10/12/09 4:00 PM EST
Stoic and steady, Mo focused on task
Old-guard Yankees closer anticipates road to new glory
By Anthony DiComo / MLB.com
No use risking so much as a head cold. A date with the Angels looms this Friday in New York, and the Yankees need Rivera as healthy as can be.
"That's the playoffs," Rivera said. "Nothing's going to be easy. You have to fight for it. You have to go for it. And we're ready."
One month away from his 40th birthday, Rivera continues to thrive. He is the most important member of a vitally important bullpen -- no Yankee young or old would dare argue that. His postseason qualifications -- 79 appearances, an 0.74 career ERA and 35 saves -- are all records that few are likely to approach in his lifetime. And so the Yankees will win with him or lose with him, just as they have every year in the postseason since 1996.
In a revamped bullpen, Rivera, Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain are the only holdovers from the 2007 team that busted out in the first round of the playoffs. Fittingly, they were also the only three relievers to pitch in Sunday evening's clincher in relief of Andy Pettitte.
First it was Chamberlain, who made things somewhat hairy but eventually escaped from a seventh-inning jam. Then it was Hughes, who lasted until there were two outs in the eighth. Then, a runner on first and two outs, Yankees manager Joe Girardi turned to Rivera.
It was hardly an obvious decision, considering Hughes' success this season and Rivera's less-than-perfect state of being. But as he had with Pettitte earlier in the evening, Girardi flashed back to 1996, to a Yankees team he helped guide and to a 26-year-old Rivera who played a major role.
CLOSING THE DEAL IN OCTOBER
And with Minnesota superstar Joe Mauer standing in the on-deck circle, Girardi flashed back to the 359 batters Rivera had already retired in his postseason career.
"I just thought it was time to go to Mo," Girardi said.
Fittingly, there was no deviation from Girardi's preferred postseason script. Rivera retired Mauer on a groundout and then breezed through the ninth, putting the Yankees within four wins of their first World Series berth since 2003.
Aside from a bit less hair and a few more wrinkles, Rivera is still the exact same pitcher he was a decade ago. Still skinny, still steely and still firing cutters within millimeters of their intended targets, Rivera remains arguably the best closer in the Major Leagues. And after postseason meltdowns from Joe Nathan and Jonathan Papelbon, Rivera's argument may recently have grown even stronger.
Off the field, though, Rivera's role has changed. Always a quiet leader, he now must be more of a vocal one. Rivera must help guide and mold and develop Hughes and Chamberlain, two young pitchers with loads of talent and uncertain futures.
"Remember, we don't have experience," Rivera said. "Those guys haven't been there and they go into the game trying to do everything within their power to do their jobs. It hasn't been a struggle. They've been tremendous."
Still, he must do all of that while continuing to play the role of Mariano, while continuing to write the legend of Mo, while continuing to call out "checkmate" every time he climbs the mound.
The man responsible for so many of the Yankees' successes over the past 15 years must now take on a new level of responsibility. He must be perfect -- or at least awfully close to it. He must help others do the same. And he must not take champagne baths when his health could suffer.
"It's definitely hard work, and we have to continue doing that," Rivera said. "We have to set the pace and keep doing it."
Anthony DiComo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.