With all of the "controversy" surrounding the All-Star Game and its closing scenarios that lead into Tuesday night’s game at Yankee Stadium, I found myself defending Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera to anyone who would listen over the past few days ... even on my blog. But I forgot one major thing ... when the light’s go on, Rivera will do all the talking that is needed with his right arm.
You want to know who the greatest closer of all-time is? Well, the question was answered Tuesday night. You want to know who the best closer of today is? Again, the question was answered Tuesday night. Just look at what the three closers from New York and Boston did at Yankee Stadium on the grandest stage of them all.
First up is the easiest — Mets pitcher Billy Wagner. I knew as soon as Wagner entered the game with two outs and nobody on in the eighth inning that the National League was in trouble. I mean, they don’t call him "Billy Blown Save" for nothing. A single, a stolen base, and a double later and Wagner had blown the save and a 3-2 N.L. edge turned into a 3-3 deadlock.
Wagner is a good closer when he’s protecting a three-run lead in Pittsburgh on a late night in June. But when the big-time situations present themselves, Wagner wilts under the pressure. Tuesday night was another example in a long line of them for the man who dares to come out to Metallica’s "Enter Sandman" at Shea Stadium in Queens.
Next up on the docket — Red Sox pitcher Jonathan Papelbon. Of course, especially here in Connecticut, he is the one man that comes up when talking about taking over as the game’s top closer. Red Sox fans will defend him to the death, saying he is "The Man," not Rivera.
Papelbon, unfortunately, believes that as well.
"If I was managing the team, I would close," Papelbon said on Monday. "We’ve both earned that right: us, by winning the World Series and having the opportunity of having our manager there, and our team being represented, and Mariano by what he’s done for this role, we’re in Yankee Stadium and blah, blah, blah. It’s not that easy. Everybody thinks it’s a cut and dry answer, but it’s not."
Papelbon and his fans had their chance to prove it last night ... and guess what? He choked under the pressure. What a shock.
With the Yankee Stadium crowd booing loudly over comments Papelbon made the previous day, the Red Sox closer proceeded to allow a single, a stolen base, and then a run to score on a sac fly to give the N.L. the lead at 3-2 in the eighth inning. He did it while the crowd chanted "Ma-ri-a-no" and "Over-rated" throughout the inning.
Papelbon proved that he couldn’t handle the pressure — and this was the eighth inning, not the ninth. Sorry, Papelbon, but you still have a long way to go before you’re ever considered to be in Rivera’s class — both pitching wise and actions wise.
I will give Papelbon credit for one thing, he turned Tuesday night’s boring All-Star game into an event. The chants and boos turned the game into something special and was the beginning of what turned out to be a great, albeit long, ending.
It continued with Wagner blowing the save and then ...
Last, but certainly not least — Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera. First of all, was there any doubt that Rivera would come out looking the best on this night, in his house? I didn’t think so.
When Francisco Rodriguez got one out in the ninth, after walking a batter, the scene was set for Rivera to take his rightful place at this All-Star Game in front of his fans and admirers.
As "Enter Sandman" blasted over the speakers (he was the only one to have entrance music) and Rivera entered the field from the bullpen, you could feel the excitement from Bristol to Nebraska to South Dakota. If you didn’t feel it, then you’re not a baseball fan.
The crowd was as loud as ever — with flash bulbs popping everywhere — making their own point to Papelbon (if he didn’t already get it) and everyone else during this ultimate baseball showcase who they believe is the greatest closer of them all.
It turned out to be no contest.
With all of the pressure on his shoulders, Rivera coolly struck out Ryan Ludwick swinging and then former Yankee catcher Dioner Navarro threw out Cristian Guzman trying to steal second for an inning-ending double play that turned Yankee Stadium into a mad house.
Proving his greatness even more, Rivera came back out for the 10th inning to the surprise of all. He allowed singles to Russell Martin and Miguel Tejada with one out before getting a 6-4-3 double play ball by Dan Uggla to end the inning.
The only thing that didn’t work out on this night was when the American League couldn’t score a run with the bases loaded and nobody out in the bottom of the 10th. If they did, Rivera would have been the winning pitcher in the final All-Star game ever from Yankee Stadium. Not only that, he could have been the game’s MVP as well.
Even without that ultimate ending, Rivera proved to everyone on this night, on baseball grandest stage, that he is still the best closer in the game. Just like countless swings of the bat from today’s greatest hitters, Papelbon and the doubters learned that nobody comes close to touching Rivera
Sports Editor Brad Carroll can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.