- Bob Klapisch, MLB
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NEW YORK The reporters at Mariano Rivera's locker had been waiting for 20 minutes for him to arrive lights, cameras, questions. So thick was the crowd that a member of the Yankees' security team was forced to create an entry-point for the closer when he finally appeared from the showers.
"Wow," is all Rivera said, somehow managing a weak smile. The greatest reliever in Yankee history had just blown his second straight save to the Red Sox, making it four in a row dating back to 2004 and six in his last 11 save situations. The numbers were awful, and so were the images of Rivera's performance in the Yankees' 7-3 loss to Boston on Wednesday.
Just three outs away from a 3-2 win and a three-game sweep of the Sox, Rivera allowed five runs, walking three and lasting just two-thirds of an inning. Yankees manager Joe Torre was finally forced to rescue Rivera after his 38th pitch, which in itself was shocking. But no Yankee could've been prepared to hear Rivera being booed by sections of the sold-out crowd as he walked slowly back to the dugout.
Torre called the fans' response "inexcusable" and wanted to believe those razzing his star were members of Red Sox Nation. If not, it's a new era in the Bronx, where not even Rivera can count on full immunity from the public's impatience.
Quietly, he said, "it doesn't matter, it's part of baseball."
Looking around the room, Rivera added, "what matters most is my teammates."
Indeed, the entire organization is fiercely loyal to Rivera, but no one denies it was a disturbing opening series for Rivera. He was unable to close out the Sox on Tuesday, allowing Jason Varitek a game-tying home run in the ninth inning. That failure was partially camouflaged a half-inning later when Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run off Keith Foulke.
But considering Rivera also failed to finish Game 4 of the American League Championship Series last October, when the Yankees were on the verge of a four-game sweep, it's fair to wonder if Boston has finally cracked the code against Rivera's most precious weapon, the cut fastball.
Without it, he's just another hard thrower struggling for control within the strike zone and the Yankees become an ordinary late-inning team. No wonder Torre is stonewalling questions about panic. He has no other choice but to ride out Rivera's slump and pray the cutter heals itself.
"Mo is still my No. 1 guy, he's the reason we're where we are," said Torre, who plans to use Rivera at the first possible opportunity against the Orioles this weekend. That's when the Yankees will learn if Rivera's struggles are limited to Boston's hitters or, more darkly, if his cutter is now vulnerable to the rest of the American League, too.
Although Rivera insists "my arm feels great, I'm not worried" there's no escaping his age (35) and the effects of time. Already, Rivera has experienced one bout of bursitis in his right elbow this spring, and because of it has had trouble getting the cutter to break as late and violently as it has in the past. As the pitch has flattened out, hitters are getting better looks and better swings, prompting the Yankee hierarchy to consider asking Rivera to start throwing a changeup.
Even though Rivera's radar-gun readings are still well above average, between 92 and 94 mph, he could benefit from a pitch that breaks down and away from lefties "something that controls the [hitters' bat] speed," said pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
This need is particularly acute against the Red Sox, who are accumulating enough career at-bats against Rivera to have robbed him of the element of surprise. Manny Ramirez (30 at-bats) and Johnny Damon (21) and Varitek (18) are among those who've become immunized against what used to be the most unhittable pitch in the big leagues that impossible-to-detect break of the cutter, lasering in on a left-handed hitter so crazily the Braves' Chipper Jones once likened it to "a buzz saw."
All this is good news for the Sox, who otherwise have to contend with the strength of the Yankees' new-look pitching staff. Randy Johnson was hitting 93 mph on the radar gun on Sunday night, despite a wind-chill factor that dropped the temperature into the 30s. And Carl Pavano looked almost as strong in his American League debut on Tuesday, striking out seven of the first 12 batters he faced and allowing only three fly-ball outs in 6 1/3 innings.
The Yankees walked away from the series convinced they once again have the East's premier starting rotation. But those upgrades will be neutralized if the Sox have successfully separated the Yankees from their single greatest asset the fool-proof save. By coming back against Rivera on Wednesday, the Sox spared themselves the embarrassment of being swept, and created just enough doubt in Rivera's mind about next week's return match at Fenway Park.
"We needed this," is what Varitek said, speaking for the entire team.
Now it's the Yankees turn to sweat, imagining life in the ninth inning with a declining Rivera, hoping he's right when he says, "everything is going to be fine."
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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