With the Yankees' elimination from playoff contention, Thursday night will mark the final home game of Mariano Rivera's stellar career. In honor of that , and in recognition of his ownership of the ninth inning, what follows is my choice for his top nine moments at Yankee Stadium, listed in chronological order.
1. Oct. 4, 1995: Rivera's epic postseason debut
As a rookie, the 25-year-old Rivera spent the first three-quarters of his season bouncing between the rotation -- where he was knocked around for a 5.94 ERA in 10 starts -- and Triple-A Columbus. Not until September did he move to the bullpen for good, but when he did, he began to win New York manager Buck Showalter's trust.
Rivera's introduction to the postseason -- which he would eventually come to dominate as no other pitcher had before -- came in the top of the 12th inning of Game 2 of the Division Series against the Mariners. He took over for a spent John Wetteland, who had pitched 3 1/3 innings of scoreless ball until serving up a tiebreaking solo homer to Ken Griffey Jr., and then a single to Edgar Martinez. Rivera struck out Jay Buhner to end the frame, then stayed on after the Yankees tied the score at 5-5 in the bottom of the 12th. He retired the first eight hitters he faced before Martinez and Buhner singled with one out in the 15th. Rivera responded by whiffing Doug Strange and getting future teammate Tino Martinez on a flyball. Jim Leyritz won the game with a solo homer in the bottom of the 15th, giving the Yankees a 2-0 series lead -- one that alas, they would not hold.
2. Oct. 26, 1996: Rivera sets up a World Series clincher
Under new manager Joe Torre, Rivera became entrenched as the Yankees' setup man in front of Wetteland, throwing 107 2/3 innings with a 2.09 ERA while striking out 130. He was so good that season that he placed third in the AL Cy Young voting behind the Blue Jays' Pat Hentgen and teammate Andy Pettitte.
In the postseason, Rivera threw more than one inning in seven of his eight appearances. The last came in Game 6 of the World Series against the Braves. Starter Jimmy Key wobbled through 5 1/3 innings and left with a 3-1 lead that David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd protected by each collecting an out in the sixth, leaving New York nine outs away from its first championship since 1978.
After issuing a four-pitch leadoff walk to Terry Pendleton, Rivera got six of those outs, the last three of which came against the fearsome middle of the Atlanta order: Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and Javy Lopez. He struck out the latter, and while Wetteland allowed a run in the ninth to tighten the game, the Yankees were soon champions, and Wade Boggs was soon riding a horse in celebration.
3. Oct. 27, 1999: Rivera sweeps out the Braves
Rivera had already notched a save and a win as the Yankees built up a 3-0 series lead on the Braves and sent this not-yet-intrepid scribe to the Bronx with a chance of attending a World Series clincher.
In pursuit of his first championship ring, Roger Clemens threw 7 2/3 innings of scoreless ball, though reliever Jeff Nelson allowed his inherited runner to score to narrow the lead to 3-1. With the upper deck of the stadium literally beginning to shake in anticipation of another championship, Rivera came on to retire Jones and end the eighth, Leyritz hit an insurance homer, and number 42 returned to mow down Atlanta in order in the ninth, finishing the job via a Keith Lockhart flyball to leftfielder Chad Curtis. To this day, it's still the only championship clincher I've had the privilege to attend and the only time Rivera was named World Series MVP.
4. Oct. 16, 2003: Rivera empties the tank against the Red Sox
In an American League Championship Series Game 7 for the ages, the Yankees survived Clemens' infamous early implosion, clawing their way back from a three-run deficit to tie the score at 5-5 in the eighth after Grady Little left Pedro Martinez in for too long.
The indomitable Rivera came on in the top of the ninth and retired nine of the 11 hitters he faced, throwing 48 pitches, stranding men on second base in both the ninth and the 10th innings and ending a 1-2-3 11th with a strikeout of Doug Mirabelli. When Aaron Boone hammered Tim Wakefield's first pitch for a solo homer in the bottom of the 11th, the Yankees were American League champions. The sight of a spent Rivera kneeling on the mound in thanks and exhaustion —before Boone had even finished rounding the bases -- remains one of the most indelible images of his career. He was named ALCS MVP.
5. July 15, 2008: Rivera's All-Star appearance at Yankee Stadium
Rivera had already appeared in eight of the previous 11 All-Star Games by the time Major League Baseball held one in the Bronx to recognize the closing of the remodeled Yankee Stadium. To incredible fanfare and, of course, to Metallica's Enter Sandman, he entered a 3-3 tie with one out and a man on first in the top of the ninth inning in relief of the Angels' Francisco Rodriguez. Rivera induced Ryan Ludwick to ground into an inning-ending double play, and pitched a scoreless 10th despite allowing two hits after getting another DP from Dan Uggla. The AL ultimately prevailed in 15 innings.
6. Sept. 21, 2008: Rivera closes down Yankee Stadium
New York had not yet been mathematically eliminated from playoff contention when its final game at the remodeled House That Ruth Built came up on the calendar. In typical fashion, the organization pulled out all the stops to celebrate the end of the old stadium, inviting back more than 20 Yankees legends -- Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Reggie Jackson and more -- who donned the pinstripes and took their old positions on the field during a pregame ceremony. Julia Ruth Stevnes, the daughter of Babe Ruth himself, threw out the first pitch.
With manager Joe Girardi describing the pressure to win as akin to Game 7 of the World Series, the Yankees built up a 7-3 lead on the Orioles. Though it wasn't a save situtation, Rivera came on to work the ninth and shut the door in signature fashion, using just 11 pitches to dispatch Jay Payton, Luke Scott and Brian Roberts, all on ground balls. Check out this fan-shot video of the ninth:
7. Nov. 4, 2009: Rivera clinches a fifth championship
With big-money free agents CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Texieira joining the "Core Four" of Derek Jeter, Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Rivera, the Yankees marched back to the World Series for the first time since 2003. Facing the defending world champion Phillies, they carried a 3-games-to-2 lead back to the Bronx for Game 6.
Once there, Hideki Matsui piled up six RBIs and helped to chase Pedro Martinez early as New York built a 7-3 lead. Girardi began counting down the outs once he pulled a flagging Pettitte — pitching on three days' rest — with two outs in the sixth. Joba Chamberlain got three of them. Damaso Marte got two more. Rivera came on with one out in the eighth. Though he allowed a two-out double to Raul Ibanez and issued a one-out walk to Carlos Ruiz in the ninth, he remained in control of the game, and retired Shane Victorino for the final out, giving the Yankees their 27th world championship.
Of the eight teams that entered the postseason that fall, seven closers faltered at least once when the chips were down, making mistakes that proved fatal to their team's title hopes. Rivera, who allowed just one run in 16 postseason innings while converting all five of his save opportunities, was both literally and figuratively the last man standing in closing out a World Series for the fourth time.
8. Sept. 19, 2011: Rivera sets the all-time saves record
Trevor Hoffman became the first reliever to tally 600 saves and finished his career in 2010 with 601. Rivera ended that season with 559 himself, and followed that up at age 41 with a typically excellent year. He got save number 600 in Seattle on Sept. 13, and tied Hoffman in Toronto on Sept. 17. Two days later, he came on to protect a 6-4 lead in the ninth inning of a Monday afternoon makeup game against the Twins in the Bronx. He set down Trevor Plouffe, Michael Cuddyer and Chris Parmalee in order, catching the latter looking at an 0-2 cutter and then was mobbed by his teammates for a round of congratulatory hugs.
Rivera left the field for a moment, but at the insistence of his teammates, returned to the mound by himself to bask in a lengthy ovation from a sparse but spirited crowd that was nowhere near the paid attendance of 40,000-plus.
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9. Sept. 22, 2013: The Yankees retire Rivera's number
Even with their playoff hopes dwindling, the Yankees paid tribute to Rivera prior to their Sunday afternoon game against the Giants. In addition to inviting a handful of key teammates from different times in his career (David Cone, Tino Martinez, Nelson, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams) they brought in Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, and daughter, Sharon, for a special ceremony in which they retired number 42 — Jackie's number. Forty-two had been retired throughout the majors in 1997, but players who were wearing it at the time were allowed to keep it, the last of whom in 2013 was Rivera. Metallica showed up to play Enter Sandman in person, and Rivera was given several gifts, including an electric guitar (presented by former Yankees players and current Giants coaches Roberto Kelly, Joe LeFebvre, Hensley Meulens and Dave Righetti), an amplifier (presented by Metallica) and a rocking chair.
Fittingly, the also-retiring Pettitte was the starter at Yankee Stadium for the last time. He took a no-hitter into the sixth, but by the time Rivera came on with one out in the eighth, the Yankees were down 2-1 and in a jam with a man on second. Rivera got two quick outs, but could only watch as two of his teammates were thrown out at the plate in attempting to tie the game in the bottom half. Rivera pitched a scoreless ninth, but New York lost 2-1.
Obviously, there were so many more memorable moments from Rivera's 19-year career, not all of which were positive. The striking thing, though, is that his lowest ones -- Sandy Alomar's home run in the 1997 ALDS, Luis Gonzalez's game-winning single in the 2001 World Series, his blown save against Boston in the 2004 ALCS, his torn ACL last year -- all came at other ballparks.
Even more striking than the incredible numbers he put up in establishing his legacy as both the greatest closer of all time and (arguably) the greatest postseason performer of all time, was his resiliency. Rivera always bounced back from those stinging disappointments and lesser adversities — the annual What's Wrong With Mariano Weeks — and continued to excel. The Yankees will go on to have other closers, perhaps even great ones, but they will never find one who will do it with the signature grace, humility and resiliency of Rivera.