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Yankee Preview Saturday: Mariano Rivera

Posted By Alex Belth On February 27, 2004 @ 9:36 pm In Bronx Banter | Comments Disabled

“C” is For Closers: Enter Sandman

By Chris DeRosa

After the 1999 World Series, Yankee closer and series MVP Mariano Rivera said that he would give it four more years and then return to his native Panama to be an evangelical minister of a church he was building there. Going into 2004, Iíd say that on the balance, New York fans should be happy that great pitchers donít always follow through on their retirement plans.

The Yankees too should be happy, and about as optimistic as possible about a 34 year-old relief ace who has paid visits to the disabled list in each of the last two seasons. Shoulder and groin injuries limited Rivera to only 46 innings in 2002 and cost him last April. After struggling a bit in May, things seemed to click for him and he tore through June and July throwing about as well as ever. August, however, was one of the worst extended stretches of Riveraís career:

Aug 1st: Blew 2-1 lead in the 8th (broke Tejadaís bat but Soriano couldnít field the ball).

Aug 3rd: Came into Pettitteís 1-0 shutout with man on in 9th, let up single and double to lose game.

Aug 6th: Rangers hand him second consecutive loss.

Aug 7th: Rangers roughed him up again in a shaky save

Aug 15th: Gave up homer to Jack Cust (the Orioles have been toughest on Mo historically).

Aug 16th: Luis Matos homered to tie game in 9th (the game the Yanks won because Cust fell down twice)

Aug 20th: NY lead 8-2 in the 9th when KC greeted him with four straight hits. Yanks squirmed out of it 8-7.

There were a couple of good ones in there too, but the Yankee bullpen was in agony. The team had gone into Boston in late July and opened the series with a win to take a 3.5 game lead in the AL East. From there, they went 9-9, with seven of the losses charged to the bullpen. Armando Benitez, Al Osuna, Sterling Hitchcock, Jesse Orosco and Chris Hammond surrounded Riveraís bad stretch with memorable meltdowns of their own. Six poor performances in eleven August outings ouch. Was he losing it?

He wasnít. A light workload for the rest of August helped him bounce back and have a good September. In the end, it was a fine season. He worked 70.2 innings and allowed only 61 hits and 3 homers. He set career-best marks in walks allowed (10) and ERA (1.66). Considering the number of games Rivera missed on the DL (in 1998, 2002, and 2003), Joe Torre worked him at a harder pace than he had in any season since he became the closer in 1997:

Year   Games "Available"   Batters Faced   BF/GA
1996     162         425      2.62
1997     162         301      1.86
1998     149         246      1.65
1999     162         268      1.65
2000     162         311      1.92
2001     162         310      1.91
2002     105         187      1.78
2003     137         277      2.02

His fine totals notwithstanding, Rivera did react entirely well to this quickening of pace. Here are the records of the 12 relief aces with at least 30 saves last year when pitching on no daysí rest:

Unrested Closer       ERA   IP    H    Run   ER   HR   BB   K
John Smoltz         0.41   22.0   11    2    1    0    3   23
Troy Percival        0.75   12.0    2    1    1    1   4  12
Keith Foulke         1.11   24.3   15    3    3    2   9  20
Billy Wagner         1.35   26.7   17    4    4    1  11   31
Eric Gagne          1.82   29.7   17    6    6    0    6   54
Eddie Guardado       3.18   17.0   15    6    6    1   3   17
Uegeth Urbina        3.46   26.0   21   10   10    2   13   31
Tim Worrell         3.46   26.0   24   10   10    3    5   20
Mariano Rivera       3.48   20.7   29    9    8    2    1  19
Jorge Julio         3.52   15.3   13    6    6    1    3  17
Joe Borowski        4.86   16.7   13    9    9    2   4  18
Rocky Biddle         4.91   25.7   30   15   14    3    9   19

Among the elite closers, John Smoltz, Keith Foulke, Billy Wagner, and Eric Gagne were all called upon without rest as often as Rivera, but were their normally deadly selves. Mariano was a lot more vulnerable when he had to work in consecutive games, allowed 29 hits in 20.7 innings. His 1.66 ERA is also a little deceptive. Just looking at how many RBIs a closer gave up can be a quick and dirty corrective counterweight to his ERA when you want to know what kind of year the guy had in the pinches:

30-Save Closers           BF   RBI   RBI/BF
Eric Gagne              306   10    .033
Billy Wagner            335   17    .051
John Smoltz             244   16    .066
Keith Foulke            338   25    .074
Joe Borowski            280   25    .089
Eddie Guaradado          260   24    .092
Troy Percival            206   20    .097
Mariano Rivera          277   30    .108
Uegeth Urbina           316   36    .114
Jorge Julio           273   36    .132
Rocky Biddle           330   44    .133
Tim Worrell            335   45    .134

Mo was as hard on lefties as ever, but right-handed hitters got better swings than usual (.283/.336/.398). None of which is to say Rivera didnít have a very good year and isnít a good bat to have another one in 2004. Certainly his October performance gave no cause for alarm. Rivera threw 16.7 innings and allowed only one run, which dropped his lifetime postseason ERA to 0.75.

Against Minnesota, Rivera notched a pair of no-hit, no-walk two-inning saves. In the Game 3 frenzy in Fenway, he set down six straight Boston batters to protect the Yankeesí 4-3 lead. After the game, Roger Clemens marveled at his apparent serenity, “You take your worst


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