Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 22, 2011

Mo Stands Alone

Monday afternoon in the Bronx, there was a moment that seemed to stand logic on its head. Clinging to a 6-4 lead over the Twins in the bottom of the 8th, the Yankees put two men on with only one out. With a chance to break the game open, right fielder Nick Swisher came to the plate. But instead of driving in runs to add to the New York lead, Swisher grounded into an inning-ending double play. When he did so, the fans cheered wildly. Rather than being either insulted or perplexed, Swisher understood the seemingly odd reaction perfectly. Laughing later as he called it the “greatest double play of my life,” he knew that by keeping the lead at two runs, the game would go to the top of the 9th inning in a save situation.

So it was that history arrived at 161st Street and River Avenue. The slender figure in the Yankees bullpen fired his last warm-up throw, walked down the five steps from the bullpen to the field and stepped through the door in the center field fence. As he did so, the opening chords of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” echoed through the Stadium, as they have so many times before. The heavy metal beat of the song is about as far removed from reflecting Mariano Rivera’s personality as could be. But in keeping with the lyrics the devout Christian and devoted family man has sent many opposing hitters “off to never never-land” in the course of his storied career, so perhaps the entry song chosen for him by the Yankees years ago is appropriate after all.

With everyone in attendance on their feet and cheering wildly, Rivera jogged in to the mound. Six days earlier, on the road in Seattle, he had become just the second pitcher to record 600 career saves. Four days after that he tied the retired Trevor Hoffman’s record of 601 saves by setting Toronto down in order in the final inning of a 7-6 New York victory. Now he was home, three outs away from setting the record on his own.

In 1995, Rivera was called up from the New York’s Triple-A affiliate to join the Yankees starting rotation. His first eight appearances were in that role; though by the end of that season he was also coming out of the bullpen, finishing his rookie year with ten starts and nine relief appearances. His 5-3 record and 5.51 ERA were not particularly impressive; but the fact that he had excelled in his relief appearances, especially in the American League Division Series against Seattle convinced management to make him a full-time reliever. He became the setup man for closer John Wetteland in 1996, and the two became a dominant tandem on the mound. The Yankees finished the season with a 70-3 record when leading after six innings, and Rivera finished third in the voting for the AL Cy Young Award. Over the course of the 1996 campaign he also recorded the first five saves of his career.

With Wetteland a free agent, the Yankees chose to install Rivera as their new closer for 1997. Three months into that campaign, Rivera found that his four-seam fastball was moving in ways he did not expect; darting down and away from right-handed hitters and down and in on lefties. At first he tried to correct the problem, before it dawned on him that it might not be a problem at all. Thus was born the Rivera cut fastball.

A decade and a half later, now 41 years old, Mo and his cutter are still overwhelming batters. That he has carved out a certain Hall of Fame career is remarkable. That he has done so while throwing but a single pitch almost exclusively is mind-boggling. For years now, every batter facing him has known what is coming; yet that foreknowledge has most often been for naught. Nor does he look to be appreciably slowing down. Yes, the cut fastball that used to be clocked at 95 or 96 MPH is now being thrown at 92 or 93. But when he took the mound on Monday he was looking not just for the career saves record, but also for his 43rd save of the season, making 2011 his 8th year with 40 or more saves.

Rivera isn’t perfect, as he would be the very first to acknowledge. Because he has pitched on the game’s biggest stage, his occasional failures have often received outsized attention. But it is another testament to his greatness that even now, at a time when many players would be in decline, a blown save by Rivera still merits a headline.

On Monday Rivera first faced Trevor Plouffe. With the count 2-2, Plouffe rolled a broken bat grounder to second baseman Robinson Cano. They keep statistics for just about everything in this game, but no one can count how many bats have been broken by Rivera’s cutter over the years. Next came Michael Cuddyer. On another 2-2 count, he lofted a lazy fly ball into the waiting glove of right fielder Chris Dickerson. Finally came Chris Parmalee, the Twins’ first baseman. A 92 mile per hour cutter was called strike one. A 91 mile per hour cutter was fouled off for strike two. Then, with thousands of cameras recording the moment, a 93 mile her hour cutter at the knees froze Parmalee, and history was made.

There was bedlam in the stands, and on the field his teammates rushed to congratulate Rivera. The unassuming Mo just walked off the mound toward home plate and catcher Russell Martin as if it were any other game. Of course, this was not just another game, and after receiving hugs from all of the Yankees, and with the Twins players applauding from the top step of their dugout, Rivera’s long-time catcher Jorge Posada pushed the closer back out to the mound. The rest of the Yankees returned to their dugout, giving Rivera a chance to stand alone and receive the fans’ acclaim. It was a moment of individual recognition for the ultimate team player, and probably the only time in his career that Rivera has looked uncomfortable on a pitching mound.

Records are made to be broken is an adage both old and true. But like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, this is one mark that seems destined to stand. Of course, I once thought that about Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak, until Cal Ripken came along. At the very least, no one will threaten Rivera’s mark anytime soon. The only two active pitchers with at least 300 saves are Francisco Cordero with 324 and Jason Isringhausen with exactly 300; and they are both just a few years younger than Rivera. And of course Mo is still going, picking up save 603 with another 1-2-3 effort Wednesday afternoon against Tampa. Still perhaps on some future summer’s day, a closer now in Little League will top whatever number is Rivera’s eventual career total. If it happens my guess is that even on that distant day scribes will marvel at how amazing it is to see anyone eclipse the incomparable Mariano Rivera.

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Responses

  1. great post


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