NEW YORK - The secret of Mariano Rivera's career is that he is not a closer, but a middle act. Metallica opens ninth innings at Yankee Stadium, Rivera does his maestro stuff on the mound, and then Frank Sinatra closes the show with "New York, New York," after Rivera's last pitch.
Metallica was at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, playing a live version of "Enter Sandman" as part of the Mariano Rivera Day festivities, and Rivera was masterful in his pitching work on the day he had his number retired, but it was not a typical set because Sinatra could not be heard until after the Yankees had made their final out, rather than after New York's opponents had made theirs.
In a 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants, the Yankees stranded runners on second and third in the seventh inning, then had two runners thrown out at the plate in the eighth. So the sellout crowd of 49,197 and all the honored guests in the Bronx had to settle for merely watching a vintage Rivera performance without his usual closing act.
The Yankees' closer was called on to keep the game within reach after doubles by Pablo Sandoval and Tony Abreu gave the Giants the lead in the top of the eighth, and he was as dominant as ever. To get five outs, Rivera needed only 16 pitches -- and he would have needed even fewer if Robinson Cano had not made a throwing error to turn a sure double play into no outs in the ninth inning. Rivera would have pitched the 10th inning if there had been one, which was just as much a reminder of how good he has been, and what a different class he has been in than other closers, as the ceremony to honor him and retire his number before the game.
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"It means a lot to me, especially the guys that were there to me," Rivera said. "Seeing Geno (Gene Monahan), our trainer for a long time, Mr. Torre and Tino and Posada and Bernie and O'Neill and all the guys. It was outstanding. I don't know what to say. I thank God for that."
The Yankees don't have Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, Bernie Williams, and Paul O'Neill in their lineup anymore. On Sunday, they had Mark Reynolds at first base, Chris Stewart and then J.R. Murphy catching, Curtis Granderson in center field, and Ichiro Suzuki in right field. Reynolds homered for the Yankees' only run, and Granderson and Suzuki are no slouches, but the Yankees who will be best remembered as Rivera's teammates were not wearing pinstripes. Rivera's presence in the bullpen still looms large over any game the Yankees play, but his team has to have the lead in order for him to protect it.
"I liked to try to get all the players in the All-Star Game, and I remember saying, 'Guys, let's score more runs,' because we had a one-run lead and I wanted to use everybody," Joe Torre said. "Somebody drags on my jacket from behind, and I turned around and it's Darin Erstad, who says, 'Who's pitching the ninth?' I said, 'Mariano Rivera,' and he said, 'You don't need any more runs.' That struck me, at that point in time, to give you an idea of the respect that he garnered throughout the game."
"I can't think of anybody who had more of an impact in the game just by the mere notion that he is available," said Bernie Williams. "Teams adjusted their lineups and were so unorthodox. Righthanders would hit, pinch-hitting against him (to try to neutralize the legendary cutter, which was more effective against lefthanders). He really made people get away from their comfort zone and do some crazy things because he was pitching. I can't think of anybody that had that much of an impact in the game being a non-position player."
Said Jorge Posada: "Teams would do anything to get to you in the seventh and eighth inning, because in the ninth, it was pretty much done."
On Mariano Rivera Day, that was what the Giants did. With nothing to save, Rivera could not get one, and just had to settle for being his usual brilliant self. It's still amazing to watch him work - "He mastered his craft as well as anyone I've ever seen," Joe Girardi said - but it's not the same without Sinatra playing him off.