Another great escape for Rivera
In a postseason of ninth-inning meltdowns, Mariano Rivera remains a magician
Rivera recorded six outs in Game 2 for his for 10th career World Series save
Rivera's cutter isn't as nasty as it once was, but it's still unbelievably effective
NEW YORK -- Someday, the magic runs out. Because that's what it is, right? Magic. The ninth inning is the Chinese Water Torture Cell. The ninth inning is handcuffs and shackles and a burlap sack and a solid oak box with shiny steel chains and seven unbreakable locks keeping those chains tight. The ninth inning is for escape artists, and escape artists grow old, and the magic runs out. Someday.
And here is Mariano Rivera again. Here is Houdini hanging upside down high over a city. Here is the lovely assistant in a box pierced with swords. Here is the magician engulfed in fire. Here is the ninth inning again, in the chill of another October night, in another World Series the Yankees cannot stand to lose. This time it's the Phillies at the plate, and it's Yankee Stadium, and the score is 3-1. But does it really matter? Maybe the score is 5-4 and it's in San Diego. Maybe it's 4-3 and it's Boston. Maybe it's tied in Anaheim. What difference does it make? Rivera performed magic everywhere.
Only someday it has to run out. Even Rivera isn't immune to age. You can see the passing years in his face. You can see it around his eyes. His fastball has lost a little of it's speed. And the ninth inning stays young and threatening. Things happen in the ninth thing. Unpredictable things. Unlucky things. Unfortunate things.
There are so many ways for the ninth inning to go wrong, so many ways to find a loss in the shadow of victory. Look at Minnesota's Joe Nathan, one of the best closers around, and this postseason he found himself unable to get out of the handcuffs. Look at Philadelphia's Brad Lidge -- astonishing a year ago, didn't blow a save all year. This year, it has been failed escape after failed escape. This is how it goes in the ninth inning.
Someday this happens to Rivera. It is inevitable. Maybe it would happen Thursday night in the Bronx -- as good a time as any. The Yankees led 2-1 going into the eighth inning, and New York manager Joe Girardi called for Rivera to throw two innings because Yankee managers have come to expect his invincibility. Rivera struggled through the eighth, escaped with a double play that looked like a bad call. The Yankees gave him one more run. And then it was the ninth, and the spotlight was on, and Rivera walked out to the mound.
Quick point: There's no stadium in baseball quite as relaxed and certain as Yankee Stadium in the ninth inning with a lead. Rivera has not been perfect in his remarkable 15-year career ... but close enough. He has been so good that New York fans have grown almost unaffected by the tension and fear that is supposed to afflict the body in the ninth inning of a close game. With other closers -- even the best closers -- there's a jolt of adrenaline that runs through the stadium. It's like the beginning of a Springsteen concert. Here we go! This is going to be great! You rock!
But with Rivera -- even if he does enter to the strains of Metallica's Enter Sandman -- the feeling is different. It's more like the feeling of a superhero arriving on the scene. Thank God you're here, Superman! In New York, the game is won when Rivera steps on the mound. The rest is performance.
And so, the feeling for this ninth inning was like the feeling of pretty much every Rivera ninth inning: The Yankees win. You could feel that confidence all around. Yes, the Phillies are defending World Champs. Yes, the Phillies were sending to the plate Ryan Howard, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez -- three players with 115 home runs combined this season. Yes, the Yankees trailed the series, and a loss here spelled pure doom.
So what. This was Mariano Rivera. The Yankees win.
Rivera dispatched of Howard with three pitches. The first, an 89-mph cutter that sliced the low inside corner of the strike zone, was fouled away. The second, an 89-mph cutter that sliced the high inside corner of the strike zone, was fouled away. The third, an 89-mph cutter that was probably an iPhone's width outside, was called strike three. Arguing the call was pointless: That was Rivera on the mound. Houdini gets to examine the handcuffs before he puts them on. One away.
Werth was more difficult. He battled Rivera for five pitches before hitting a 90-mph cutter to second base, a soft liner. Two away.
Ibanez stepped in. He had faced Rivera many times through the years. Ibanez laughs when he hears people say that Rivera has not changed -- of course he has changed. In his younger days, when he threw that cutter 94 mph, when it was a nasty, angry pitch, Rivera would throw it the same way again and again and again: It would start on the inside corner and rush in on a left-handed batter, like an angry bee. Again and again. Same trick every time. He would throw that bat-breaker pitch, and if he threw it right (and he always seemed to throw it right) it was utterly unhittable.
He still throws that bat-breaker pitch, of course. But, now the pitch is 90 mph, or 89, and maybe it isn't quite as nasty or quite as angry. And so, he changes just a little. "Now he will work both sides of the plate," Ibanez says. "Now he will work the ball different way, he will sink it a little bit. It's so subtle. But that's what makes him so special. He's the best ever."
Rivera threw one of those outside cutters, and Ibanez saw it well, drove it the other way, to left-center, a double. A rally! Now the tying run was coming to the plate. And it wasn't just any tying run: It was slugger from St. John, Canada named Matt Stairs. Perfect. The Phillies needed a home run. Well, Stairs has hit 259 home runs in his career. More, he has tried to hit 5,838 home runs. He determined at some point that the way he could make his living as a baseball player was to see mistake pitches and hit them over walls. And now, with the World Series on the line, he went up there looking for Rivera to make a mistake.
Rivera threw him five pitches. All five were 90 mph. All five were on the inside part of the plate -- the elder version of his old bat-breaker pitch. Stairs took one for a strike. He fouled one off. He took two for balls. And then, it was the big pitch, and Stairs knew just were to look, and he knew just how hard to swing, and Yankee Stadium was loud and the cheers were certain, and Rivera pitched.
Someday, the magic runs out. There's no doubt about it. Someday the locks don't open or the trap door gets stuck or the water pours into the wrong part of the contraption. Someday. But Thursday, Mariano Rivera threw the last pitch down and in, and Stairs swung over it, and the Yankees won. The World Series is tied 1-1.
"Kids," Ibanez would say of Rivera. "Don't try this at home."
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