That's why the Yankees have been so fortunate to have him."

In Rivera's 15 full seasons, the Yankees have won five World Series. In those five World Series -- two of them against Cox's Braves -- Rivera has appeared in 18 of the 25 games. He has pitched 26 innings while allowing just three runs, for a 1.04 ERA.

In the regular season, Rivera has never pitched in as many as half the Yankee games. He has still played a big part in helping them win, but it's hard to argue that he played the biggest part.

In the postseason, it's easy to argue that he has. It's easy to say that when you compare the Yankees to all the teams they have played in a decade and a half of Octobers (and a few days in November), Mariano Rivera has been the biggest difference.

And it's also easy to think that the biggest difference in the postseason that begins Wednesday could be which closer performs the best.

Rivera has been the master, but recent history shows that it's not only him.

2010 Postseason

The Phillies won in 2008 when Brad Lidge was perfect, including seven saves in seven chances, and a 0.96 ERA while pitching in nine of Philadelphia's 14 postseason games.

The Red Sox won in 2007 when Jonathan Papelbon was outstanding, with 10 2/3 scoreless postseason innings.

The Cardinals won in 2006 when Tony La Russa turned Adam Wainwright into his postseason closer, and Wainwright responded with 9 2/3 scoreless innings.

Sure, there are exceptions (2001 Diamondbacks, for one), but overwhelmingly, you don't win in October without a great closer -- or at least a closer who is great at that time.

Shutting the Door
2010 statsSV-OppERAIPK
Rivera, NYY33-381.8060.045
Wilson, SF48-531.8174.293
Lidge, PHI27-322.9645.252
Soriano, TB45-481.7362.157
Feliz, TEX40-432.7369.171
Wagner, ATL37-441.4369.1104
Cordero, CIN40-483.8472.259
Capps, MIN-x42-482.4773.059

"In a 162-game schedule, you say, 'We'll get 'em tomorrow,' " said Pat Gillick, who won World Series in Toronto and Philadelphia and went to the playoffs with the Orioles and Mariners. "In the postseason, there aren't many tomorrows."

So if the closer matters so much, which closer should you be counting on this month? Besides Rivera, that is.

Here's one ranking of the eight playoff closers, with the understanding that they all had to be pretty decent to help their teams get this far, and also with the understanding that for closers in the non-Rivera division, a lot of it is about getting hot (and getting confident) at the right time:

1. Mariano Rivera, Yankees: He actually had a subpar final month of the season, with a 4.38 ERA (his highest for any month since April 2007) and three blown saves. He's also 40 years old, and will turn 41 a few weeks after the World Series end (or maybe the day of Game 7, if the October and November weather is really bad). We know all that. We also know that his career ERA in 88 postseason games is an incredible 0.74. We'll believe he's done when we see it, and we'll believe he's old when he says it. Remember that last year, Rivera was the only closer in the postseason who didn't blow a save.

2. Brian Wilson, Giants: If you're looking for a closer who has been hot going into October, Wilson could be your man. Since Aug. 1, he has a 0.95 ERA and 18 saves in 20 chances. Scouts rave about him. Only negative: no postseason experience.

3. Brad Lidge, Phillies: He's got postseason experience. Some of it is spectacular, some of it not so. But Lidge looks as good as ever, maybe better than ever, with a little less velocity but a lot better command, and still with a slider that some describe as unhittable.

4. Rafael Soriano, Rays: Scott Boras will tell you how good Soriano is, but maybe that's because Soriano just signed Boras to represent him on this winter's free-agent market. A big postseason would help, but off Soriano's work this season, Boras is right. This guy isn't well-known, but he's very, very good.

5. Neftali Feliz, Rangers: With 40 saves in 43 opportunities (and only one blown save since May), the hard-throwing Feliz could easily rank higher. But he's still only 22 years old, and still in his first year as a closer. There's no evidence yet that pressure gets to him, but he hasn't been in a postseason game yet, either.

6. Billy Wagner, Braves: He could rank higher, too, because this final season has been one of his best. The only negative here is his postseason experience, because it has been so bad. Wagner's career ERA in 13 playoff games, with the Astros, Mets and Red Sox, is 10.32. Perhaps not coincidentally, only one of his six playoff teams made it past the first round, and none advanced to the World Series.

7. Francisco Cordero, Reds: He was good enough to get the Reds to the playoffs, but shaky enough to have fans calling for Aroldis Chapman to take over the ninth inning. Chapman could be big in the playoffs, but the Reds would also need Cordero to do well. It could happen (he had 40 saves this year), but it's hard to count on.

8. Matt Capps, Twins: Trading for Capps at midseason was crucial for the Twins, who lost Joe Nathan to injury this spring and knew that Jon Rauch wasn't as good as he pitched in the first half. Capps did very well for them, but he doesn't have the stuff to be a dominant closer. That he's last on this list doesn't mean he's terrible, but it does mean that he'll need to pitch above his stuff for the Twins to succeed.


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