NEW YORK (AP) — So this is what the ninth inning must be like sometimes for the other 29 teams that do not have the luxury of calling on Mariano Rivera.
The career saves leader has spoiled the New York Yankees, rarely slipping up in 17 years as their closer.
But last week, the 43-year-old baseball sage stunned a generation of fans by blowing three consecutive save opportunities for the first time in 721 chances. Since Rivera took over as New York’s closer in 1997, there have been 29 other occasions when a pitcher went through such a stretch, according to STATS.
Rivera said Monday the problems have nothing to do with fatigue or age. Instead, he said, it’s his delivery.
Rivera said he’s not repeating his release point and has left pitches up to some pretty good hitters.
“There’s a lot left in the tank,” he assured.
Plus, Rivera can draw upon a lot of previous success. Blown saves aren’t part of his repertoire, especially not three in a row.
“At least it’s the first time,” Rivera said Sunday after Detroit dented him. “I just try to go out there and do my job. … The last three opportunities, I haven’t done it. So we have to continue battling and get better. Have to keep working and eventually it will happen.”
It always has.
And that is why his teammates — and Yankees fans — are hardly worried.
“When he needs to nail it down, he nails it down,” Yankees setup man David Robertson said before Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Angels. “He’s not perfect, everyone knows that. But the guy’s pretty unbelievable.”
How impressive? Consider there have been 175 pitchers who have recorded at least 20 saves in a season since Rivera became the Yankees closer, according to STATS. The Yankees have had only one other stopper reach that mark: Rafael Soriano, who filled in when Rivera tore up his knee in May 2012 and missed the rest of the year.
“I don’t know if we’ve had anybody on the mound — I don’t think there is any relief pitcher that has been on the mound that’s even close to what he’s done … with the longevity, the consistency and ability to perform as Mariano has,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia.
The five-time World Series champion announced during spring training his intention to make this season his final one. And Rivera has made a smooth return after being injured for most of last year, soaking up his final moments in ballparks around the country.
At most every stop, opposing players and fans have reached out to be around him, to hear his every word. He was the MVP at the All-Star game, with AL teammates-for-a-day eager to soak up his wisdom.
Rivera did his part, too, using his trademark cut fastball to push his career saves total to 643 by crisply converting 35 of 37 chances with a 1.56 ERA.
That is until last Wednesday, when Rivera’s rut began in Chicago.
Entering the ninth with a one-run lead over the White Sox, he got two quick outs before allowing a double. Rivera then yielded a tying single to Adam Dunn for only his third blown save this season. Rivera recovered to pitch the 10th, his first two-inning relief outing in two years.
The mound woes continued in the ninth inning Friday in the Bronx when, in an epic matchup, Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera tagged him. Cabrera hit a tying, two-run homer with two outs in the ninth for Detroit that shocked the sellout crowd.
Still, unlike in many ballparks around the big leagues where closers are routinely berated after a couple poor outings, Yankees fans treat Rivera with reverence. He’s rarely even given them a reason to doubt: Rivera has blown back-to-back saves tries in the same season only 10 times in his career, according to STATS, and one came in 1996 when he was John Wetteland’s setup man.
So when the bullpen gate opened Sunday and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” kicked in over the stadium sound system, the crowd stood and showed its appreciation with another roaring ovation.
“He’s earned it, my gosh,” Scioscia said.
There was little time to celebrate, though. With the Tigers trailing 4-2, Cabrera led off by crushing a drive to right field for his second home run in two at-bats against Rivera. One out later, Victor Martinez tied it with a laser into second deck in right field seats — only the fifth time Rivera’s allowed two homers in a game.
“You’re facing professional hitters and you don’t put it where you need to, you’re going to get hit,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s former catcher and current manager Joe Girardi certainly isn’t worried.
When asked after Sunday’s game — a walk-off win over Detroit — how concerned he was about Rivera’s struggles, Girardi held up his right hand and used his fingers to make the shape of a zero.
“It’s not like you forget how to pitch in a week,” Girardi said. “He just had a bad week.”