Commentary

Phillies have 'game plan' against Rivera

Rollins says key to figuring out Yankees' closer is knowing location of his famous cutter

Originally Published: October 30, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- The Phillies didn't beat Mariano Rivera in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night. Heck, they didn't even score on him.

But they did make Rivera sweat through 39 pitches -- the most he'd thrown in any outing, regular season or postseason, since May 6, 2005 (336 outings ago) and the most he'd tossed in a postseason game since his infamous blown save in Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

And afterward, Jimmy Rollins said something -- almost in passing -- that we should all keep in mind the next time we hear the dulcet strains of "Enter Sandman" and the Great Mariano bursts through the bullpen gates:

"I think we saw some things," Rollins said.

Now if there's a secret to hitting Mariano Rivera, it's definitely news to the rest of the population. But here's the full context of exactly what Rollins said:

Asked if it was any kind of benefit to have seen Rivera for two full innings, in which he faced everyone in the Phillies' lineup except Pedro Feliz, Rollins replied: "We felt pretty good up there, and that's always the question mark: What is he going to look like? And I think we saw some things."

So what kind of things? That's the question.

"Now you have a game plan," said Rollins, who worked an 11-pitch walk against Rivera in the eighth. "We didn't really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in [when] I'm out of the game. So it's a mystery.

"Like we know what he's going to do. It's no surprise. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you've got to be stubborn with it, because he's going to be stubborn with what he's going to do to you."

Well, that's for darned sure. Rivera did mix in 12 four-seam fastballs out of those 39 pitches, according to pitch f/x. But in general, the world knows what's coming when Rivera recoils out of that trademark crouch and fires.

"Oh, it's not a secret, and that's what's even more amazing," Rollins said. "You're getting a cutter. All right. You're getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. So that's what makes him such a good pitcher, because he's not trying to trick you."

Jimmy Rollins We know what he's going to do. It's no surprise. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you've got to be stubborn with it, because he's going to be stubborn with what he's going to do to you.

-- Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins on facing Yankees closer Mariano Rivera

And because he's not trying to trick you, because you almost always know what's coming, it brings us back to the original premise here:

What exactly could the Phillies have seen that could possibly have unlocked the secret to conquering the greatest closer of all time?

"It's not so much the pitch. It's the location," said one longtime scout. "You almost always know what's coming. But what you learn if you see him enough is where he likes to throw the cutter. And at least that helps give you an idea which ones to swing at and which ones to lay off. What I've always told our guys is to go up there with a thought of what part of the strike zone you think you've got a chance to handle that pitch. And if he throws it there, you swing. If it's somewhere else, you take. It sounds good. But he's so good, hey, good luck."

Just out of curiosity, we took a look at how Rivera has fared in the World Series in all his appearances after the NL team saw him for the first time. It's safe to say he wasn't exactly Jay Witasick. Rivera's career ERA in those outings is 1.72. Then again, that's almost mortal compared with his overall postseason ERA -- which is now down to 0.76.

So whether that outing Thursday really gave the Phillies anything substantial to work with seems dubious. But it did give them a true sense of admiration for a man who now has piled up 14 six-out postseason saves -- three more than all other postseason closers combined over the past 14 seasons.

"Most closers are going to throw 14-15 pitches and they're like, 'Let me go throw some ice on,'" Rollins said. "But he's the type of guy, if he has to go three, you know he'll be back out there."

Well, he'll be back out there again in this World Series. So stay tuned to find out what the Phillies really learned Thursday -- if anything.

For Starters

Charlie Manuel always trusts his gut over any stat sheet. But his decision to start Joe Blanton -- he of the 8.18 career ERA against the Yankees -- in Game 4 suggests that he might be worrying more about having an extra left-hander in his bullpen than about putting the best possible starter on the mound in a critical World Series game.

Which brings us to this fascinating question:

J.A. Happ

Happ

Whatever happened to J.A. Happ?

You remember him, right? He was just voted the National League rookie of the year by his fellow players. He went into Yankee Stadium in May and threw six innings of four-hit, two-run baseball. And now he's just about vanished off the face of the Phillies' earth -- all because he's been shuttled to the bullpen to make up for the loss of the injured J.C. Romero.

It's understandable on one level why the Phillies would want Happ out there. But on another, bigger level, is this really accomplishing anything meaningful? Outside of Happ's brief start in the tundra in Denver in the Division Series, the man who won the Phillies' Most Valuable Pitcher award this season has faced only six hitters in this entire postseason. Six.

"This guy is way too good to sit and not pitch," said one NL scout Friday. "I know Charlie really likes having that second left-hander down there in the 'pen. And I know he'll have a really quick hook on Blanton. But boy oh boy."

The Great Mariano

Some astounding Mariano Rivera facts and figures:

His 14 career postseason saves of six outs are 11 more than the next-closest reliever (Brad Lidge) since Rivera became a closer in 1996.

Mariano Rivera

Rivera

Rivera is now up to 30 postseason saves of more than three outs. Guess how many the two runners-up (since '96) have? How about four (by Lidge and Jonathan Papelbon).

In the World Series, Rivera now has nine saves of more than three outs. That's more than double the next-highest total in history -- which is four, by Rollie Fingers. The only other active closer with more than one is Papelbon (three).

And Game 2 marked Rivera's fourth career World Series save of six outs or more. That gave him the all-time lead, with one more than Tug McGraw and Roy Face, who did it three times each.

Useless Information Dept.

• With this Series tied at a game apiece, the Phillies' streak of playing five consecutive postseason series without trailing at any point is again on the line as they attempt to extend this string to six in a row. We've been unable to find any other team that got beyond four postseason series in a row without trailing. Even the Yankees' longest streak in history was only four, starting with the '98 World Series and ending with the '99 World Series.

Chase Utley

Utley

• Chase Utley's two home runs in Yankee Stadium on Wednesday gave him six homers in New York this year -- those two plus four at Citi Field. How many Mets managed to hit more? Exactly two, and just barely. Gary Sheffield and Daniel Murphy hit seven apiece in New York this year.

• Another cool Utley feat: He's only the fifth player in history, believe it or not, to hit a home run in Game 1 of two consecutive World Series. The others: Al Simmons (1930-31), Elston Howard (1960-61), Tom Tresh (1963-64) and Fred McGriff (1995-96).

• In case you missed this cool note dug up by the Elias Sports Bureau, Jose Molina's pickoff of Jayson Werth in Game 2 made him the first Yankees catcher with a World Series pickoff since Yogi Berra in 1950.

Alex Rodriguez

Rodriguez

Derek Jeter

Jeter

• Another mind-boggling Elias note: Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez struck out three times apiece in Game 2. It was the first time in World Series history that a team's leadoff hitter and cleanup hitter whiffed at least three times each in the same game.

• And in case this helps settle the argument of which league is helped most by getting to play World Series games under its own league's rules, AL home teams are 42-19 (a .689 winning percentage) since 1986, the year the current rule went into effect. But NL teams are only 34-27 (a .557 winning percentage).

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com