In battle of superstars, rookie comes up biggestReliever Robertson saves Yanks in bases loaded jam
There were two kids in that spot in the 11th inning of ALDS Game 2, the pitcher-catcher battery that wasn't the obsessive topic of conversation for the previous 48 hours. The catcher was Francisco Cervelli, age 23, the third backstop on the roster who made the DS cut for insurance purposes. The pitcher was David Robertson, 24, someone who flew under the radar, moved quickly up the Yankees' farm system and only this year earned Joe Girardi's trust.
Robertson entered in relief of Damaso Marte, who allowed consecutive singles to Joe Mauer and Jason Kubel to open the 11th. Michael Cuddyer greeted him with a single up the middle, one smacked a bit too hard to plate the go-ahead run in a game that already earned "Yankees Classics" status.
Lady luck was on Robertson's side, as it was when a blown call by left field umpire Phil Cuzzi denied Mauer a double. Mauer assuredly would have scored on Kubel's single, but good luck is also the mother of attitude. Robertson was in a crisis situation where one more hit would have broken the game open. His job was not to argue with himself, but to create a plan of attack.
Cervelli asked him the first pitch he wanted to throw Delmon Young. Robertson chose a curve, knowing he had to throw it for a strike. Girardi's message in the huddle was simple: Don't allow anything up the middle, and look for a double play. From there, trust took over and knowledge was power, for Cervelli knows Robertson better than anyone wearing pinstripes.
"He knows what I like to do, whether I want to finish guys with the breaking ball or not," Robertson said. "We were on the same page."
Back in a squatter's position, Cervelli was convinced Robertson would get that first out. He's known what's made him tick since Day 1, knows exactly what to tell him and how to say it. This was Robertson's greatest test of his young career, and it was preordained by this team that it was one he'd pass.
"The best thing right now is his confidence in the moment and trusting what you got, and trusting your teammates," Cervelli said.
His first and only pitch to Young was close to where he wanted it. Young hit it hard, but right at Mark Teixeira for the first out. Carlos Gomez grounded to Teixeira, who threw home for out No. 2. Cervelli didn't dare throw back to first to attempt a double play, not with a speedster running down the line and not with Robertson providing serious hope that the Yankees could come out unscathed.
"You look at the guys we have behind us, I'm thinking to myself, 'Just throw what you throw,'" Robertson said. "I can't change anything that I do, just try to hopefully make it count and get us an out."
Deep breaths were plentiful. "I'm sure you saw me do that," Robertson said. "Two outs. I can do this. Make a pitch." Exhales were palpable when Brendan Harris filed out to center. The effort was yeoman, enough to take the loquacious Nick Swisher's breath away.
"Dave Houdini? I don't know how he did it," Swisher said. "Wow. That's all I can really say, wow."
Those were the last of the 17 runners the Twins stranded, which upped their series total to 26 in the two games. The Yankees still had a game to win, but there was a sense that it was finally time to close the deal.
"Those sort of defensive stands can almost feel like you're going to score the next inning because it almost deflates them," said Phil Hughes. "To have bases loaded and nobody out, and not being able to score, that was just a real good job by him."
The Twins nicked Hughes and Mariano Rivera for two eighth-inning runs, the last they scored in the game. Alex Rodriguez's two-run home run in the ninth tied it, and after Robertson made it stand, Teixeira belted the Yankees' first postseason walk-off home run since Aaron "Bleeping" Boone, the death knell of a 4-3 Yankees win that has them up 2-0 in the ALDS. They're 9-0 against Ron Gardenhire's Twins, rallying from behind to win all six games played at Yankee Stadium, and sent Minnesota home wondering what in the name of heaven they have to do to earn one win.
"I've been walked off enough times here," Gardenhire said. "A lot of things could have went either way, but it didn't go our way again. You end up getting walked off again."
Walk-off win No. 16 on the season has the Yankees poised for a sweep, which they'll get if they can pound old friend Carl Pavano into an early vacation. It's ironic that Pavano stands in the way of the Yankees' first ALCS invite since 2004. Pavano is one of the poster men of the Yankee way from 2002-2005 -- throw zillions of dollars at the big fish or the big names past their primes. After the failure of '05, a fed-up Brian Cashman rebuilt the farm system and committed to the full development of can't-miss guys in Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, and unearthed gems like Robertson and Cervelli.
Robertson was found in Round 17 of the 2006 draft. He pitched to a combined 8-3, 0.96 ERA in the Minors the following year and earned his first big-league call-up in June 2008. A 6.31 ERA punched a return ticket a month later, but he wasn't forgotten. Once he was back here for good, the entry level apprenticeship eventually ended.
"It takes time to earn that trust," Hughes said. "When I went down to the bullpen I was relegated to long relief outings until I proved I could handle situations with guys on base.
"He's been the most underrated guy in our bullpen all year and certainly a guy that I think everybody feels comfortable with going to in big situations. You saw there he has the stuff and the demeanor to throw strikes and not get overwhelmed in tight spots. It goes to show how we were brought up in our system. Throw strikes, be aggressive, go after guys, and that's especially true in the bullpen."
Raise your hand if you had Robertson and Cervelli tag-teaming to help win a playoff game. Stick around and watch closely. You're seeing the maturation of two players -- one in Robertson you can bold and underline -- who will be around for a long time.