Our debate on who should pitch the ninth inning for the Yankees started in the seventh in Bob Lorenz’s office at the YES studios. Bob, who is superb at posing questions whether we are on- or off-camera, asked John Flaherty and me if we thought Bartolo Colon should stay in the game or if the Yankees should use Mariano Rivera in the inning that he usually owns.
Typically, this wouldn’t even have been a question for me. Rivera is the greatest closer of all-time, so he should get the ball like he always does. That is one of manager Joe Girardi’s easiest decisions. But because of the way Colon was pitching on Wednesday night, I hedged on that easiest of choices.
Once Bob floated the question, John fielded it first. The former Yankee, who has caught Rivera, reminded us how the team focuses on getting the lead through eight so that Mariano can take over the ninth. For Flaherty, the answer came quickly and emphatically: You happily hand the ball to Rivera.
“You get the lead after eight innings, and it’s time for Mariano,” Flaherty said. “That’s what you’re working to get to, a chance to have him finish the game.”
I know John’s opinion was as solid as a cement wall. Since 1997, the mantra around the Yankees has been smart, consistent and successful: Build a lead, and then build a bridge to Rivera so he can handle the ninth. In Rivera’s remarkable career, he has saved 572 games and has been successful in 89 percent of his save chances.
Still, as Colon powered his way through the eighth against the Orioles, I continued to like the idea of the Yankees allowing him to start the ninth. I’ve covered Rivera’s entire career and I can’t recall ever thinking that it would be preferential to leave the starter in for the ninth. But as efficient and as dominant as Colon was, I thought this would be the time.
“I’d leave Colon in,” I said. “I think he deserves the opportunity to get the complete game. If you don’t let him go for a complete game, you’re never letting a pitcher go for it. He’s earned that shot.”
From the couch across the room, Flaherty disagreed.
“Are you trying to win or are you trying to get the guy a complete game?” Flaherty said. “Why does the complete game matter?”
Bob, who was sitting behind his desk, is a former college pitcher. He had watched Colon buzz two-seam and four-seam fastballs to the corners to stifle the Orioles on three hits in eight innings, and he was impressed. Like me, Bob thought Colon should start the ninth.
“He’s only thrown 87 pitches,” Bob said. “If he’d thrown 100, maybe it would be different. But I’d leave him in there.”
If I had any lingering doubts about letting Colon pitch the ninth, he erased those with the way that he navigated through the eighth. Mark Reynolds had a two-out walk, stole second and chugged to third on Francisco Cervelli’s throwing error. Colon, who was hanging on to a 1-0 lead, stayed cool and whiffed Robert Andino on a 2-2 slider. It was Colon’s 19th pitch of the inning, and also the first pitch of the inning that wasn’t a fastball. That at-bat told me Colon was still strong (he reached 97 mph in the eighth) and still savvy (he saved his slider for the most crucial spot in the inning).
Even after Girardi decided to use Rivera in the ninth, our spirited debate on the topic continued. Jared Boshnack, the producer for the pre-game and post-game, playfully barked, “Get me some cameras in here,” to record our banter.
I never felt that using Rivera was an awful decision. It would be illogical to feel that way. I just thought Colon was in such a groove and looked so comfortable that he would probably barrel through the ninth.
“We thought about it,” admitted Girardi, about leaving Colon in the game. “I have Mariano Rivera. That’s why I made the move.”
After the Orioles nicked Rivera for two singles, Vladimir Guerrero punched a sacrifice fly to left to tie the score, 1-1. So Rivera’s third blown save of the season meant that Colon’s glistening start would end up with him getting a no-decision. Because the mighty Mariano had a rare failure, the debate about who should have pitched the ninth intensified.
“It’s not automatic,” said Girardi, about his decision. “But it’s Mariano Rivera.”
Once the Yankees outlasted the Orioles, 4-1, in 15 innings, the ninth-inning debate wasn’t as intense. But, for a while, it had been the major story. It was that way inside Bob’s office, where we all spoke like managerial wannabes. It was a memorable debate that I wish we had recorded. I’m going to have to talk to Bob about getting some cameras in his office.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES