Struggles of closers in 2012 playoffs make Mariano Rivera look that much better

Mariano Rivera salutes the fans after throwing out Mariano Rivera salutes the fans after throwing out the first pitch before Game 3 of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles. (Oct. 10, 2012) Photo Credit: David Pokress

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Mariano Rivera has not thrown a pitch during these playoffs. But after what transpired in the first round this October, his legend has grown considerably.

Just look at the carnage inflicted by the other closers. The Orioles' Jim Johnson led the majors with 51 saves, failing to convert only three chances during the regular season, but he lost ALDS Game 1 for Baltimore (allowing five runs in the ninth inning) and blew the save in Game 3, giving up a tying home run to Raul Ibañez.

How about the Nationals' Drew Storen? He was 29-for-32 in save tries dating to last year, but when trusted to protect a two-run lead over the Cardinals in NLDS Game 5, Storen served up a four-spot in the ninth inning to torch the Nats' NLCS dreams.

And then there was Jose Valverde, who melted down against the A's in Game 4 by giving up four hits and three runs to blow a two-run lead. At least the Tigers rallied the following night, behind Justin Verlander's 11-strikeout complete game.

Why do closers who are nearly invincible during the regular season suddenly look mortal when it matters most? For one, these are the best teams, and they're in the playoffs for a reason.

Facing the Yankees or A's in October is not like rolling over the Blue Jays in August. These lineups are the most resilient, with a capable bench of pinch hitters. Plus the glare of the postseason spotlight is not comparable to anything that comes before it.

"It's the environment," said John Smoltz, who finished his 14-year career with 154 saves but had only four in the postseason during his four-year stint as a closer. "And once you learn from that environment, the good ones do not repeat [the failures]. The closer has an adrenaline rush like no other position on the field, and in the postseason, it's so magnified that sometimes it goes the wrong way."

Fatigue could play a role. Johnson made 71 appearances and totaled 68 2/3 innings, statistics that fail to take into account how many times he warmed up but was not used.

The manner in which he collapsed was surprising, though. After allowing only three homers in the regular season -- and none since June 5 -- he teed up a pair of critical homers in the ALDS alone.

In Game 1, Russell Martin's tiebreaking blast in the ninth sparked a five-run outburst. In Game 3, Johnson was called on to protect a 2-1 lead and promptly served up the tying homer to pinch hitter Ibañez. Of course, Johnson retired the next five straight.

Unlike Johnson, Storen was not the Nats' saves leader this season. He missed significant time because of elbow surgery and had to be replaced by Tyler Clippard. But Storen obviously had the resume to handle Game 5, along with the fact he was coming off a regular season in which he had a 2.37 ERA in 37 appearances.

He was a strike away from a save twice in Game 5 but couldn't finish the job.

"You start thinking about it, 'If I get this done, we go to the NLCS,' " said Smoltz, now in the TBS booth for the playoffs. "And instead of getting it done, you start forward analysis, forward thinking, and those are things you should never do. You get too amped up."

As for Valverde, he lives another day to potentially sabotage the Tigers in the ALCS.

A year ago, his 49-for-49 year made him one of only three closers to save at least 40 games without a blown save. (Eric Gagne had 55 in 2003 and Brad Lidge had 41 in 2008.)

Valverde converted 35 of his 40 chances in 2012 but his ERA jumped by more than a run to 3.78, and what happened to him Wednesday had to make manager Jim Leyland a bit skittish heading into the ALCS.

Which brings us back to Rivera. He has 42 postseason saves and has allowed 11 earned runs in 141 innings (0.70 ERA) for the Yankees.

"The only guy that's gotten better -- historically better -- and he's the greatest of all time was Rivera," Smoltz said. "So that ability to repeat your mechanics and not get fazed by anything is huge."

You also may be interested in: