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The Strike Zone

Mariano Rivera's unprecedented struggle overshadows Yankees' dramatic win

Mariano Rivera seemed nearly invincible this season until a recent string of blown save chances.Mariano Rivera seemed nearly invincible this season until a recent string of blown save chances. (Kathy Willens/AP)

Such is the greatness of Mariano Rivera that his rare failures only further underscore his superlative career. On Sunday, the 43-year-old Yankees closer blew his third straight save opportunity, something he had never done before during his 19-year major league career. As he did on Friday night with a game-winning single in the 10th inning, Brett Gardner picked up Rivera, this time hitting a walkoff home run off the Tigers' Jose Veras in the bottom of the ninth.

Until this past week, Rivera had been humming along, rebounding from last year's torn anterior cruciate ligament to convert 35 out of 37 save opportunities with a 1.56 ERA and a 39/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 40 1/3 innings. Those numbers more or less approximated his 2008-2012 performance (1.72 ERA, 8.8 K/9, 6/7 K/BB ratio) in spite of his advanced age and his intention to retire at the end of the year. They're business as usual.

The hiccups started on Wednesday night, during the finale of the Yankees' three-game series against the White Sox in Chicago. On to protect a 4-3 lead in the ninth inning, Rivera got two quick outs on a total of five pitches, then yielded a double to Gordon Beckham and a single to Adam Dunn. He preserved the tie by striking out Casper Wells, then came back and threw a scoreless tenth inning, the first time he'd worked two full innings since June 16,  2011 against the Rangers; alas, the Yankees lost in 12 innings.

On Friday night against the Tigers, Rivera came on to protect a 3-1 lead and sandwiched a pair of outs around an Austin Jackson double. He got ahead of Miguel Cabrera 0-2, as the slugger hobbling himself by fouling a pair of balls off his left leg, but Cabrera recovered to belt a 427-foot homer to centerfield that stunned the crowd of 46,545. Even that was just the ninth time in his career — and first time since April 2011 — that Rivera had blown back-to-back-saves. Rivera put runners on first and second before escaping; the Yankees won in the 10th when Al Alburquerque yielded two walks (one intentional) and a single before surrendering a two-out, walkoff single to Gardner.

On Sunday, Rivera entered the ninth inning with a larger margin for error via a 4-2 lead, a relief given that the first batter he faced was Cabrera. After battling to 2-2, he grooved one that Cabrera pounded 395 feet to rightfield for his third homer in the three-game series and his 36th of the year, trimming the gap to one. Remarkably, that marked the first time in Rivera's career that any hitter had connected for homers in consecutive at-bats against him, and all it took was a Triple Crown winner having an even better follow-up season.

Furthermore, Cabrera became just the fifth player ever to connect for multiple home runs off Rivera. Aubrey Huff, Evan Longoria, Edgar Martinez and Rafael Palmeiro are the others, and all have just two.

Yes, two. Repeating that for emphasis: in 19 years, five players have hit two homers against Rivera. Nobody has hit three.

Alas, Rivera was not done battling his gopher problem following Cabrera's homer. After getting Prince Fielder to line out, he served up a 376-foot homer to Victor Martinez, tying the score at 4-4 and shocking the crowd of 42,439. He managed to get the final two outs without incident. Tigers manager Jim Leyland called upon the recently acquired Veras to face the bottom of the Yankee lineup. Veras retired Eduardo Nunez on a liner and struck out pinch-hitter Vernon Wells before surrendering a 393-foot homer to Gardner, just his eighth of the year, and the first walkoff homer of his career:

[mlbvideo id="29624533" width="600" height="360" /]

Gardner's homer, which accompanied solo shots by Alex Rodriguez (his first since returning to action and his 648th of his career) and Alfonso Soriano (his 20th of the season and the 2,000th hit of his career) off Justin Verlander, clinched the series win for the Yankees (59-57). It's the first series they've won outright since they took two out of three from the Orioles from July 5-7. Since then, they've gone just 11-18 while dropping five series and splitting three. In doing so, they've fallen five games in the AL East standings, to 10 back, and slipped from half a game ahead for the second wild-card slot to seven games behind. Even with their lineup reinforced by the trade for Soriano and the returns of Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and (fleetingly) Derek Jeter from injuries, they came into Sunday with just a 2.0 percent chance at making the playoffs according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds.

As for Rivera, his slide is just the ninth time in his career as a reliever that he's been scored upon in three straight games. Such a rare stretch is bound to set off another What's Wrong With Mariano Week (WWWMW) among fans and pundits, a rite of summer that dates back to at least 2004, when the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog coined the phrase. No matter how short a slump or how rare Rivera's failures may be, any clustering of them tends to a frenzy of overanalysis that leads to the panicked conclusion: This must be the beginning of the end.

This time it's different, in that there's no doubt the end has already begun. Back in March, Rivera announced that this would be his final season, and he has spent the past several weeks making a farewell tour around the majors, complete with tributes and gifts from opposing teams at every last stop on his itinerary.

Despite struggles that have pushed his ERA to 2.44 and his home run rate just above 1.0 per nine (double his career rate), Rivera's not likely to lose his job as closer, or to play out the string as the second coming of Armando Benitez. If anything, this rough stretch will give him yet another opportunity to display the famous resiliency that has helped him bounce back from even bigger defeats and challenges with grace. He has 643 regular season and 42 postseason saves to his credit, and he figures to notch a few more before he's done.
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