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Yankees Magazine: Making Magic Happen … Again

After two and a half seasons away, David Robertson returned to the Yankees in 2017 and showed his grit under pressure once more
Yankees Magazine

It was Oct. 3, 2017, and the fans that packed Yankee Stadium sat on the edges of their seats, holding their breath with every pitch that Chad Green threw. In his third inning of relief, the 26-year-old right-hander looked gassed. The scoreboard showed the Yankees were leading the Minnesota Twins, 4-3, in this win-or-go-home American League Wild Card Game. It was a hard-earned lead -- the result of a wild comeback that brought the Bronx faithful from despondent to delirious all in the first inning. But now it was on the cusp of disappearing. Green had loaded the bases with one out, and the Twins were threatening a comeback of their own.

Recognizing the heft of the situation, manager Joe Girardi had but one hope. He turned to his resident escape artist, Houdini.

It was Oct. 3, 2017, and the fans that packed Yankee Stadium sat on the edges of their seats, holding their breath with every pitch that Chad Green threw. In his third inning of relief, the 26-year-old right-hander looked gassed. The scoreboard showed the Yankees were leading the Minnesota Twins, 4-3, in this win-or-go-home American League Wild Card Game. It was a hard-earned lead -- the result of a wild comeback that brought the Bronx faithful from despondent to delirious all in the first inning. But now it was on the cusp of disappearing. Green had loaded the bases with one out, and the Twins were threatening a comeback of their own.

Recognizing the heft of the situation, manager Joe Girardi had but one hope. He turned to his resident escape artist, Houdini.

David Robertson had returned to the Yankees in a trade just a couple months earlier, having left the Bronx after the 2014 season to become the closer for the Chicago White Sox. He was a known commodity in New York and had earned his closer's salary after adeptly replacing Mariano Rivera when the legend retired. Robertson had seen big moments, finished games and won a championship. In high-leverage situations, there were few better options.

So in this most heart-pumping situation, with the Yankees' season hanging in the balance, you bring in a guy you know can escape a threat and finish off an opponent.

Even if it's only the third inning.

***

Being a closer is one of the most pressure-filled jobs in sports. Being a closer in a big market such as New York makes the challenge even harder. Being the closer in New York who succeeds Rivera? Well, that's just not fair.

To Robertson, though, it was just the job. He was in his seventh year in pinstripes and had risen steadily up the bullpen ranks. He had earned the nickname Houdini for his ability to escape tricky situations. The moments and pressure were never too much for him.

In 2014, the 29-year-old right-hander made 63 appearances for the Yankees, finishing 55 games and converting 39 saves. Robertson posted a second straight season with a WHIP under 1.10, prompting the White Sox to offer him a lucrative contract when he hit the free-agent market after the season. The Yankees didn't match what Chicago was offering, so D-Rob packed up his high socks and moved to the Windy City, where he spent the next two and a half years closing out games for the Pale Hose.

"Taking over for Mariano, it kind of seemed a bigger role to the fans and the media," Robertson said after signing with the White Sox. "You're replacing a legend. When he retired and I took over as the closer, I wasn't really worried about what was going to happen because I knew if I could stick to my guns and do the same thing I've done in the eighth inning in the ninth inning that we'd be all right and we'd win ballgames. So I never approached it as anything more than that. It's just a job."

There's a certain hierarchy in any Major League bullpen. You've got your set-up guy, your lefty specialists, the long man who can throw multiple innings if your starter runs into trouble. Every role is important in its own way, but only the closer gets the rock-star attention -- which seems fair since he often faces the most high-leverage situations.

With the hierarchy also comes an understanding of what your role is and when you'll be expected to pitch. In baseball, where a routine and consistent approach is essential for any player, that kind of regularity can be a major key to success. Robertson had that in spades in Chicago. So when he was dealt at the 2017 trade deadline to the Yankees along with fellow bullpen mate Tommy Kahnle and third baseman Todd Frazier, Robertson went from being a bullpen stalwart with a clearly defined role, to, well, no one was really sure.

Already entrenched in the Yankees' bullpen were closer Aroldis Chapman, four-time All-Star Dellin Betances, impressive youngsters Green and Chasen Shreve, and the ever-dependable Adam Warren. Everyone in the 'pen was younger and threw harder than Robertson. So where exactly would he fit, and how did he feel about the uncertainty?

Simply put, it didn't matter. He was just going to do the job.

"I wasn't worried at all about what my role on the Yankees was going to be," he says. "I knew that New York was really determined to win a World Series, and they wouldn't have traded for us if they weren't serious about that. So coming over, I knew my role would change and that I'd be pitching in different spots. But it's nothing that I haven't done before in my career, so I was accepting of any new role I was going to get and any chance it would give us to get back to the playoffs."

One thing was certain, though: Robertson was returning to a place where he was inherently comfortable. Having come up through the Yankees' farm system -- he was a 17th-round pick in 2006 out of the University of Alabama -- and flourishing on the Bronx stage over the first seven years of his career, Robertson was excited to rejoin a Yankees team that was trending younger and on the rise.

"My first reaction was kind of a relief when I heard it was the Yankees," he says. "For New York to kind of come out of left field and pick up all three of us was nice. I was coming back to a place I had been before, and I was familiar with a lot of the guys on the team and knew how the organization worked.

"Honestly, when I entered the clubhouse it felt like I had never left. The roster may have turned over, there may have been a lot more young guys there, but I've played for the Yankees longer than any of them had even been with the organization, so it wasn't too much of a worry for me."

Robertson slipped into his familiar No. 30 Yankees jersey and told his coaches to pitch him whenever they needed him. The communication, Robertson says, was good. Before a game, one of the coaches would tell him to be ready by the sixth or the seventh. Or if Chapman wasn't available, be prepared to come in and close.

At 32 years old, the 10-year vet knew he'd have to rely on his experience and confidence to defeat his opponents rather than overpowering them with lightning stuff. But no matter when his name was called, Robertson was ready to work.

"The only thing that changes in my routine is a few things I do pregame," he says. "But even that stuff is minor. I just get myself down to the bullpen earlier in the game and get myself prepared to pitch knowing that I could be pitching in the early innings as well as the later innings."

For Robertson, the titles and the roles had become secondary. The reliever won a championship with the Yankees in 2009, but in the years since, despite reaching personal milestones, he failed to achieve the same ultimate success. He was humbled by every losing season in Chicago and hungry to get back to October baseball.

"Pitching for the White Sox was completely different than pitching for New York," the reliever admits. "I just felt like the games were different, the atmosphere was different, the intent of the team [was different]. When you're in New York, your goal is to win a World Series. Not that the White Sox weren't really trying; it just didn't seem like they were interested in it. It's hard to explain. It ended up that after the first year I was there, in the second year they started rebuilding and the third year was the same thing. But that's the way it goes.

"When you're on a team that's always competing, it makes baseball more fun. I'm a competitive guy. I don't like to lose. I want to win. I don't care about anything else; I just want to win a ballgame. I want to get a chance to win another World Series ring. And coming to New York, you know that everyone on that team is committed to the same thing, down to the coaching staff. So you were well prepared and committed to every game that you came into."

Robertson settled into his new "role" as a jack-of-all-trades out of the bullpen and a veteran presence on a young team. His impact was felt in all corners of the clubhouse.

"I think the way he's been able to adjust throughout his career shows what really separates the guys who stay in the Big Leagues from the guys who get up there but don't really make a long career out of it," says reliever Ben Heller, who spent the better part of September just a few lockers away, soaking up knowledge from Robertson. "It's how you adjust when failure comes your way. Everybody is going to have bad games and tough stretches, but it's all about how you adjust and how you learn from it. Someone like D-Rob, who has been around for so long, guys like him have had to make so many adjustments throughout their careers, so I think there's definitely a lot to learn from that."

"It seems like from the first couple days when I was with the White Sox, he took me in as his [student] and wanted to make me better," Kahnle says. "So, it's been fun. He's a great person, and I've actually learned a lot on the field and off the field from him. He's been a great leader for me and for the entire bullpen and everyone who's been around him. He's a guy you watch, and everything he does is the Yankee Way. He's a great role model."

After returning to the Yankees, Robertson saw time in the fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth innings, plus a few extra-inning games -- and he was masterful. In 35 total innings, the reliever went 5-0, allowing just four earned runs and striking out 51 while holding opposing batters to a .119 average. The Yankees went 23-7 in games in which he pitched, including a 5-1 win at Toronto on Sept. 23 that clinched a postseason berth.

After a five-year absence from October baseball, Robertson was finally headed back. But neither he, nor any of his teammates, could have anticipated what lay ahead in the Wild Card Game.

***

Over the course of three innings, the Yankees and their fans went from hopeful to downtrodden to enthralled to the brink of collapse. Naturally, in that situation you bring in Houdini to perform a little magic and settle things down.

"The 2017 postseason was fun, and I had a great time," he says. "It felt less intense to me in a weird way. I had been there before, and it just felt like it was always just another game. I was loose in every game I was playing in, even though the stakes were extremely high."

When Robertson trotted to the mound in that third inning with the bases loaded, the pressure could hardly have been greater, but the reliever was cool and calm. Just doing his job.

He induced a groundout on his third pitch, which allowed Minnesota to tie the game. That was the last run the Twins would score, though. Robertson squashed any threat of a comeback by striking out Jason Castro to end the third.

The Yankees retook the lead for good on a Greg Bird RBI single in the bottom of the frame, and Robertson came back out to pitch the fourth. Then the fifth. Then, finally, the sixth inning. In 31⁄3 innings of relief -- the longest outing of his career - Robertson threw 52 pitches, struck out five Twins and earned the win.

"That Wild Card Game was the most fun game I've ever played in in my life," he says. "It really was. It couldn't have gotten any lower after the first inning, but then the bullpen came out and held the lead when we got it, and we won."

Robertson and the Yankees rolled through more tough spots as they tried to inch their way toward the World Series -- vanquishing the defending AL-champion Indians before falling to eventual 2017 World Series winner Houston in seven games. The reliever pitched in eight of the Yankees' 13 postseason contests, with just one bad outing in Game 6 of the ALCS in Houston to blemish an otherwise spectacular October.

Video: Robertson on Yankees bullpen, expectations for 2018

For someone who had done so much in his career already, Robertson's attitude and effort in his return to pinstripes left the biggest impact on teammates.

"I've been with him the last two years and, basically, we only used him as our closer," Kahnle says. "He'd throw one inning, maybe 1 1⁄3 or 1 2⁄3, but seeing him toward the end of the season with the Yankees and into the postseason where he would give us three innings, that was the most impressive display.

"The bullpen hierarchy can affect guys who are used to only pitching late in games, but then the next thing you know they're in a fifth-inning situation. Or let's say you're up eight, and it's a whole different situation than some guys are used to. But for Robbie, it didn't seem to matter at all. It just seemed like he had a plan, and he stuck to that plan. Always."

Despite the success, Robertson still had a bitter taste lingering as Spring Training rolled around. The 2018 Yankees reported to Tampa with loftier expectations than in recent years. And one of the strengths of this young, hungry club appeared to be the bullpen. The Yankees' deck was stacked, but the order in which new manager Aaron Boone would play his reliever cards was still unknown.

To Robertson, it still didn't matter.

"To be honest, I'm just going to pitch whenever they tell me to and be an example on and off the field for all these young players," he says. "A lot of these guys don't have experience, they haven't been in the league very long, and so I just want to lead by example more than vocally. I don't really need to tell guys things. If they come and ask me, I'll give them the best advice I can, but other than that, I'm just going to show up and do the job the best I can every day, work hard and never give up."

In 2018, the doors of the Yankees' bullpen will swing open and David Robertson will jog onto the field. Maybe it'll be the fifth inning; maybe it'll be the ninth. Who knows, maybe it'll be the third. It wouldn't be the first time.

Whenever it happens, Robertson will come in with the same intensity and comfort he had when his role as closer in Chicago was defined. The magician has become a shape-shifter -- and Houdini still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve.

Hilary Giorgi is the senior editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

New York Yankees, David Robertson