Commentary

Rivera vulnerable? Better think again

Incomparable closer wiggles out of bases-loaded jam to deliver series vs. D-backs

Updated: June 24, 2010, 6:12 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

PHOENIX -- In the clubhouse, after a game and viewed from behind, Mariano Rivera looks vulnerable -- even a bit frail.

His narrow, naturally stooped back bends even more under the burden of the gigantic ice bag strapped to his pitching shoulder, his balding head reminding you more than a little of the grainy old films of Joe Louis sadly trudging up the ring steps to be KO'd by Rocky Marciano in his final fight.

But even at 40 years old, there is nothing frail about Mariano Rivera, and almost never a hint of vulnerability when he is standing out on the pitcher's mound.

For the past 15 years, this unremarkable man has been one of our most remarkable athletes -- a constant as reliable as the sun rising in the East. When he succeeds, it rarely rates a mention. When he fails, we talk about it for a long, long time.

That is why, nearly four hours into a game that hardly qualified as major league baseball for nine innings but had rapidly become high drama in the 10th, many of us were talking about a night that happened nine years ago in this very ballpark and in a much more important game than some silly interleague contest between the Yankees and Diamondbacks.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireMariano Rivera recorded his first two-inning outing of the season on Wednesday in Arizona.

On that night, the Yankees were one clean Mariano Rivera inning away from their fourth straight World Series title, and we had seen that inning so many times before that it was almost impossible to conceive that this one would end any differently.

But before many of us could even recognize what was going on, rain started to fall in the desert and the roof fell in on Rivera and the Yankees.

That failure, rare as it was, was the kind of thing that could ruin an ordinary pitcher and leave a scar on the psyche of even the most extraordinary, of which Mariano Rivera most certainly is.

And as the Diamondbacks put runners on second and third with none out in the 10th inning of this admittedly insignificant little game, threatening to negate the Curtis Granderson home run in the top of the frame that had given the Yankees a 6-5 lead, memories of that rainy night in the desert went through some of the most sober minds in the building.

"There were some thoughts in my head," admitted manager Joe Girardi.

But no such thoughts cluttered the thinking of the man with the baseball in hand. For one thing, he had exorcised any leftover demons from that night back on June 15, 2004, when -- on the Yankees first visit back to Arizona since that disastrous Game 7 -- Rivera was called upon to do his job, which was to preserve a 4-2 Yankee lead in the bottom of the ninth. That he did, flawlessly, on 11 pitches.

Besides, who needs to exorcise demons when you don't bother carrying any around with you?

When, after he had nailed this one shut -- a two-inning save that not only required him to throw 40 pitches but also to swing a bat, run to first and go right back to the mound after having made the final out of the top of the 10th -- Rivera was asked if his mind flashed back to that fateful night, he chuckled for what seemed like 30 seconds before answering.

"That was 2001, this is 2010," he said. "I just put that behind me, sir."

That night remains locked away in the box where he keeps other unpleasant events that have occurred since he began closing games for the Yankees back in 1997, and a small, impregnable box it certainly must be.

The Diamondbacks tried their best to crack it open Wednesday night, retiring the number of Luis Gonzalez -- whose broken-bat single won that World Series game all those saves ago -- in a pregame ceremony and flashing the replay of that hit on the giant message board in centerfield just before Rivera started the bottom of the 10th inning.

"I can't control what other people think or what other people do," Rivera said. "I can only control what I do. Whoever was thinking of that, well ... that's their job."

His job, as it has always been, was to get the final three outs of the game. And now, having surrendered an eerily familiar broken bat single to leadoff hitter Stephen Drew, and a rocket of a double to Justin Upton on an 0-2 pitch, the winning run was sitting 60 feet behind him on second base.

Girardi called for him to walk Miguel Montero to load the bases. Then, it was time for Rivera to go to work. Suddenly, a game that the Yankees had no business winning (they were given seven free base runners in the first two innings by Dontrelle Willis, who couldn't find home plate with a GPS, and managed to score just two runs) looked like another one of those they simply could not afford to lose.

"You just gotta trust that you're going to make your pitches," Rivera said. "You can't get three outs on one pitch. You just try to get one out at a time."

Watching from the dugout, Javier Vazquez -- a member of the same fraternity of pitchers but seeming of a different universe -- watched in both confidence and awe.

"Only he can get out of that," said Vazquez, who pitched the first five sloppy innings for his worst outing in a month. "He's like Ice Man out there."

At third base, Alex Rodriguez was thinking, "Just one. Let's get out of this with just one, and come back and win it in the 11th."

And the remainder of the crowd of 46,000 was on its feet. All of whom, in one way or another, must have been thinking back to Nov. 4, 2001.

But even at 40, nobody in baseball fights better off the ropes than Rivera. A 1-1 cutter to Chris Young -- who came into the game batting .600 (6-for-10) with the bases loaded this year -- became a foul pop-up behind home plate easily tucked away by Francisco Cervelli.

The same pitch (Rivera's repertoire, of course, has about as many variations as the Phoenix weather report) zoomed in on Adam LaRoche, a .625 hitter with the bases loaded this year, and became a quail of a pop-up that died in Rodriguez glove.

Then came Mark Reynolds, perhaps the most dangerous bat in the Arizona lineup. Five cutters later, none faster than 94 mph nor slower than 92, and the game was over -- Reynolds having swung underneath the final offering well late.

"There's not a human on the planet who can get out of a jam like Mo," Rodriguez said.

Girardi, trying to affect a state of postgame Zen, said, "We've seen him do it before."

Which, of course, is exactly the point. So many times before, that we only tend to remember the times when he doesn't.

Wallace Matthews is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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