An excerpt from The Yankees Index, published in 2016. You can buy the book here.
There is only one Babe Ruth, but in terms of domination of a position within a specific era, the closest thing to Babe Ruth is how Mariano Rivera dominated in postseason play.
During one of the most hitter-friendly periods in baseball history under the most pressure-packed of circumstances, Rivera thrived. He was 8-1 with an 0.70 postseason ERA, with 42 saves in 47 chances. The 42 saves is appropriate, as it matched the number on the back of his jersey.
Oh and though we’re focusing on October baseball, let’s not ignore the regular-season work. All that consists of is the most saves all-time (652) and the lowest ERA of any pitcher who worked at least 1,000 innings in the Live-Ball Era (since 1920).
“He is by far the greatest closer of all-time,” said ESPN baseball analyst and historian, Tim Kurkjian.
“As much of a guarantee as anyone who ever played the game,” said an admiring rival, former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
“The ultimate safety net,” said former teammate Mike Stanton.
The path to greatness was a combination of luck, talent and work, beginning with his growing up in Panama with thoughts of being a fisherman. In February, 1990 he signed with the Yankees and perhaps some were lucky enough to see the greatness before the greatness. That season, he pitched for the Yankees Gulf Coast League team in Tampa and allowed one earned run in 52 innings.
This was the pre-Rivera, Rivera. He didn’t have the cutter then. But in some ways, it was the same Mariano. Coaches worked with him to slow his delivery, such that it would take him 1.1 seconds to the plate.
Twenty one years later, I put a stopwatch on his delivery time for three pitches as he approached the all-time saves record. He clocked at 1.1 seconds.
By 1995, Rivera was in the majors and he had his share of ups and downs, primarily as a starting pitcher. But he did enough to earn Buck Showalter’s trust such that Showalter pitched him in two huge situations. Rivera pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief In Game 2 of the ALDS against the Mariners, and got the win when Jim Leyritz hit a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 15th.
Then, Rivera emerged with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning of a tied Game 5 to blow Mike Blowers away on three straight pitches. The Yankees lost that game, but in that moment they discovered a future star who could stand up to the most stressful situations.
The next year, Rivera was the set-up man to John Wetteland in the greatest one-two reliever combination in Yankees history, if not baseball history. The Yankees got back to the postseason and won it all. Rivera pitched 122 innings in relief to a 1.92 ERA between the regular season and postseason.
That offseason, the Yankees did something they would never regret. They let Wetteland go as a free agent and made Rivera the closer.
“There were questions that spring as to whether he was going to be able to do it,” said his former teammate, Mike Stanton. “I think he answered them pretty well.”
Rivera did with the help of what he called a gift from God, a cut fastball that had a sharp late break against left-handed hitters, neutralizing any advantage they might have over him. It also turned out to work well as a pitch breaking away from right-handed hitters. He first noticed it during an innocent game of catch with Ramiro Mendoza. When he threw it in games, hitters could not make good contact against it.
“His cutter may go down as the greatest weapon in the history of the game,” said ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kevin Connors, who covered Rivera while working in New York.
The turning point in Rivera’s closing career was not a win, but a loss. Every closer has to deal with failure, knowing that you were the one who cost your team the game. In Rivera’s case, he had to live through that all winter after allowing the key hit in the 1997 ALDS- a game-tying home run to Sandy Alomar Jr. with the Yankees on the verge of clinching.
Again, the Yankees lost the series, but won for the long term.
“It didn’t bother him at all (for the next season),” said former teammate Jeff Nelson. “One of the best assets he has is a short memory.”
The legend of Rivera emerged in the next three seasons, as the Yankees became a baseball dynasty. Not only was he amazing in the regular season, he was dominant come October. In 41 1/3 postseason innings, he allowed three runs and 25 hits, with 30 strikeouts and four walks. That included a major-league record 33 1/3 inning scoreless streak. In 1999, he won World Series MVP honors in a sweep of the Braves.
The Yankees went 27-1 in the 28 games in which he pitched. He was on the mound for eight of the nine series-clinching outs, including the final out of all three World Series.
The Yankees inspired a city with their pursuit of a four-pear in the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Pitching in the shadows of the September 11 tragedy, they came from behind on multiple occasions to get to Game 7.
Rivera had told his teammates before the game “Get me the ball and we will win” and it looked like he’d live up to that promise after blowing the Diamondbacks hitters away in the eighth inning.
But in the ninth inning, he and the Yankees were done in by a little wildness (he hit a batter for only the second time all season), an error (the second one of his career) and some bad luck (a broken-bat bloop over Derek Jeter’s head for the series-winning hit).
It was a crushing defeat, but Rivera was again undaunted. Two years later, he got the ball for a Game 7 and lived up to his promises. With the score tied in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox, Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth, 10th and 11th inning. And then he’d run and kiss the pitcher’s mound when Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run ended the series. Rivera was named series MVP.
“Those three innings- you’re not gonna get that with any other closer, “Nelson said. “He’s the only one (now) who can pitch three innings. He could have gone five.”
The Yankees transitioned into a different team over the next six years, one that blew a 3-0 ALCS lead to the Red Sox, than got knocked out in the ALDS in 2005, 2006 and 2007 before failing to make the playoffs in Joe Girardi’s first year, 2008.
The 2009 Yankees had a new home (the new Yankee Stadium) and several new faces (most notably CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira). But players like Rivera, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada remained constants.
That postseason featured Rivera at his very best. He allowed one run in 16 innings as the Yankees beat the Twins, Angels and Phillies for their 27th World Series title.
There was one more tough moment for Rivera to overcome. While shagging fly balls in Kansas City in May, 2012, Rivera tore his ACL, ending his season and potentially his career.
But Rivera would not let his career end that way. Instead, it ended the way it should.
Rivera had a 2.11 ERA and 44 saves at age 43 in 2013. Though he didn’t get another crack at October, he pitched like it was all season. He was dominant to the very end.
There was one last cool moment. In Rivera’s final game, Joe Girardi had Jeter and Andy Pettitte go to the mound to pull Rivera. “It’s time to go,” Jeter said, and the normally unflappable Rivera started to cry as he hugged his teammates.
And then he walked off the mound. The crowd cheered. Just as if it was October.
|Most Career Postseason Saves