NEW YORK - Looking back on Saturday's 12-inning loss, New York Mets first baseman Todd Zeile was restrained in the amount of credit he gave the Yankees. They had fought back from a 3-2 deficit in the ninth to extend the game, ultimately achieve a victory and seize the advantage in the 2000 World Series. But had they earned it?
"I think we handed them Game 1 on a platter," Zeile said.
Armando Benitez was their not-so-friendly waiter.
While managers and players on both sides continued yesterday to sort through the mess resulting from Roger Clemens' bat-heaving episode with Mike Piazza on Sunday, there's also the matter of Benitez's unreliability in the postseason, which greatly contrasts with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Both pitchers know failure in these playoffs. Leave it to Benitez to have the more intimate, long-lasting relationship.
For Rivera, failure was giving up a three-run homer to Jay Payton in the ninth inning of Game 2, ending his scoreless-innings streak in the World Series at 15. It meant little else, as the Yankees won, 6-5.
For Benitez, it's mishandling a 3-2 lead in Game 1, when he came within two outs of giving the Mets a crucial victory on the road. It's serving up a three-run homer to San Francisco's J.T. Snow in Game 2 of the Division Series to force extra innings. It's seven postseason homers in all, the most ever given up by a reliever. It's six career blown saves in nine chances during the playoffs.
By contrast, Rivera has five career saves in the World Series, one fewer than all-time leader Rollie Fingers, and 17 in the postseason. That's two more than runner-up Dennis Eckersley.
The Yankees have converted 25 of 26 postseason saves under manager Joe Torre, the exception coming when Cleveland's Sandy Alomar homered off Rivera in Game 4 of the 1997 Division Series. It's the only season the Yankees didn't reach the World Series under Torre.
"The first thing about a closer is yesterday doesn't count, whether it's good or bad," Torre said. "To get over a bad outing is the most important thing. You can't start pressing because you didn't do the job yesterday. Mariano had trouble with that in '97, but he fought his way through it. And right now he's got a great deal of confidence."
Rivera had a streak of 33 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings in the postseason until this year's American League Championship Series. When he enters a game, especially in October, it's lights out.
When Benitez comes in, he gets lit up.
The Mets are firmly in his corner, citing the franchise-record 41 saves in 46 opportunities during the regular season. John Franco, with 420 career saves, will continue in a setup role. But Benitez will remain under scrutiny.
"If we're going to be successful this postseason, we're going to need Armando Benitez," said general manager Steve Phillips. "He has shown the ability to bounce back from tough games, and we expect for him to bounce back when he gets another chance here in the World Series."
"I feel good about him," added bench coach John Stearns, a member of Davey Johnson's staff in Baltimore, who watched Benitez allow homers to Cleveland's Marquis Grissom and Tony Fernandez in the 1997 ALCS.
"Whenever he takes the mound, we all feel really good. I think the more mature he gets, the more times he's out there in those situations, the more confidence he's going to have in himself. I see an upward curve with him."
Benitez, who didn't make himself available for interviews yesterday, often had his maturity questioned while pitching for the Orioles, especially when igniting a bench-clearing brawl with the Yankees, tossing his glove in the air after allowing a home run or checking the radar-gun readings on his fastball. A strikeout would bring a demonstrative gesture, which still surfaces on occasion.
Rivera offers few mannerisms that convey what he's feeling.
"I know he looks unemotional at times," Torre said, "but there's a lot going on inside him."
Phillips, who acquired Benitez in a three-team trade before the 1999 season, said the Mets' perception was he "probably was thrown into the closer's role a little earlier than he was prepared for in Baltimore." But Zeile, also a teammate of Benitez's in 1996 with the Orioles, has seen changes in the hard-throwing Dominican.
"He's matured as far as his demeanor to some degree and his approach on the field," Zeile said. "I think he's more professional and less emotionally charged when he takes the mound. He goes out there with a plan and some sort of goal in mind. When he was with Baltimore, he was known for throwing 97 miles an hour, and he came in and just threw."