David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Mariano Rivera threw his farewell pitch 13 days ago, but as soon as the leaves turn, we're constantly reminded of his greatness without seeing him on a mound. Every time we think what a closer does is automatic, or that regular-season performance is easily duplicated come October -- as Rivera routinely did -- we get what happened Monday night with Koji Uehara at Tropicana Field.
To put it bluntly, Uehara was better than Rivera this year, or any other closer in the majors since being pushed into the role after injuries to the Red Sox's Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey. Heading into Game 3, Uehara had allowed only one run in his previous 38 appearances and none to the Rays all season, a stretch of 102/3 innings over 10 games, including Saturday's Game 2 at Fenway Park.
On Monday, Uehara was one out away from making it to 11, and carrying the Red Sox's comeback into extra innings. But that all changed when Jose Lobaton, an unlikely hero that wound up at the plate because of a manager's oddball tinkering, crushed a splitter into a 10,000-gallon petting zoo for cownose rays situated high in the right-centerfield stands.
We know Rivera wasn't perfect. Despite his record total of 42 postseason saves, he did blow five chances, including one that doomed the Yankees in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. But those were the blips, the random glitches in Rivera's machine-like dominance, and were easily shrugged off because of the trust he had earned.
For Uehara, not so much. This is his first go-round in Boston, a place where he's built up only a four-month reservoir of goodwill. The sooner Uehara nails down another save, preferably with the 11-pitch efficiency he used last Saturday, the better to ease any lingering anxiety.
"Much like every other aspect of the game, there's more focus," Boston manager John Farrell said of a closer's job during the postseason. "There's more pressure on it. But with Koji, we feel like we've got a guy who's well-equipped for the situation that we're going to put him in."
Farrell was talking about the possibility of multiple innings, which was the plan for bringing in Uehara with the score tied at 4 at the time. Closers are often called in for more than three outs during October -- 31 of Rivera's playoff saves were of that variety. But games that are tied, on the road, can mess with a closer's psyche because it is an unfamiliar scenario.
The job is the same, however. Get outs. And Uehara had a 1.43 ERA in 37 non-save appearances during the regular season. His playoff experience is limited. Before this year, Uehara had logged only 21/3 innings in October and allowed five earned runs, including three homers. In 2011, the Rangers chose not to include him on their World Series roster.
Do any of those memories still haunt Uehara? His next trip to the mound should answer that question definitively. And comparing anyone to Rivera during this month is a foolish exercise -- even though everyone does it anyway.
"He is the anomaly closer of all time, besides being the best," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Rivera. "But this time of year you get the unlikely. Like [Monday] night's game, the outcome was in doubt the entire game until the last out was made and that's the epitome of playoff baseball."
Also the cause of tremendous pressure, and why a successful closer in October is elevated to such mythical status. Any closer that takes the mound during these playoffs -- or in years to come -- will pitch in Rivera's shadow.
For now, Farrell will dismiss Lobaton's walk-off blast as an outlier, a KO punch no one saw coming. We'll think of Rivera's legacy -- and feel a little bad for those who have to follow him.