It has been fifteen years since the New York Yankees went into a playoff series without Mariano Rivera as their closer. A decade-and-a-half. Most cars barely last fifteen years, let alone a pitcher who only throws one pitch. Seriously, how many people do you know driving a ’95 Corolla?
But this is a recently acquired reality for the 2012 Yankees. They are battling for a division title with a group of core players that are aging in what seems like double-time. Their normally stoic and level-headed manager Joe Girardi has seemed testy at times, getting into uncharacteristically frequent confrontations with both the media and umpires alike. And most importantly, the one player they’ve been able to count on since Bill Clinton was playing saxophone and scarfing Big Macs in the White House is on the shelf, definitely for now, maybe for good.
Enter Rafael Soriano, who so far has done a phenomenal job filling in for the injured Rivera. On any other team, Soriano’s slash line would garner nothing but praise, ranking statistically in the top ten for 2012: 42 SV’s (4 BS)/65.2 IP/67 K/2.19 ERA. But this isn’t any other team and this isn’t any other closer we’re talking about, hence, Soriano is still standing in the dark shadow of Rivera.
No matter how much the Yankees front office personnel may say the absence of Rivera l is a non-issue, knowing that #42 won’t be coming in from the bullpen to close out a tight game is most definitely weighing on the collective conscious of the organization. And should Soriano blow a lead or take the loss to knock the Yankees from the playoffs, heads will roll, and most likely, unfairly.
What people tend to forget is that the majority of MLB teams don’t have a bona fide fallback options like Soriano just sitting around waiting for action. Some teams may have a very good setup man who can step into the closers role without much of a ripple effect, a la Washington Nationals (and ex-Yankee) Tyler Clippard. Some teams go with a closer by committee, like the San Francisco Giants did when closer Brian Wilson went down for the season. And others just call up a rookie and hope the scarcity of a big league innings helps make some outs. It’s all a crap shoot, but Yankees GM Brian Cashman still deserves some credit for adding Soriano to the bullpen prior to last season, regardless of the circumstances surrounding his addition.
Worrying about how the season could end instead of seeing how things play out may seem overly cynical – but I think it’s more about being realistic. The Yankees have limped their way through the last three months of the season. Had there not been a complete meltdown with the Boston Red Sox or a mediocre stretch in May-June-July for the Tampa Bay Rays, there’s a good chance the Yankees could be worse off. And to be as realistic as possible, the Yankees are fighting an uphill battle toward the World Series. No cupcakes and ice cream and pony rides like years past. No vaunted offense. Just a resurgent shortstop, a couple of boppers in the middle of the lineup, a bunch of tired old men, and a backup closer.
Then again, this is the Yankees we’re talking about–you never know what could happen if they get on a roll. This also rings true for their closer. Sure, Rafael Soriano isn’t Mariano Rivera. But nobody is. He’s also not Alfredo Aceves or Chris Perez or Jose Valverde either, which is a very good thing.