He rode into the American League Championship Series, which had begun without him an hour earlier, in the back of a blue Cadillac with police cruisers providing an escort. ¬∂ "Want me to put the game on?" the driver asked. ¬∂ "No," Mariano Rivera replied. ¬∂ The New York Yankees' closer stared out the window, and though it was New Jersey on the other side of the smoked glass, he still saw Panama and the two cherrywood coffins that had been lowered into the ground of his homeland just hours before. On Oct. 9 a 14year-old boy, Victor Avila Jr., had been electrocuted in the pool at Rivera's house in Puerto Caimito, and when the boy's father dived in to try to rescue his son, he, too, had perished. They were cousins of Rivera's wife, Clara. Three days later Rivera wept for the father and the son at a funeral mass in a church the pitcher had built. He attended their burial and then flew five hours, alone with his prayers, on a private G-4 jet to New Jersey as the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox renewed their little rivalry with a spot in the World Series at stake. ¬∂ "You sure?" the driver asked. ¬∂ "Oh, O.K. Go ahead," Rivera said, and he listened to the ball game silently on the 15-minute drive to Yankee Stadium. ¬∂ So began a harsh week of October baseball that would test Rivera's stamina and his faith. The Yankees may have assembled a modern-day Murderers' Row of a lineup, and the baseball postseason may look strikingly like home run derby this year, but the ALCS proved that the fulcrum of the Yankees' October is the same as it has been for eight years. It is their closer, Rivera.
In the first five games against Boston, New York manager Joe Torre summoned Rivera four times in the eighth inning to lock down leads. Rivera succeeded twice within the 48 hours after burying the Avilas, giving him a win or a save in 40 of the Yankees' 60 postseason victories since he became their finisher in 1997. But on the third and fourth tries, once with the Yankees three outs from the World Series and then six outs from advancing, Rivera let the leads slip away.
A sweep? Yeah, right. Yankees--Red Sox is never neat and clean. The rivalry is guaranteed magma, smoldering and always on the verge of eruption, whether the great Rivera is on hand or not. New York had been 53--3 under Torre when it had a lead with six or fewer outs to go in the postseason until Boston stole Games 4 and 5. Each of those games ended with a swing of the bat from DH David Ortiz. After the Red Sox tied Game 4 against Rivera in the ninth, Ortiz won it with a two-run, 12th-inning homer off Paul Quantrill at the ridiculously late hour of 1:22 a.m. EDT on Monday. "It's all right," a weary Rivera remarked after the 6--4 defeat. "Hey, it's one game. We've got another one tomorrow.... Actually, today."
And then Ortiz did it again in Game 5, the ultimate Boston marathon, this time with a walk-off single to bring home Johnny Damon from second in the 14th inning for a 5--4 win. Never before in franchise history had the Yankees lost consecutive extra-inning postseason games, and in each case their touchstone of a closer left wounded.
For three consecutive evenings in Boston, the ancient rivals played deep into the night, each game longer and more excruciating than the one before: four hours 20 minutes; five hours, two minutes; and--in the longest postseason game ever played--five hours, 49 minutes on Monday night. The two teams combined for 15 hours, 11 minutes of baseball played to exhaustion and exhilaration before three packed houses at Fenway Park.
Let down by a thin bullpen, Torre brought in Rivera in Game 5 with runners at first and third, no outs and ahead 4--3, a lead already narrowed at the outset of the inning by an Ortiz home run off wobbly setup man Tom Gordon. Rivera immediately got an out, but at the expense of a run, as Jason Varitek flied deep enough to centerfield to bring home the tying run. It was the third blown save of this postseason for Rivera, a man who had blown only two in 32 previous postseason chances.
A game Rivera gave Torre a shutout inning thereafter, finally leaving after throwing 62 pitches over consecutive nights. The Yankees would lose yet another war of attrition, this time with Esteban Loaiza, their seventh pitcher, surrendering the deciding hit. The Red Sox, who birthed the Impossible Dream season of 1967, kept hope alive to complete Mission Impossible of 2004: coming back from a three-games-to-none deficit to win a seven-game series. Baseball teams in such a hole were 0--25 alltime, while pro basketball and hockey teams so challenged were 2--236.
At the rate the Red Sox and the Yankees beat up on one another in the ALCS (they ranked one-two in runs, respectively, in the league this season) while the St. Louis Cardinals and the Houston Astros went at it with almost as much gusto in the National League Championship Series (they ranked first and sixth in runs, respectively, in the league), the World Series figures to be a shootout reminiscent of the one in 1993. That year the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies combined for 81 runs in six games, and one fan was moved to hoist a sign that read will pitch middle relief for food. All four LCS teams this year featured deep lineups with quick-strike capability but disproportionately thin pitching staffs.
the national league Championship Series, for instance, seemed to be a glorified game of HORSE between Carlos Beltran of the Astros and Albert Pujols of the Cardinals (page 48). With a 3--0 victory in Houston on Monday night, the Astros took a three-games-to-two lead into Wednesday's Game 6.
The 10 LCS games through Monday featured a total of 33 home runs. The rate of 3.3 dingers per game was 50% higher than the regular-season rate of 2.2. So much for pitching and defense in October.
No lead was safe, starting with the 8--0 advantage that New York took over Boston in Game 1 while starter Mike Mussina was throwing a perfect game one out into the seventh inning. In a New York minute--well, before the Yankees could get five more outs, anyway--the Sox had the tying run at third base and Kevin Millar at the plate. That's when Torre summoned the heartsick Rivera, who had spent most of the plane ride from Panama that day in deep prayer. "Give me the strength to go through it," Rivera prayed, "and watch over me and keep me safe."
Rivera is a deeply religious man who traces his piety to 1994, when his wife was hospitalized to have her gall bladder removed, leaving Rivera alone with the couple's then six-month-old baby, also named Mariano. Rivera says that many friends provided care for the baby while he attended to Clara. "Out of nowhere I have more people than my whole family," Rivera says. "That was provided by the Lord."
Rivera arrived at Yankee Stadium in the second inning of Game 1--he found his locker surrounded by floral arrangements sent by sympathetic fans--and joined his bullpen mates in the fifth. Three innings later, with his fourth pitch, he retired Millar on a pop-up. New York tacked on a pair of insurance runs to win 10--7.
Rivera answered a similar alarm the next night in the eighth inning; he preserved Jon Lieber's 3--1 win by striking out Johnny Damon with a runner on third, then set down Boston in the ninth. Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez said of Rivera afterward, "It's Jordanesque, what he's doing. He's one of the most impressive people I've known in or out of baseball. When I think about what he's done over the past 48 hours, it puts him on an even higher pedestal. And I didn't think that was possible."
rivera's heroics came amid the usual disdain and wariness that mark any meeting of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Boston manager Terry Francona, for instance, argued one inning into the series that New York was violating major league rules by getting hand signals from a radar-gun-toting employee in the stands indicating the speed of the pitches of Red Sox starter Curt Schilling, who left the game after three innings with a balky right ankle. (Baseball vice president Sandy Alderson, seated next to the man in question, denied that such activity had taken place.) Meanwhile, a Yankees official noticed on a television monitor that Boston relief pitcher Curt Leskanic was illegally wiping pine tar on his hands just before entering the game. "We'll just keep it in our pocket for now," the official said.
Devoid of such subterfuge, last Saturday's Game 3 at Fenway was nothing but blunt proof of the Yankees' might. The last thing the Red Sox saw before they left their clubhouse that evening was a handwritten message on the whiteboard attached to the door: we can make history! believe it! They did, all right: They allowed more total bases (44) than any other team in postseason history. "They just basically annihilated us," Varitek said of the 19--8 drubbing.
New York set a franchise record this season with 242 home runs, two more than its fabled '61 team. These Yankees, however, became an especially potent offensive team when Torre moved Rodriguez from third to second in the lineup, behind leadoff hitter Derek Jeter. Through Monday the Yankees had averaged 6.6 runs per game with A-Rod hitting second, up from 5.4 when he wasn't.
Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams (the 2-3-4-5 hitters) combined for 16 hits and 15 RBIs in Game 3. Matsui tied postseason records with five hits and five runs, and by the sixth inning of Game 4 would have the record for extra-base hits (eight) to himself. Until Matsui whiffed in the ninth inning, the Red Sox had thrown 66 pitches to him in the series, and he had swung at and missed only one. "No matter where it's pitched, he's putting a good swing on it," Boston general manager Theo Epstein said before Game 4. "We've got to find a way to get him out. Their 2-3-4 hitters are having unbelievable at bats."
The Red Sox did shut down the Yankees' 2-3-4-5 hitters in Game 4: They were 4 for 21, including nine hitless at bats against the Boston bullpen after New York had taken a 4--3 lead into the seventh.
The Yankees were three outs from the World Series when Rivera walked Millar, the leadoff man in the ninth. Pinch runner Dave Roberts stole second base, then scored on a single by Bill Mueller after Mueller had shown bunt on the first two pitches. "I definitely thought he was bunting [on the third pitch]," Rivera said. "But I walked the first guy. That was the key."
Three innings later, when the last of the 11 pitchers used in the game threw the last of the 394 pitches in the last of the 302 minutes elapsed, Ortiz won it. Ortiz, who had ended Boston's Division Series sweep of the Anaheim Angels with a home run, became the first player with two walk-off homers in the same postseason. And the Red Sox became the first team since the 1910 Chicago Cubs to stave off a four-game sweep with an extra-inning win.
The Red Sox had extended the series even though, through four games, they had kept the Yankees off base in only four of the 37 innings they'd played and their pitchers had faced a total of four batters while holding a lead. It has been that kind of October, an October flush with offense. It is the time of year that tests even the greatest of pitchers, body and soul.