Baseball’s New York Yankees built a dynasty during the 1990’s. The team, built around a collection of home-grown talent, dominated for a decade, making the World Series six times from 1996-2003 and winning four titles.
Much of their success is attributed to their closer, Mariano Rivera. The surefire Hall-of-Famer is the ultimate closer; he has amazing stats. His career ERA sits at an astonishing 2.21, and he is the all-time saves leader with 608. His postseason numbers are even more staggering; his ERA drops to 0.70 and he converted 42 saves in his career.
The Yankees struggled closing out games this season after they lost him to a freak injury. The team blew 13 opportunities.
Considering that Rivera is a one-pitch pony, it is surprising how successful he is. His cut fastball is devastating, but if hitters are sitting on it, why is it so effective? A lot comes down to the mentality Rivera has.
The best closers know they will come out on top before they even take the mound, and their team shares the same confidence.
The Jazz are in need of a closer. The last week of games shows it. They lost double-digit leads at Atlanta, at Detroit and at home against Miami. In each case, the Jazz had a commanding lead in the fourth quarter before they let their opponent back in the game. In the Atlanta game, it resulted in a loss. The Jazz were lucky to survive Detroit and Miami, but the pattern needs to change.
The team readily admits it. Following their win over Miami, players such a Gordon Hayward alluded to it. Hayward led by example Monday night, scoring 10 of Utah’s 14 points in the final five minutes. He held off a furious Heat rally that cut a 21-point lead down to 2 points.
“We’re trying to learn how to push a lead from 20 to 30 and close teams out, but we haven’t been able to do that for whatever reason,” said Hayward. “We need to be able to keep our foot on the gas and not be hesitant.”
Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are some of the NBA’s best closers. This is generally the role of the superstar. Your top scorer should be able to find his shot, even with an entire team’s defense keyed on him.
The Jazz do not have such a star. Early in the year, Mo Williams relished the opportunity, but the Jazz lost him to injury. The league has adjusted to Al Jefferson’s effective scoring from the left post, making it imperative for the rest of the team to step up in crunch time.
Hayward’s play-making ability nominates him as the best candidate for the Jazz closer. This season, Hayward has little crunch time experience, with head coach Ty Corbin electing to send out Randy Foye instead of Hayward. However, Hayward is amazingly effective, having an eFG percentage (field goal percentage adjusted to include difficulty of free throws and three point shots) of .667. He leads the team.
Situations like last week’s are invaluable when developing a young team. But when the Jazz reconvene for practice today, they should focus on making the last-minute meltdowns stop.
The next step is developing that killer instinct all good closers have.