There were four Divisional Series matchups last week, and all four included a major comeback by the team which eventually won the series.
The New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez greeted Joe Nathan with a two-run homer to tie Game Two against the Minnesota Twins, and the Yankees greeted Nathan again in the clinching Game Three with a couple hits to score inherited runners.
The Los Angeles Dodgers came back on St. Louis closer Ryan Franklin (although Franklin was “helped” by a glaring error by left fielder Matt Holliday), Philadelphia came back in two separate games against Colorado closer Huston Street and Vladimir Guerrero’s two-run, ninth inning single capped a three-run rally against Boston closer Jonathan Papelbon.
To Yankee fans, no comeback was more sweet than the Angels rally against Boston in Boston. Watching Papelbon squirm on the mound, then in front of the cameras explaining things was pure delight. Even Billy Wagner, himself a pretty good closer (second all time in saves by a left-hander), allowed a couple eighth inning runs to the Angels in that comeback.
But unlike many of the other closers in playoff pressure, Mariano Rivera kept cruising along, appearing in all three ALDS contests. He closed out Game One and picked up the save in Games Three, while recording four outs twice in the series.
Although he was unscored upon in his 3.2 innings, Mo did have a glitch, allowing two hits to Denard Span, one which allowed an inherited runner to score in Game Two, increasing the Twins lead to 3-1.
There is a big difference why Rivera continues to come through for the Yankees at the end of ballgames and other perceived “elite” closers like Papelbon, Street, Brad Lidge, and former closers like Eric Gagne all eventually fail and become obsolete.
Location, location, location.
It all has to do with real estate. Those three keys to real estate are also true with the 17 inches of real estate called home plate. Any pitcher can throw the ball in the strike zone. That is called control. But only the best pitchers have COMMAND, the ability to throw the ball to a certain spot WITHIN the strike zone.
It is also the biggest reason why good pitchers pitch well, and why bad pitchers get knocked around the park.
And why the closers last week blew those games. When pitchers throw the ball over the middle of the plate, where it is easiest for hitters to get good swings, balls tend to get hit very hard. Look at any MLB Network highlight of a big hit and the pitched ball is almost always over the middle of the plate.
That is why Papelbon will not be an elite closer for very long. He just doesn’t throw the ball to the catcher’s glove. Most every pitch he throws misses the target. When the catcher calls for the fastball low and away, the ball misses.
When the ninth-inning pitch to Guerrero was called for a certain location, Papelbon threw the ball over the middle. Game over. When Papelbon tests the free agent market soon, I would be very wary of signing him.
Throughout the NLDS, Street could not hit that outside corner with any of his pitches. Instead of walking batter after batter, he had to come over the middle of the plate, where the Phillies hitters were waiting for those fat pitches.
And when pitchers cannot locate their fastball, their other pitches are meaningless. Arod’s homer off of Nathan was a fastball down the middle.
Rivera has made a living off his cut fastball, a pitch which starts inside to a left-handed hitter and continues to break further inside, usually off the plate. The batter swings (many times as a defensive mechanism), and the result is usually a weakly hit ball, many times breaking the hitters bat. Rivera is murder on a hitters BABIP.
And just when the hitter begins to look inside for the cutter, Rivera peppers the outside corner with his fastball, many times getting a called third strike…and ending the game. Rivera hits his location inside with the cutter or outside with the fastball. If he misses, he usually misses off the plate, but rarely over the plate.
Dennis Eckersley was similar to Rivera. He threw his backdoor slider outside to lefty hitters, and could run that fastball back in over the inside corner. Eck could not only throw strikes, but could hit his spots. During the 1989-1990 seasons, Eck threw 131 total innings and walked only seven batters!
Rivera missed over the plate to Span, and the Twins center fielder belted him twice in the ALDS. He also left a fat first pitch over the middle to Joe Mauer in the bottom of the eighth of Game Three with the tying run on base.
Mauer swung mightily, but missed it, fouling the pitch straight back. On an inside cutter on the next pitch, Mauer broke his bat into a thousand pieces.
It doesn’t matter how hard you throw, but it matters where you throw the ball. Closers like Papelbon and Street can get away with fat pitchers only so often. The odds are against the psuedo closers when they throw pitchers over the middle.
Rivera rarely throws the ball over the middle of the plate. Even when hitters know what is coming, Rivera’s tremendous location and movement are good enough to get out even the best hitters late in the game.
That is why Rivera is the best of all time – he locates his pitches very, very well.