For those who think that a closer's importance is overrated, let me discuss something I usually bring up about as often as I offer tributes to Yankees - the 2000 World Series.
The Mets led Game 1, 3-2, going into the ninth. If they won the first game it could have changed the tone of the whole series. The Yankees were two-time defending world champions. They had swept the last two World Series and had won 12 straight World Series games going back to 1996. The Mets, though, had won 94 games that year to the Yankees 87. A Game 1 victory by the Mets at Yankee Stadium would have had a lot of people believing that the Mets could win.
But the Mets had Armando Benitez as their closer. They didn't have Mariano Rivera.
Instead of an important win establishing the Mets as a serious challenger to the Yankees' title, the difference in closers resulted in a devastating loss that might have sealed the Mets' fate right there.
Imagine if the events of Game 2, where roid-raged Roger Clemens threw a bat shard at Mike Piazza and Mariano gave up a three-run homer to Jay Payton in the ninth as the Mets rallied for five runs, only to lose, 6-5, had left the series tied, 1-1, heading to Shea, instead of giving the Yankees a 2-0 lead.
Mariano's reputation was already such that the fact that the Mets rallied against him would have added to the sense that the Mets could win the series. (Mariano would never allow another homer in the postseason. In 141 postseason innings, the only other homer he's given up was to Sandy Alomar Jr. in 1997.) But because of Benitez' blown save, the Mets knew they still had to win four of five from a team that had Mariano at the end of the game.
In Game 4, it was the Yankees' turn to lead, 3-2, going into the ninth. Only the Yankees didn't have Benitez, they had Mariano, who had already pitched a scoreless eighth. In the ninth, Mariano pitched a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts. The Yankees now led the Series, 3 games to 1.
Game 5 was tied, 2-2, going into the ninth. Al Leiter gave up two runs in the ninth and left the game after throwing 142 pitches. Manager Bobby Valentine might well have taken Leiter out earlier - if he'd had Mariano in his bullpen.
With the Yankees now ahead, Mariano pitched a scoreless bottom of the ninth, picked up his second straight save, and the Yankees won the World Series.
Some of you are probably thinking, so what if Mariano is no Benitez? The 2000 Mets also would have had a better chance if their shortstop had been Derek Jeter instead of Mike Bordick.
But Benitez was actually a pretty good closer. In fact, in 2000, he had a better season than Mariano did:
Benitez: 41 saves; 5 blown saves; 2.61 ERA; 1.01 WHIP; 106 K in 76 IP
Rivera: 36 saves, 5 blown saves; 2.85 ERA; 1.10 WHIP; 58 K in 75 2/3 IP
For his career, Benitez had 289 saves with a 3.13 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.
But in 30 1/3 postseason innings, Benitez had a 3.56 ERA and a 1.45 WHIP.
Mariano, as everyone knows, has spectacular career numbers: 608 saves, 2.21 ERA, 0.998 WHIP.
But his postseason numbers look like typos: 0.70 ERA; 0.76 WHIP in 141 innings with, appropriately enough, 42 saves.
So for those who think a closer's value is overrated, think of what it means when a pitcher with those sorts of numbers is waiting for you at the end of a postseason game.
Three years ago, Squawker Lisa and I saw Mariano get his 500th save in a Subway Series game at Citi Field. It was also the game where Mariano got his first career RBI when Francisco Rodriguez walked him with the bases loaded. Coming only a couple of weeks after the Luis Castillo game, I was pretty fed up, especially when the Mets later sent Mariano the pitching rubber from the game.
But now I'm just sad at the likely end of a great Yankee's career that even I can admire.