PHILADELPHIA – David Robertson walked off the mound after retiring Miami’s Miguel Rojas in April 2019. He wouldn’t throw another big league pitch for nearly 2 1/2 years.
He was a big bucks bust, his elbow shot less than a month into a $23 million, two-year contract with the Phillies. One surgery, a trip to Japan and three teams later, he’s wearing those high socks on a World Series mound, closing for Philadelphia at age 37.
“Very happy to end up back here in Philly,” he said. “I felt like my first go-around here did not work out well for me or the team. I blew out seven games in and was never able to really show what I could do or be able to help out the club.”
Robertson smiled as teammates filed by him to exchange hand slaps following Friday night’s opener. Robertson got the save for getting the final three outs in a 6-5, 10-inning win, retiring Aledmys Díaz on a game-ending groundout but only after allowing runners to reach second and third. He lived up to the “Houdini” nickname he earned with the New York Yankees, where he succeeded Mariano Rivera as closer.
“He had a tendency to get in trouble and then work his way out of it,” said Phillies manager Rob Thomson, a Yankees coach from 2008-17. “But that’s who he is. He’s got a really calm demeanor and a slow heartbeat and he conveys that throughout the bullpen, so he helps a lot of the younger guys. A lot of guys are going through troubles, he can help them through it.”
A Birmingham native who attended the University of Alabama, Robertson was drafted by the Yankees on the 17th round in the 2006 amateur draft and reached the big leagues two years later. He was a middle reliever during the 2009 title run, getting wins in the Division Series and League Championship Series and making a pair of scoreless appearances against the Phillies in the World Series as the Yankees won the title.
Robertson didn’t return to the Series until this year.
“I feel like a real part of the team,” he said. “In 2009, it was my second year in the league and there was so many superstars on that team that I just tried to kind of stay in the background and enjoy it, but I don’t remember as much of it.”
In his 14th big league season, Robertson has 57 wins and 157 saves. He became a late-inning reliever in 2011, earning his only All-Star trip, was promoted to primary setup man in 2012 and then closer when Rivera retired after the 2013 season. After one year in the role, Robertson left for a $46 million, four-year contract with the Chicago White Sox.
He was dealt back to the Yankees in July 2017. Even on a high-profile team, he was relatively anonymous away from the ballpark, riding the subway to Yankee Stadium wearing a hoodie.
When the contract expired, he became a free agent again and signed with the Phillies. Shut down 2 1/2 weeks into the season with what initially was diagnosed as a strained flexor tendon, Robertson had surgery Aug. 15 with Dr. James Andrews.
“I definitely had a rough road coming back from that injury. I had a little bit more complicated than just the Tommy John. I had flexor repair, as well,” Robertson said. “So my timeline was a lot longer than most people. And I was 34 years old when I had surgery, so it took me a little bit of time to get back. In my mind that wasn’t done, I just needed it that amount of time to get my elbow right to be able to pitch.”
He spent much of 2020 rehabbing, and was shut down after a setback in August. His Phillies contract over, he promised USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler he would play for the U.S. Olympic team under Mike Scioscia. Robertson had two saves as the Americans won the silver medal.
“It was so hot over there. And even coming from Alabama, the humidity over there was something I hadn’t experienced in a long time,” Robertson said. “You’re playing in 100 degrees with 100% humidity on AstroTurf, and the game was so fast. They had it sped up faster than anything I’ve ever seen. And no fans in the seats, so you could hear everything.”
He signed with Tampa Bay a little more than a week after the Olympics, pitched six times for Triple-A Durham and was back in the majors on Sept. 1, 2021. He pitched 12 regular-season games and three in the Division Series. Then in January, he reached a $3.5 million, one-year deal with the Chicago Cubs that would earn him another $1.6 million in bonuses.
Batters had just one hit in their first 34 at-bats against him this season. With Chicago out of contention, the Phillies acquired him at the trade deadline on Aug. 2 for minor league right-hander Ben Brown.
“He was one of the best relief pitchers in the game of baseball at that point,” Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “He’s pitched in big moments in a big market. So we thought if we were going to acquire somebody that can pitch at the back end of the game, he’d feel very comfortable to do that.”
Robertson had six saves in nine chances with a 2.70 ERA for the Phillies and finished the season with 20 saves in 28 chances and a .173 opponents’ batting average along with a 2.40 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. He averaged 93 mph with his cutter, close to his pre-surgery peak.
Then he opened the playoffs by getting the win with a perfect eighth inning against St. Louis in the Wild Card Series opener. He missed the Division Series after hurting his right calf while jumping to celebrate Bryce Harper's home run in the clinching win over the Cardinals.
It took 13 years for Robertson to make it back to baseball’s biggest stage, and he’s enjoying the moment.
“Pretty good adrenaline rush there,” he said the day after getting the Series save. “It turned into a tough inning there, but it always is tough to get those final three outs.”
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