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MARIANO SAVES

Oct. 05, 2009
Oct. 05, 2009

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Oct. 5, 2009

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MARIANO SAVES

As the gates swing open upon another October, baseball will once again attempt to divine one of the game's great mysteries: how a man, closing fast on 40 and armed with but a single pitch, continues to dominate in the clutch like no other player

GOD TOUCHEDMARIANO RIVERA ONE JUNE AFTERNOON IN 1997, AND RIVERA SHRUGGED.

This is an article from the Oct. 5, 2009 issue

Just three monthsinto his new role as the closer for a budding Yankees dynasty, Rivera wassuddenly unable to throw his signature four-seam fastball straight, not evenduring his daily toss with pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. Every catch a struggle,Mendoza told Rivera to knock it off, to quit making the ball dip and dart.Rivera assured his friend that he wasn't doing it intentionally. He wasgripping the ball the same way he always had, releasing it the same way healways had. The wicked movement just ... happened.

And continued tohappen while Rivera warmed up one late-June night in the bullpen at TigerStadium. The baseball, as if defaced, would not fly straight. New York bullpencatcher Mike Borzello had never seen Rivera throw like this before, and it madehim nervous. "In the old Detroit stadium the bullpen was on the field,"says Borzello, now the Dodgers' bullpen catcher. "So if you missed theball, they would have to stop the game. And there's nothing more embarrassingthan that. He started throwing these cutters. Immediately I checked the ball.Is the ball scuffed? What is going on here?

"When a guyis throwing 95 and the ball is cutting the last few feet before it gets to you,believe me, you never forget something like that. I was like, What are youdoing?"

Rivera didn'thave an explanation, and though he says he "didn't have any idea where theball was going," his results did not suffer. He got the save in that game,then in the next three. Still, for a month, he worked with Borzello andpitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to eliminate the cutting action. "We weretrying to make the pitch stay straighter, [as it had] in '95 and '96,"Rivera says, referring to his first two seasons in the big leagues, "but itdidn't work. Then I said, 'I'm tired of working at this. Let's let it happen.'And since that day we didn't try to straighten it out anymore."

He smiles."And the rest is history."

Another night,another city (this time Baltimore), another game, another batting practice, andRivera, three months shy of 40th birthday, 13 years into closing games for theYankees—which, given the intensity of the job and the demands of the franchise,is the game's equivalent of spending 13 years sweeping minefields—smiled at thevery familiarity of it all.

"Nothingchanges," he says, not as a complaint but rather in joyful praise of thisfamiliar baseball life. "This? Batting practice? I love it. I get a chanceto shag."

Sameness hasdefined Rivera's career. The same dancer's body, loose-limbed, angular andtrim. The same regal face with the high prominent cheekbones, the wide browneyes and the row of pearl-white teeth, as aligned and polished as midshipmen atmorning inspection. The same perfect delivery, in which simplicity begetsbeauty.

And, of course,the same pitch. Over and over and over.

Rivera now has anexplanation for what happened to him in 1997. The cut fastball was a gift fromGod. The surest thing in baseball is sure of this. "Ohhhhh, yeah," hesays, nodding atop the steps of the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards. "Athousand percent. A thousand percent sure. Just a gift from the Lord."

The blessed rightarm has become the Hammer of God, largely on the strength of that one pitch,its impact most resoundingly felt in October. In 1171/3 career postseasoninnings Rivera has allowed but 10 earned runs; his 0.77 ERA is the lowest amongall pitchers with at least 30 innings. He is the only man in history to get thelast out of the World Series three times. No one is close to his record 34postseason saves. And while most closers are three-out specialists, Rivera evendoes his own setup work. Since 1998 he has 26 postseason saves of at least fourouts. The rest of baseball combined has 33 such saves during that period, andno pitcher has more than four.

"Without Mo,I don't think we win four world championships," Yankees catcher JorgePosada says, referring to the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 titles under managerJoe Torre. "Maybe we run into two; 2000, I know we don't win that one.You've got a guy you can use for two innings, having days off, not knowingwhat's going to happen tomorrow. Throw him in the eighth, and he'll get you sixouts."

Says Torre,"Let's face it. The regular season for Mo is great, but that's the cupcakesand the ice cream. What separates him from everybody else is what he's done inthe postseason."

Rivera is boththe sine qua non of New York's dynasty and the franchise's hope to return toglory. Next week, the Hammer of God returns to October for the 14th time. Afterfailing to reach the playoffs last year for the first time since 1993, theYankees have the best record in baseball, the most home runs, thehighest-scoring lineup, and the highest-paid catcher, first baseman, shortstop,third baseman, starting pitcher and, yes, reliever. Amid such riches Rivera maybe the most valuable asset of all: an unbreakable closer who is as reliable asever.

"To meOctober is what we do in spring training; October is what we do inFebruary," Rivera says. "We don't do all that preparation and all thatteamwork and all that running for the season. I don't just think regularseason. I think playoffs. World Series. That's how I think."

Rivera entersOctober at the top of his game. At 28, he was undefeated in 54 games. A yearlater, he had more saves than hits allowed and went unscored upon over hisfinal 36 games, eight of them in the postseason. At 34, he had a career-high 53saves. At 38, he set career bests for WHIP and strikeout-to-walk rate, missinghis season best for ERA by .02 of a run. This year, at 39, he set a personalrecord with 36 consecutive converted save chances and, at week's end, hadallowed three earned runs since June 16, a 38-game span in which hitters havebatted .153 against him. He has been successful in 83 of 86 save opportunitiesat ages 38 and 39.

"The numbersmake it seem like I'm having my best years late in my career," Rivera says."But I don't feel that. I feel good; don't get me wrong. I know my fastballisn't what it was 15 years ago. But it's still good. It would be hard for me tosay that I'm having my best years now. I know what the numbers say, but as apitcher I don't believe it."

Rivera is ontrack for a second sub-2.00 ERA season since turning 38. Among pitchers whohave thrown at least 70 innings, only Cy Young and Hoyt Wilhelm have pulled offsuch a trick. This would be Rivera's ninth sub-2.00 season. Such prosperitywould be remarkable under any circumstance, but it is especially extraordinarybecause it has been built on a single pitch. The one that Rivera—well, hiscoaches, really—initially resisted has become the signature pitch of hisgeneration, much like Hubbell's screwball, Koufax's curve, Ryan's fastball andSutter's splitter. Even in that elite company Rivera's cutter stands out. Thosepitches were enhanced by secondary weapons in the pitcher's arsenal, somethingwith different spin and velocity. Rivera works without such a complement. Hethrows his cutter 92% of the time; otherwise, he uses the pitch's fraternaltwin, a two-seam fastball, which he throws with the same velocity (usually 91or 92 mph, down several ticks from his prime).

Think about that.Deception, accomplished through the power of choice, is a pillar of pitching.Rivera's approach is so elemental that Posada often doesn't even bother givinghim a sign. "I'll just go like this," Posada says, waving both handstoward his body, "like, Let's go. Bring it on."

"You knowwhat's coming," former Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney oncesaid, "but you know what's coming in horror movies too. It still getsyou."

Every Riverapitch unspools the same way: with a flat wrist, his hand behind the ball andhis fingers on top of it. Rivera has pitched so well over so many years withoutturning his wrist to impart spin. "Since I came to the big leagues? No,never," he says of turning his wrist, something pitchers must do forsliders, breaking balls and changeups. "I never want to do that. That'swhen I get around the ball [by mistake]. I correct it right away."

And this tooremains constant: the demeanor. The son of a Panamanian fisherman, the fatherof three, Rivera has the countenance of a benevolent king; baseball royaltywithout the arrogance. Clean-shaven, soft-spoken, unhurried, understated andhumble, he is an organic closer, free of the add-ons and posing and histrionicsthat so many others have needed or manufactured to deal with the stress of thejob. "And he's even so darn handsome, with those teeth and that smile,"says Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. "Really, we all look up to him, andthe way he keeps going, he's making it hard on me to break his records. I havetremendous respect for what he has done for this long, especially because doingit under the daily pressure in New York or Boston is like nothing else inbaseball."

"I haverespect for Mariano like I have for my father," says Boston designatedhitter David Ortiz. "Why? He's just different. If you talk to him at anAll-Star Game, it's like talking to somebody who just got called up. To him,everybody else is good. I don't get it. To him everybody else is the best. It'sunbelievable. And he is the greatest.

"You knowwhat? Sometimes in those times when he struggles, like when I watch him on TV,I feel bad for him. I seriously do. Good people, you want to do well."

Told of thisrespect from his peers, especially from within the enemy clubhouse in Boston,Rivera is grateful, if slightly uncomfortable. "I don't wait for people togive me respect," Rivera says. "I always give them respect. Any player.Even a rookie, an old player, a veteran. I never try to show up anybody. I goto my business. I always take time for somebody who wants to talk to me. That'smy thing.

"It comesfrom back home. Family. My father was strict and always taught me no matter whoit is, everybody is an uncle. To me, everybody was someone I respect likefamily. I grew up with that."

One day thissummer Chad Gaudin, a Yankees pitcher working for his sixth organization, tooka seat next to Rivera in the bullpen. The scene wasn't too different from oneof those New Yorker cartoon drawings in which a man, having climbed some greatpeak, asks a serene guru a metaphysical question. How, at a time when mostpitchers fail, are you able to continually succeed in clutch situations?

Rivera's answer:The secret is not so much confidence as focus. "Nothing derails him,"Gaudin says. "No emotions get in the way. Ever. He is able to take all thatenergy of the moment and channel it into everything he has to do. Why doesn'teverybody do that? Not everybody has the power or self-discipline."

Says Borzello,"He never speeds up his routine. If the [bullpen] phone rings, he goesthrough his routine at a very relaxed pace. There is no panic. In bullpens yousee a lot of guys sprint to the mound, start firing pitches immediately, theycan't breathe.... Mo, from Day One was never like that. His thinking alwayswas, I'll control it."

During the 2001ALCS, Lou Piniella, then the Mariners' manager, accused Rivera of enjoying adifferent set of rules, of being allowed to throw three extra pitches in thebullpen after Torre summoned him. Rivera was merely sticking to his routine,controlling the moment. He gets to the bullpen in the sixth inning, beginsstretching in the seventh of close games, loosens his shoulder in the eighth bymaking circles with his right arm while holding a weighted ball, then beginsthrowing in earnest after three tosses with the bullpen catcher, making surethe mechanics of his delivery are tuned just right. "I make sure everythingis perfect, because I don't have time to do that here," he says, pointingto the mound on the field. "It's not time here to do that work. No. That'swhy you have the bullpen. Because here? It's time to get it done."

When Rivera isready, and only when he is ready, the bullpen door swings open for what, atYankee Stadium, remains one of the great entrances in sports: the first chordsof Metallica's Enter Sandman are, for an opponent, the sound of impending doomas Rivera, glove in his right hand, head bowed, jogs toward the mound in thatslightly pigeon-toed gait. At that moment, even when it comes amid the urgencyof October, Rivera is all cold blood.

"My mentalapproach is simple: Get three outs. As quick as possible," he says. "IfI can throw three, four pitches, the better it is. I don't care how I get youout. As long as I get you out. The quicker, the better. And that's the onlything I have in mind."

Rivera has onekey checkpoint in his delivery, which he calls "waiting for my arm." Heis referring to the moment that arrives naturally after a series of smooth,kinetic movements: the rhythmic rise of his left knee, the removal of the ballfrom his glove just after his left knee reaches its apex slightly north of hisbelt buckle, the alignment of his left shoulder toward his target for as longas possible, the leading with the front hip and the spinning forward of theback hip. Only then, after the left foot lands and his hips have rotated doeshis arm come around. Always, he is the unhurried man.

"He has greatbalance," says Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland. "His timing is justabout perfect, the way his lower body works with his upper body. You never seehim drift."

Rivera's abilityto repeat his delivery helps explain his extraordinary command. Hisphysiological advantages help explain the velocity and movement. Rivera hassuch a supple wrist and such long fingers that he can bend them back nearly tohis wrist. The long fingers impart tremendous spin rates on the baseball, andhis loose wrist snaps downward like a whip upon release. That snap, coupledwith full forward extension of the arm, yields what hitters call "latelife."

The biomechanicalefficiency of Rivera continues even after the ball leaves his hand. His arm andhand remain so loose that they dangle on the follow-through by his left side,like a pocket watch on a chain. Pitchers prone to injury tend to bring theirarms to an abrupt halt, like drivers slamming the brakes on a speeding car.Rivera, though, does not brake. He lets his arm dangle gently to a stop.

"Again,blessings," Rivera says when asked about his durability. "But one thingyou have to understand, and this is in life too. If you don't take care ofyourself, sooner or later it's going to catch up to you. Late nights, we haveenough late nights just playing games and traveling. That puts a lot of stresson your body. But if you don't take care of yourself—clubs and drinking and allof that stuff—well, it's going to be hard. And I don't do thosethings."

Facing MarianoRivera is like facing the IRS, players will tell you. The confrontation willkeep you up at night, and you're likely to come away the poorer for it.

"You knowwhen you come to New York, you're going to get Mariano," Rays outfielderGabe Gross was saying before a game last month. "It's not just before thegame. I start thinking about him on the plane ride up. I know he's therewaiting, and he'll be out there, and I will have to see him with the game onthe line. So I start getting ready for him. I start thinking, What am I goingto do to try to hit Mariano?"

On this night,the last plate appearance of the game for Gross plays out the same way ashundreds of other at bats against Rivera have played out all these years: acutter on the hands, a broken bat and a feeble pop-up to third base. Riveraalone is responsible for a small forest of destroyed wood, so much so thathitters have been known to use their batting practice bats against him ratherthan risking their gamers.

"I admit I'vethought about it," Gross says. "It's like when you have a long carryover water in golf. Do you drop that old ball in your bag or do you go aheadand hit the brand-new Titleist?"

If batters knowthe cutter is coming, why can't they hit it? First, Rivera throws enoughvariations of the cutter to keep hitters honest. He can throw the classiccutter on the hands of a lefty or he can start it off the plate and cut it backto the outside corner, known as the backdoor cutter. Further, by varying thepressure from his fingertips, he can vary how much the ball cuts. And finally,he almost never misses his intended spot.

"A lot oflefthanded hitters like the ball down and in," says Gross, who bats lefty,"and if the pitch is down there, you can just drop the head of the bat onit and square it up. But he makes sure to keep that cutter up just enough whereyou can't get to it. I've faced him, like, nine times. I may have two jam shotsthat eked over the infield for hits. I've come back to the dugout with only apiece of the bat left in my hands probably three times. I've struck out two orthree times. I hit one ball well. One."

The mostdastardly aspect of the pitch is that, like a teenager, the cutter startsmisbehaving just when it gets out of sight. A hitter cannot track a deliveryout of a pitcher's hand all the way to the point of contact; his eyes justcan't maintain their focus on something moving that fast toward him. A hitterswings for the point where he judges the ball will be, not where he last sawit. Rivera's cutter doesn't move until those last five feet when the hitter isno longer tracking it.

"His ball,the last time you see it, that's when it starts doing this—wffft!" Ortizsays, indicating the late movement. "You don't see it just when it startsto cut. You can make up your mind, O.K., when he starts to throw it inside,I've got to take it because it's going to finish in off the plate. But thereare times when he throws me pitches inside and I take them and the umpire callsit a strike because that one didn't have the big cut. That's when he's reallysharp, when he can control how much it cuts."

Lefthanders haveactually fared worse against Rivera (.206 batting average) than righthanders(.218) in his career. He has given up just one opposite-field home run to alefty in his career, and that was 14 years ago, in his precutter days. He hasnot allowed a home run on 2 and 0, a count normally heavily advantageous tohitters sitting on fastballs. And control? Until last week, when the Angels'Kendry Morales drew a free pass to begin the bottom of the ninth, Rivera hadn'twalked the leadoff man in the ninth with a one-run lead since 2005. He hasthrown three balls, never mind four, to only 14% of the hitters he hasfaced.

"I'veactually had a couple of guys tell me the approach they take against Mariano isnot to swing at all," Gross said. "They think more than 50 percent ofhis pitches are never in the strike zone. Those are the ones guys swing at andcan't hit. So some guys have told me they won't swing because they think he'snot going to throw you three pitches that are in the strike zone.

"Think aboutthat. If the game is on the line and you need a hit, do you stick with thatapproach? I don't know if I could. But against Mariano, some guys swear you'rebetter off not swinging at all."

Rivera's successwith the cutter has influenced an entire generation of pitchers, much as Sutterdid with his split-finger in the 1980s. The cutter has become wildly popular,with pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Danny Haren and Scott Feldmanamong the many who have added one in recent years. Rivera, in fact, showedHalladay how to deliver it when they were teammates at the 2003 All-StarGame.

"Everybodywants to throw it now, thanks to Mariano Rivera," Posada says. "RoyHalladay has his cutter now. Every time we have to face him, we go, 'Thanks,Mariano!'"

In the secretiveworld of baseball, where information has become increasingly proprietary,Rivera will gladly explain to anybody who asks him how to throw the cutter."I always do," he says. "I don't try to hide anything from anybody.It's not a secret. I have talked to a lot of players, National League andAmerican League."

Rivera tells themhe holds the cutter just like a four-seam fastball. The ball is positioned withthe seams forming a horseshoe shape with the closed end of the horseshoe facingto the right, or "outside" of the ball in the released position. Theindex and middle fingers are held perpendicular to the horizontal seams of thehorseshoe, with the thumb underneath the ball.

"To me,"Rivera says, "it's really a four-seam fastball with pressure on the middlefinger. I don't move my fingers. But at the end, it comes off [the middle]finger. I try to keep it on my finger as long as I can."

"But hethrows his four-seamer with two fingers together," Borzello adds."There is almost no space between his fingers. Nobody else I know throws abaseball that way."

One night inSeptember, after throwing a shutout inning to get the win in a walk-off Yankeesvictory, Rivera showered, changed into blue jeans and a T-shirt that readsanctify across the back, and left the clubhouse with his teenage son, MarianoJr., without a reporter even bothering to talk to him. (They did descend on hisclubhouse neighbor, Gaudin, the starter who had a no-decision.) Another night,10 days later, after yielding a walk-off home run to Ichiro Suzuki for hisfirst blown save since April 24, Rivera left the clubhouse happily licking achocolate ice cream cone. Win or lose, Rivera is the same.

"You'reseeing the greatest closer of all time," Posada says. "I don't careabout eras. There's nobody better. No one can even compare. His body doesn'tchange. He doesn't change. He's the same Mariano as he was as a setup man, as acloser, as a friend."

Posada has knownRivera since they attended the Yankees' Instructional League camp in Tampa in1991. Two springs later, Rivera, recuperating from right-elbow surgery, tookpart in conditioning work, including sprints, with the fastest prospects in thesystem. Rivera ran stride for stride with them. "You've seen him shaggingin centerfield?" Posada asks. "He's the best centerfielder we have. Anunbelievable athlete. He's probably gained four or five pounds since 1991. Hehas a little less hair. But he's the same person. It's unbelievable."

Out of camerarange Rivera is gregarious. He has become a mentor to Phil Hughes, the latestof many pitchers to serve as his eighth-inning liege. And he regularly needleshis teammates before games. If Derek Jeter is slumping, for instance, Riverawill walk by his locker, offer a look of disdain and say, "Jeet, are yougoing to get any hits today?" Then he'll walk away before Jeter canrespond. He will tell a slumping Posada, "You haven't hit a ball hard intwo weeks." And he will tweak Alex Rodriguez, saying, "Are you going tohit the ball hard? We pay you all this money."

"You don'tknow the side of Mariano we see [in the clubhouse]," Posada says. "Hegets on people. He probably gets on me and Jeter the most because he's morecomfortable with us."

Only once, saysPosada, a much more demonstrative personality known to challenge his pitchersthrough a game, did the catcher challenge Rivera and his famous on-fieldstoicism. It was during a game in 2003 when Posada thought Rivera was flusteredand had lost his focus. Posada walked out to the mound and began lecturingRivera. Suddenly Rivera started laughing.

"Wait. Areyou getting on me?" Rivera asked Posada. "Are you beingserious?"

Posada, laughingbehind his mask, turned around and headed back behind the plate. He has notchallenged Rivera since.

"I loveeverything about pitching," Rivera says. "Just being on the mound.Being on the mound and competing. There is nobody to come and save you. Youhave to get it done. There is no time to play around. It's time to get it doneand go home.

"I mean, thisis what I do. This is what I was picked to do. There is no hitting. There is norunning. When I'm here, on the mound ... ahh, this is my world."

Rivera has thrownthe equivalent of an additional season and a quarter in the playoffs, and withso many chances—76 games—even the Hammer of God has failed spectacularly. Therewas the home run he surrendered to Indians catcher Sandy Alomar with a chanceto close out the 1997 Division Series, the blown save (facilitated by histhrowing error) against the Diamondbacks in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series,and the blown save (set up by a rare leadoff walk) with a chance to end the2004 ALCS in Boston.

"I saw himdown in 2001," Posada says. "He was a long time in front of his lockerafter the game was lost. We all went by. The bunt, if he throws the guy out atsecond base, we win the game. He bobbled it a little bit. And the ball gotaway. Do you remember that it rained a little bit? The ball was wet. He threwit, and it slipped out of his hand. Things you don't remember. They were tryingto close the roof."

"I have badgames," Rivera says. "But my confidence doesn't change. Right after thegame I will ask, 'What happened?' I go through the game. After that, it doesn'thurt me at all."

The margin israzor-thin for a closer. A freak shower in the desert during a game with aretractable roof open. A bunt. A baseball slickened from rolling through thewet grass. Ultimately, a game-ending bloop single, produced by another brokenbat, no less.

Upon thistightrope Rivera has walked for 13 seasons, 12 of them with the added intensityand legacy-shaping consequences of the playoffs. He keeps his balance,gallantly, with one divine pitch everybody knows is coming. Next week Riveraand October are reunited. He is not sure how many more times it will happen. Heis signed through next year. "After that," he says, "only Godknows."

There is onlythis day, this October, given to Rivera for now. It has been nine years sincehe leaped off the mound—performing his own graceful sissonne in spikes—afterthe last out of a World Series, back in 2000 at a stadium, Shea in New York,that no longer exists.

"I would loveto win another World Series," he says. "It seems like, yes, that was along time ago. I don't want to second-guess myself when I retire. I want toknow that I did everything that I could possibly do for my teammates to give usa chance to win. If it didn't happen, I don't want it to be because I didn'tgive it my best.

"Every time Ihave a chance to pitch in the playoffs, it's great to me. Because I know thatone day, I won't be able to do it. And so I want to take advantage ofeverything."

Now on SI.com

SI's entirepostseason preview appearing next Monday and Tuesday at SI.com/bonus

"Without Mo, I don't think we win fourchampionships," says Posada. "Maybe two."
"You know what's coming," Sweeney says,"but you know what's coming in horror movies too."
"On the mound," says Rivera, "this is myworld."

 

PHOTOPhotograph by CHUCK SOLOMONCASE CLOSED Rivera's 34 saves (in 36 chances) and 0.77 ERA in the postseason put him in the company of ...well, nobody.TWO PHOTOSWALTER IOOSS JR.CUTTING EDGE Rivera may own the signature pitch of his generation, but he has shared the "secret" behind it with dozens of opposing pitchers.EIGHT PHOTOSROBERT BECKA FINE BALANCE Long fingers and an unusually supple wrist have created the unique cutting action that has ruined the sleep of so many hitters.PHOTOMIKE CARLSON/ICON SMIWE THREE KINGS Like Posada (left) and Jeter, Rivera insists that the only measure of success is rings.