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Happy endings for Yankees

Mariano Rivera has been nearly perfect at finishing what New York's pitching rotation starts.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 17, 2000


SEATTLE -- At some point -- maybe tonight, maybe Wednesday -- Joe Torre or his pitching coach, Billy Connors, is likely to stroll to the mound, take the baseball from a pitcher's hand, nod toward the home plate umpire and gesture toward the Yankees bullpen for their closer.

If the Yankees are leading Seattle and it is the ninth inning, or possibly the eighth, you can be sure Mariano Rivera will emerge from behind the outfield fence and make his way to the Yankee Stadium mound.

And barring an inexplicable incident on the level of, say, what insurance companies refer to as an Act of God, you can be certain the Yankees will be no more than a fistful of fastballs away from the World Series.

Mariners manager Lou Piniella, asked whether he favored using left-handed or right-handed hitters against the 30-year-old, right-handed Panamanian, replied: "I think it is a tough proposition either way. You look at the success that he's had against left-handed hitters. Unless you can really handle the ball well on the inside part of the plate, you're going to have some problems against him. Basically, he likes to pitch to one side of the plate, and that's the side of the plate which is inside to left-handers and outside to right-handers.

"I think the secret with Rivera is to not give the Yankees a lead and get him out there. I think that's really the only way to combat that situation successfully."

Rivera has gone more innings than anyone, ever, in the history of post-season play in the major leagues without allowing a run -- 33 1/3, which is a record.

Friday, in Game 3, his 1 2/3 perfect innings of relief eclipsed the record of 33 innings set in 1960-62 by Whitey Ford, a Hall-of-Fame starting pitcher who, in his career in the 1950s and '60s, was known by Yankees teammates and fans as the Chairman of the Board. Ford did it in 1960-62, in an era before baseball had layers of post-season play.

One of the first things Rivera said was how proud he was to be in the company of a great Yankee pitcher (not another great one, just a great one).

He smiled almost shyly when asked how he felt about his feat -- and thanked his teammates for helping him achieve it. "I think once you start worrying about your own things," Rivera said, "that is how you lose. You play this game as a team.

"Really, I'm not trying to be smart. I just look at the team. When you start looking for yourself and not at the team, you lose your focus. I'm a team player, and I like to win."

His preparation for the pressure-cooker role as a closer is simple. He watches three or four innings of a game in the clubhouse, then heads to the bullpen. Studying hitters before a game, reviewing scouting reports of their tendencies, is not part of Rivera's game plan. Watching them in the game in progress is all that matters.

"I don't care what they've done in the past or what they will do in the future," he said. "All I care about is now."

Rivera began his career in the Yankees organization at Tampa in 1990 after signing as an undrafted free agent and worked his way up through the system primarily as a starter. It wasn't until 1996 that he became a full-time reliever and was voted winner of the Buck Canel Award as the best Latin-American major-leaguer.

Rivera's record run of shutout relief began in 1997 after he allowed a home run by Sandy Alomar of Cleveland in an American League division playoff game.

In this post-season he has gone 7 2/3 innings covering four games (a save in each), allowing three hits and reducing his career post-season earned-run average to 0.33.

Yankees catcher Jorge Posada offers a concise description of Rivera.

"Unbelievable. I see guys go up there trying to adjust -- right-handers and left-handers. They move back from the plate, but Mariano comes right at them, strike one, strike two ... "

The best way to deal with a Rivera pitch, Posada said, "is to just go with it. ... If you try to fight him off, it won't work."

No matter how much is at stake when Rivera comes on, the 6-foot-2, 170-pound reliever has the ability to mask his emotions. "I think I was born with it," he said. "That is what I believe. I get excited, but I never show it. That is not what I do, and I think that is a good thing."

Posada laughed when asked whether he had ever felt the need to calm down his batterymate. "No, no, not Mariano," Posada said. "When he gets the ball, I say, "Let's go,' and that's it. He doesn't need anything else."

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