Five Cuts: Here's why it's so hard to close out a game in October
Closers' struggles in the Division Series underscore Mariano Rivera's greatness
Huston Street refused to throw inside during his Monday night meltdown
Despite two saves in the NLDS, Brad Lidge remains a work in progress
1. How is Mariano Rivera looking right about now? Not that we didn't already know that the Yankees closer is the best all-time at what he does, but the Division Series, in which closer after closer blew up in the ninth inning, showed why Rivera has been the team's ultimate weapon all these years.
Every team that went home in the Division Series gave away a game in the ninth inning with its closer on the mound. The ninth inning is statistically the toughest inning in which to hit, in great part because closers are so overpowering. But you wouldn't know that by watching postseason baseball this year, when runners were flying around the bases against closers.
Take all the closers this postseason (Rivera, Brian Fuentes of the Angels, Jonathan Papelbon of the Red Sox, Joe Nathan of the Twins, Jonathan Broxton of the Dodgers, Brad Lidge of the Phillies, Ryan Franklin of the Cardinals and Huston Street of the Rockies), look at what they did in their 18 ninth-inning appearances of the Division Series, and compare that to the major league average ninth inning -- not just those thrown by closers -- for the 2009 season:
Whoa. Runs jumped 54 percent from the average ninth inning to the postseason closers' ninth inning, while the rate of base runners jumped 61 percent.
Why is the ninth inning so much harder for pitchers in October than in the other six months? There is the element of pressure, of course. But there are also so much more detailed scouting reports and so much studying of that information. (Players couldn't possibly absorb and apply that much information over 162 games without frying their brains, but it works for a five- or seven-game series with off days.) Finally, there is also more intense focus by the batters in the postseason. No one gives away an at-bat in the ninth inning of a postseason game. No one. Yes, it does happen during the regular season.
All of those factors make the closer's job even more difficult in October than it is from April through September. And that's why Rivera, doing it year after year, is the greatest ever.
2. You could see Street's crash coming on Monday night in NLDS Game 4. The Rockies closer threw nothing on the inside corner of the plate, or even a show-me pitch off the inside corner to keep hitters honest. Maybe he pitched tentatively, thinking he would not even risk making a mistake inside. Maybe he had nothing he felt confident enough about to throw there. But if you pitch to any lineup, especially the Phillies lineup, using only one side of the plate, you're going to get burned.
Street threw 29 pitches in the ninth inning, only one, thrown to his last batter, Jayson Werth, in which he dared to come inside. Street was especially overcautious with Chase Utley, throwing him six pitches -- all of which were off the plate, though he got strikes on two of them -- and walking him. That at-bat put the tying run on base and the go-ahead run at the plate.
By the time Ryan Howard batted, with two runners on and two out, I was yelling at the television that Street was in trouble, because Howard knew where the pitch would be coming: outside. Sure enough, Howard saw four outside pitches. He hooked the fourth one off the right field wall for a game-tying double. It was the 23rd consecutive pitch Street threw without coming inside.
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