For the last year or so, David Robertson has made a living of pitching in the eighth inning with a runner -- and sometimes two and or three -- on base.
It was in those situations that the Yankees usually had Mariano Rivera as a fallback in the event of disaster.
Now they don’t have Rivera for the rest of the season and Robertson’s role has shifted to the ninth. The big question is whether Robertson can handle the ninth the same way as he handles the eighth.
If your definition of handling the inning is by loading the bases before striking out Carlos Pena for the final out of a 5-3 victory over the Rays, then the answer is yes.
“I was thinking, jeez I better not blow my first opportunity or Mo might come in here and smack me around,” Robertson said after throwing 25 pitches.
Robertson recorded his fourth career save by doing what seemingly does best, getting out of a bases-loaded jam. Sometimes it is inherited and other times it is his doing, but for the 26th consecutive inning, he got out of it.
“He looked comfortable,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He doesn’t seem comfortable unless the bases are loaded. He threw strikes and that’s the most important thing. If he was all over the place I would have had concern.”
Though he did not outright say it, Girardi seems inclined to go with Robertson for the bulk of the save opportunities. That would make him the first replacement for Rivera for more than a few days since April 2003 when Juan Acevedo pitched to a 9.00 ERA while the Yankees waited for Rivera to recover from a groin strain.
“I have a ton of faith in what David Robertson is capable of doing,” Girardi said. “I’ve watched it year after year for a while now, but anytime we see someone different than Mo, it’s just different. We’ve been watching him close games for a long time. We’ve been watching him close games since 1997. I don’t care if it’s the next guy and let’s just say he’s going to end up with 700 saves, it would be strange to see that guy come in and not be Mo.”
Robertson started his new role by retiring Jeff Keppinger. That was followed by a walk to Will Rhymes and a single to Sean Rodriguez, putting runners at first and second.
Next was pinch hitter Brandon Allen, who launched an upper deck home run at Yankee Stadium last summer with Oakland. Allen struck out swinging on three straight pitches, but Robertson kept it interesting by walking Ben Zobrist.
Robertson then made opponents 1-for-21 since the start of last season with the bases loaded by placing a 94 mile per hour fastball on the outer edge of the plate to Pena.
“I think Mo would have been done in 12 pitches, broke a bat and we would have gone home 20 minutes ago,” Robertson said.
“I’ve had to face David Robertson,” said Raul Ibanez, who homered twice. “He’s got good stuff, so yeah I have confidence in him.”
Robertson was not the only pitcher working out of trouble as the Yankees stopped a team-record seven-game losing streak to the Rays. Ivan Nova and Rafael Soriano successfully navigated their way out of trouble in the previous three innings leading up to Robertson’s appearance.
Nova took a shutout into the sixth before allowing a solo home run to Jose Molina. He also gave up a solo home run in the seventh to Luke Scott, but succeeded in trouble spots after that.
After getting beat with the slider by Molina in the sixth, Nova threw it for the final out of the frame against B.J. Upton. Upton struck out swinging on the pitch in the opening inning, but this time he swung at the first-pitch and his bat shattered as he grounded out to third base.
In the seventh, the slider was partially responsible for Nova working out of second and third with one out. Nova used to it retire Rodriguez on a fly ball to Nick Swisher in right field halfway between the infield and warning track that kept Keppinger on third.
For his final out of the night, Nova avoided throwing the slider to Molina. Instead, he finished him with three straight curveballs as each pitch was located further away from the plate.
After Nova finished his best outing of the year, Soriano made extensive use of his slider. He struck out the side on the pitch, but also bounced it in the dirt for a wild pitch that scored a run.
Rays starter James Shields allowed just four hits, but gave up a two-run home run to Ibanez in the fourth and a solo shot to Granderson in the fifth.
Ibanez later added a solo shot in the seventh off reliever Burke Badenhop, which stood as the winning run.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.