How soon is too soon to go to Mo?

NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera's 25th save of the 2011 season was a rarity, and not just because it marked the 15th consecutive season of at least 25 saves, extending a major league record that belongs only to him.

"That's one of those records I don't think someone will break," Joe Girardi said.

What was truly rare about Mo's 25th save of this season is that he needed four outs to nail it down, spread over two innings, an occurrence that these days happens a lot less often than David Robertson having to be pulled in the middle of an inning. (That happened in this game, as well).

Sunday's Yankees-Athletics game was either one Girardi wanted to win very, very much, or one in which he didn't trust anyone else in his bullpen to get the last out of the eighth inning, and probably both.

"I just felt it was time to go to Mo in that tough situation," Girardi said, as if these were the 1973 World Series champion A's instead of the 44-57, third-place, 14 games-out-in-the-AL West 2011 A's.

Girardi got lucky when, with Mo struggling, the bases loaded and the A's threatening, having closed to within two runs, David DeJesus turned on a cutter, only to see the pellet disappear into the glove of Mark Teixeira, who turned it from game-tying double into game-ending double play.

"It's part of the game," Rivera shrugged. "Broken bat finds a hole, line-drive double play. Figure it out. That's the way it is."

The way it was, was after Rivera came in to get the last out of the eighth inning after Robertson uncharacteristically imploded, he came out for the ninth looking like a different pitcher.

After the leadoff hitter grounded out, Jemile Weeks singled sharply up the middle. Coco Crisp dumped one into right field, not too hard, not too soft, but just enough to give Oakland runners at first and second. Then, Mo sawed off Hideki Matsui, but his soft liner into right capped a 5-for-5 day.

With the bases loaded, Josh Willingham smoked a liner into left for an RBI single that cut the Yankees' lead to 7-5 and suddenly rendered quite important Derek Jeter's groundout in the eighth that forced in what at the time looked like a superfluous run.

Then came the 2-1 cutter to DeJesus that looked as if it were headed to the right-field corner when it left the bat before being swallowed up by Teixeira.

"It's not the kind of inning that you want, but whatever it takes to get the win and close it out," Girardi said. "It's gonna happen in baseball and you're going to get in those kind of innings. But Mo's real effective and you know he's not going to panic in those type of situations."

But can the same be said of Girardi? In 2009, when Rivera was a relatively sprightly 39-year-old, he notched seven four-out saves. But before the 2010 season began, the manager said he would no longer use his closer in the eighth inning unless it was absolutely, positively necessary.

He stuck to that vow -- there was only one four-out save in 2010, and before Sunday, none in 2011 -- and with ample reason. The last two times Rivera had been asked to get four outs to preserve a win, he had blown the game: last Sept. 26 against the Red Sox and April 24 of this year against the Orioles.

Say all you want about small sample sizes and broken-bat hits, it doesn't take a sabremetrician to recognize that at 41 years old, Rivera is not the same pitcher after sitting between innings.

And it would be interesting to learn precisely when a routine Sunday afternoon game against the insignificant Athletics fell into a similar category of importance as, say, the seventh game of the World Series.

Girardi had Cory Wade, reliable enough for one batter, warming up in the 'pen when Robertson -- who had thrown 25 pitches in Saturday's game -- got into trouble in the eighth, surrendering three doubles and a walk to allow Oakland to pull to within 6-4.

"I was going to use Cory if I needed five outs," Girardi said. "But Mo has been pretty well rested. It's not something you want to do a lot of, but when you need it, he's there for you."

It should be remembered, of course, that Rivera was unavailable for four games just before the All-Star break with soreness in his right triceps. And also that with Joba Chamberlain out for the year and Rafael Soriano still working his way back from an elbow injury -- he gave up a home run to the first batter he faced in a Triple-A game at the same time the Yankees were beating the Athletics -- Rivera, even more than usual, is the pitcher the Yankees can least afford to lose right now.

Ever the diplomat, Rivera skirted the issue of whether it was wise at this point in his career to use him in situations that might well be handled by mere mortals.

"I'm here to do my job, regardless if it's four outs or three outs," he said. "It don't matter what it is. I have to be ready for that and I am."

When his recent history in four-out saves was pointed out to him, Rivera just shrugged. "I don't notice a difference," he said. "I don't think about it. I just go out there like normal. Get one out and then get the next three outs."

That's the way it was when he was 26, not 41, and the way it should still be when something truly important is on the line.

Mariano Rivera has racked up a lot of saves in his time -- 25 a year for 15 straight years is, as Girardi said, a record that is going to be tough for anyone to match -- but there are still a lot of important saves yet to come this year.

"It's good, but I really don't pay attention to stuff like that," Rivera said. "I just want to win ballgames."

And when it's October and there's a truly important ballgame to win, the Yankees better hope we're not all thinking back to a game in July and a four-out save that the manager thought was absolutely, positively necessary for Mariano Rivera to get.

• • •

Curtis Granderson had another excellent day, belting a moon shot (No. 27) deep into the second deck in right field, running down a laser off the bat of Weeks, both in the fifth inning, and starting a key 8-4-2 putout at the plate. But he is also striking out at an alarming rate -- three more Sunday and 11 in his past 16 at-bats to give him a team-high 107 for the season, putting him on pace for 175 over 600 at-bats. "I can't explain it," Granderson said. "I've been thinking about it all day." … Granderson's throw to Robinson Cano triggered a spectacular play at the plate. Cano's throw sailed high on Russell Martin, who brought it down in time to sweep a tag on Eric Sogard's hip, ending the fifth inning and keeping the score at 6-2 Yankees. … Bartolo Colon was good but not great in notching his seventh win. He allowed eight hits, struck out just four, but kept the damage to a minimum. … Eduardo Nuñez drove in two runs with a fourth-inning double. … Andruw Jones had two hits and two RBIs. … The Yankees open a three-game series with the Seattle Mariners on Monday night. Freddy Garcia (8-7, 3.21) vs. LHP Jason Vargas (6-8, 3.94), first pitch at 7:05 p.m.