Friday, October 13, 2000

Yankees' Sultan of Saves


Rivera all but perfect in postseason

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        NEW YORK — Mariano Rivera is not a machine. He only works that way.

        The New York Yankees' bullpen closer is an economy of motion and a surplus of saves. He delivers the ball with the fewest moving parts of any pitcher in baseball and he delivers the goods more dependably than the post office.

        If this is the last stand for these Yankees, Rivera is the reassuring thought that the cavalry is coming. If his creaky teammates can hold the fort long enough, Rivera can be counted on to save it.

        “You never want to say a guy is unhittable, because there's never been a pitcher alive who's been unhittabe,” said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. “But Mo's unhittable this time of year.”

        The Panamanian pitcher stretched his postseason scoreless streak to 22 straight appearances in closing Wednesday's 7-1 Yankee victory in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series against Seattle. He has not allowed a postseason run in 31 innings, only 1 innings short of Whitey Ford's Major-League record.

        “I don't think about (statistics),” Rivera said. “It just happens.”

        It just happens to be three years since Rivera last allowed a postseason run. His career playoff ERA is 0.35.

        “Everybody talks about how the Yankees aren't what they were,” Oakland slugger Jason Giambi said during the American League Division Series. “I don't know about that, but I know that guy's the same. He's just nasty.”

        He doesn't look the part. Though closers come in a variety of packages, the great ones generally cultivate an intimidating appearance or a trick pitch. Rivera has neither. Unlike the mustachioed Rollie Fingers or the hulking Goose Gossage, the slightly built Rivera could probably pass for a clubhouse attendant. Unlike Bruce Sutter or Hoyt Wilhelm, his repertoire is based almost exclusively on variations on the fastball.

        Rivera is a right-handed pitcher who dominates left-handed hitters with a cut fastball that runs in on the hands so hard that it could double as a fingernail file. Broadcaster Tim McCarver says Rivera is the one pitcher who deserves a bat contract because he breaks so many of them that hitters must regularly reorder. The Yankees were sufficiently impressed with Rivera that they decided John Wetteland was expendable despite his Most Valuable Player performance in the 1996 World Series. When Wetteland signed with the Texas Rangers, Rivera graduated from setup man to closer.

        For the most part, it has been a seamless transition. The most lasting blot on Rivera's reputation was the home run he allowed to Cleveland's Sandy Alomar Jr. during the 1997 American League Division Series. With the Indians four outs away from elimination, Alomar's home run tied the game and turned the series. Relievers always talk about being conditioned to put their bad days behind them, but some games leave scars.

        “You have two ways to go at that point in time,” said Yankees manager Joe Torre. “Either you don't think you can do the job as a closer, or you're just going to take it the way (Dennis) Eckersley took the home run by Kirk Gibson (in the 1988 World Series) and just move on.”

        Mariano Rivera has moved on to a pretty high plateau.

        “You always knew that you had to hit the Yankees with a knockout punch early, then keep pouring it on,” said David Justice, the former Indian who is now Rivera's teammate. “Because you knew that if they had the lead, and it was anywhere close to the ninth inning, you were done. The guy ain't perfect. But he's pretty damn close.”

        E-mail: tsullivan@enquirer.com.

Mets 6, Cardinals 5



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