Robertson ready to assume closer reins if called on
Right-hander knows task of following in Rivera's footsteps won't be easy
NEW YORK -- The bullpen door swung open during the Yankees' last series of the regular season, and in what figures to be a sign of things to come, it was David Robertson -- and not Mariano Rivera -- answering the call for a save situation.
The crowd on hand for the contest against the Astros in Houston booed, and Robertson heard it. He understood that the reaction was not personal, but the fans were unaware that Rivera had already decided to end his career with his emotional Yankee Stadium exit.
"I knew immediately they weren't booing me; they were booing because Mo wasn't coming into the game," Robertson said then. "They weren't happy seeing me come into the game. It's OK with me. I guess it's just part of the gig."
It is a job that, barring a major signing this winter, appears to be Robertson's in 2014. Baseball people have said for years that it will be an unenviable position to be the Yankees closer after Rivera, just as it will be a challenge for whoever follows Derek Jeter as the everyday shortstop.
Robertson has earned a crack at those duties by proving himself as an elite setup man. Already owning an All-Star Game appearance to his name, he was 5-1 with a 2.04 ERA in 70 appearances this year, finishing nine games and striking out 77 in 66 1/3 innings.
"I think he's a guy that has the ability to [close]," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "Right now, that's our best candidate."
But Robertson's best work to date has come in the eighth inning, and the ninth is something of a question mark. Just 8-for-18 in save opportunities over his career, Robertson was unconvincing in a brief closing cameo after Rivera's injury in May 2012, making four appearances and blowing a save before he went on the disabled list with an oblique strain.
By the time Robertson returned from the DL, Rafael Soriano was flourishing on his way to a 42-save campaign as the Yanks' replacement closer, so Robertson returned to his eighth-inning duties.
"The first couple times I tried it, it was different because Mo wasn't coming back," Robertson said. "There was no way he could pitch that year. I felt a lot of pressure on me really quickly, because no one expected him to get injured.
"When I had to step in and hold it down a couple days, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me. It's the same thing -- you have to make good pitches. I got roughed up a couple times. I know it's hard, but the situation was different then than it will hopefully be next year."
After locking down the Sept. 26 save in Houston, his third in five chances this season, Robertson said that he believes he will be better prepared for closing duties the next time around.
Robertson also knows that things can change quickly in the Bronx, and so as he departed for the winter, he said that he was not counting on the job absolutely being his.
"I don't feel like any of the passing of the torch has been done, because I don't know what's going to happen next year," Robertson said. "I haven't been told anything."
Girardi said that while the memories of Rivera's dominance will still be fresh when the Yankees begin the 2014 season, it will be important for Robertson -- or whoever inherits the job -- to blaze his own path as the closer.
"Just be yourself; that's all you can do," Girardi said. "You can't be Mo. You've got to understand that there's probably going to be, at times, some unfair comparisons, but that's just part of it. Tino [Martinez] had to go through it with Don Mattingly. If you end up doing your job, the situation will take care of itself. You'll win them over."
Girardi draws a parallel from his own playing career, when he suited up as the Yankees' catcher in 1996 and had to replace popular power-hitting backstop Mike Stanley.
"I've never been booed like that. I went to the FanFest and got booed," Girardi said. "I was like, 'Man, I haven't even done anything yet!' I got booed at the Welcome Home Dinner. It took about a month and a half."
The Yankees hope it doesn't take nearly that long for Robertson to be accepted. Robertson is already a familiar face to fans, and the job isn't changing all that much, in theory.
"It's just like the eighth inning -- you have to get three outs and not let anybody score," Robertson said.
But Robertson has made something of a trademark for creating and wriggling out of threatening jams, earning the nickname "Houdini." Those high-wire escapes should be a great deal more interesting without the safety net of an additional inning ahead.
If it counts for anything, and it should, Rivera said that Robertson has earned his vote to take over the ninth inning.
"That would be my thinking," Rivera said. "I'm not the Yankees, I don't know what they're going to do. But I think he deserves a shot."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.