Mariano Rivera, a closer like no other

September 18, 2011 - 1:05 PM

NEW YORK (AP) — Asked about Mariano Rivera, Doug Mientkiewicz knows he never got a hit off the New York Yankees' great closer. He's glad to find out he's not alone.

As Rivera approaches the career saves record, an astounding 454 batters are 0-fer against him.

"So, I have company then?" Mientkiewicz said. "It's not just me? Awesome."

Tied with Trevor Hoffman at 601 saves, Rivera is far more than an accumulation of numbers. He made the cut fastball famous, applying a grip that created a fearsome break — especially to left-handed hitters who tried to fight the pitch off as it spun in on their fists.

Chuck Schupp of Louisville Slugger estimated Rivera averaged at least one broken bat for every two of his 1,038 regular-season games and 94 postseason appearances. At the rate required for manufacturing, he thinks Rivera alone has accounted for five to six trees of busted wood.

Chipper Jones could only chuckle as he watched Rivera break Ryan Klesko's bats three times in a four-pitch span during the final inning of the 1999 World Series, with the Atlanta first baseman hitting a weak popup to second as the wood shattered.

"That thing was just wicked. I had never seen anything like it," Klesko remembered Friday. "You can't help to laugh. I couldn't believe it. It was like a 97 mph Wiffle Ball that has no rotation. I told Chipper, 'If he breaks one more of my bats, I'm going to have none left.'"

In his 17th major league season and two months shy of his 42nd birthday, the slim Panamanian shows little sign of slowing down.

Just five pitchers who were primarily relievers are in the Hall of Fame: Hoyt Wilhelm (1985), Rollie Fingers (1992), Dennis Eckersley (2004), Bruce Sutter (2006) and Rich Gossage (2008). None dominated for as long as Rivera has, and none owned October on an annual basis.

"Everybody knows about Mariano Rivera. He's one the biggest names in the game, maybe the greatest postseason pitcher," Eckersley said. "I think there's probably players in awe of him that played against him. They're OK with him striking them out. You can talk all you want about one pitch or whatever they say, but to be able to put it where he wants to, with all that adrenaline, is beyond me."

His demeanor, as much as his accomplishments, have earned him respect throughout the game, from teammates, to opponents, to retired players, to media.

"He's the consummate professional. He acts the way guys should act," Gossage said. "Kids should take a page out of his book on how to act on the mound, not acting like fools jumping up and down, showing hitters up."

Rivera, quiet and reserved in the clubhouse and on the field, shows hitters up quite enough with his pitches. He didn't even throw the cut fastball until after he replaced John Wetteland as the Yankees' closer in 1997. He was playing around on the side with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, experimenting, when the ball started swerving like crazy.

Mendoza said the ball became too unpredictable to catch.

"I don't want to play catch with him no more," Mendoza added. "Too much hurting."

Rivera came up to the Yankees in 1995, making 10 starts and nine appearances out of the bullpen. Who could have foreseen what was getting started on May 17, 1996, when the Angels' Garret Anderson grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, ending an 8-5 Yankees' win that gave Rivera his first big league save?

Now Rivera is viewed as an almost mythical figure, almost as if "The Great" is a part of his name.

Mientkiewicz, 0 for 7 against Rivera in his career (regular and postseason), tells stories about Rivera that define hitters' frustrations. After making out in his first five plate appearances against him, Mientkiewicz became tired of using his own bats.

"When I got to Boston in 2004, I started using Billy Mueller's bats," Mientkiewicz said. "I didn't want to break my good ones — my gamers, I'd call them — because I knew I was going to break them."

Mientkiewicz developed his own approach.

"If you swing at the first one and foul it off, do not even attempt to swing at the second because it's going to be the one that's basically called the 'neck ball,'" he said. "It's the one that rides up and in on you. And if you swing, not only do you miss it, you get hit in the Adam's apple, and you embarrass your family."

In Game 4 of the 2004 AL championship series, Mientkiewicz pinch hit just after Mueller tied the score with a ninth-inning single. Told to sacrifice, he laid down a bunt. He says the ball hit a finger, that it should have been called a foul. But he made sure the umpires didn't notice.

"It was so cold, and it hurt so bad going down the line that I wasn't going to show it. If it's a foul ball, I have to face him again. I was like, 'No way. I'm just running to first. I don't care if my nail is falling off and I'm bleeding all over the place. If I had to do that again, I don't think that's humanly possible.'"

That night was one of just five blown saves in the postseason for Rivera — to go along with 72 in the regular season. Opponents' batting average, a minuscule .210 during the regular season, shrinks to .176 in the postseason.

Edgar Martinez, who spent 18 seasons with the Seattle Mariners before retiring in 2004, has the highest average against Rivera for anyone with at least 10 at-bats, going 11 for 19 (.579) with two homers, including the playoffs. Martinez got nine hits in his first 11 at-bats against him.

"He worked the outside part of the plate. My approach is middle away," he said. "I was effective about using 20 inches of the bat. As a right-handed hitter, it was easier compared to the left-handers. They see this ball in the middle of the plate end up in their hands."

Rivera took notice of Martinez's success.

"He mentioned it himself. I remember he made a comment," Martinez recalled. "It was at an All-Star game."

While Rivera is a 12-time All-Star, he prefers to be thought of more as a five-time World Series champion. And in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2009, he was on the mound for the final out.

Talk to most players, and they will tell you that Rivera has been the most important stripe forming the pinstriped dynasty of the 1990s and 2000s. More than Derek Jeter. More than Andy Pettitte. More than Jorge Posada. More than Bernie Williams.

There is no equal.

"It's a huge psychological advantage when you've got a guy like Mariano and a great setup corps," Gossage said, "to know that it's a six-inning ballgame. You've got the lead, and it's over."

In the 2009 postseason, Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, Minnesota's Joe Nathan, the Angels' Brian Fuentes, Colorado's Huston Street, the Cardinals' Ryan Franklin and the Dodgers' Jonathan Broxton all blew save chances.

Rivera?

He went 5 for 5. Philadelphia's Brad Lidge, with three saves, was the only other closer without a blemish.

"That is so incredible. To be able to do it at that level, with that pressure. Try to do it in that environment, in New York, with them expecting to go to the playoffs every year," Eckerlsey said. "He's made differently. There's a calm to him. And because of that, there's a calm to the team."