Rivera now has an explanation for what happened to him in 1997. The cut fastball was a gift from God. The surest thing in baseball is sure of this. "Ohhhhh, yeah," he says, nodding atop the steps of the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards. "A thousand percent. A thousand percent sure. Just a gift from the Lord."
The blessed right arm has become the Hammer of God, largely on the strength of that one pitch, its impact most resoundingly felt in October. In 1171/3 career postseason innings Rivera has allowed but 10 earned runs; his 0.77 ERA is the lowest among all pitchers with at least 30 innings. He is the only man in history to get the last out of the World Series three times. No one is close to his record 34 postseason saves. And while most closers are three-out specialists, Rivera even does his own setup work. Since 1998 he has 26 postseason saves of at least four outs. The rest of baseball combined has 33 such saves during that period, and no pitcher has more than four.
"Without Mo, I don't think we win four world championships," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada says, referring to the 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 titles under manager Joe Torre. "Maybe we run into two; 2000, I know we don't win that one. You've got a guy you can use for two innings, having days off, not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow. Throw him in the eighth, and he'll get you six outs."
Says Torre, "Let's face it. The regular season for Mo is great, but that's the cupcakes and the ice cream. What separates him from everybody else is what he's done in the postseason."
Rivera is both the sine qua non of New York's dynasty and the franchise's hope to return to glory. Next week, the Hammer of God returns to October for the 14th time. After failing to reach the playoffs last year for the first time since 1993, the Yankees have the best record in baseball, the most home runs, the highest-scoring lineup, and the highest-paid catcher, first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, starting pitcher and, yes, reliever. Amid such riches Rivera may be the most valuable asset of all: an unbreakable closer who is as reliable as ever.
"To me October is what we do in spring training; October is what we do in February," Rivera says. "We don't do all that preparation and all that teamwork and all that running for the season. I don't just think regular season. I think playoffs. World Series. That's how I think."
Rivera enters October at the top of his game. At 28, he was undefeated in 54 games. A year later, he had more saves than hits allowed and went unscored upon over his final 36 games, eight of them in the postseason. At 34, he had a career-high 53 saves. At 38, he set career bests for WHIP and strikeout-to-walk rate, missing his season best for ERA by .02 of a run. This year, at 39, he set a personal record with 36 consecutive converted save chances and, at week's end, had allowed three earned runs since June 16, a 38-game span in which hitters have batted .153 against him. He has been successful in 83 of 86 save opportunities at ages 38 and 39.
"The numbers make it seem like I'm having my best years late in my career," Rivera says. "But I don't feel that. I feel good; don't get me wrong. I know my fastball isn't what it was 15 years ago. But it's still good. It would be hard for me to say that I'm having my best years now. I know what the numbers say, but as a pitcher I don't believe it."
Rivera is on track for a second sub-2.00 ERA season since turning 38. Among pitchers who have thrown at least 70 innings, only Cy Young and Hoyt Wilhelm have pulled off such a trick. This would be Rivera's ninth sub-2.00 season. Such prosperity would be remarkable under any circumstance, but it is especially extraordinary because it has been built on a single pitch. The one that Rivera—well, his coaches, really—initially resisted has become the signature pitch of his generation, much like Hubbell's screwball, Koufax's curve, Ryan's fastball and Sutter's splitter. Even in that elite company Rivera's cutter stands out. Those pitches were enhanced by secondary weapons in the pitcher's arsenal, something with different spin and velocity. Rivera works without such a complement. He throws his cutter 92% of the time; otherwise, he uses the pitch's fraternal twin, a two-seam fastball, which he throws with the same velocity (usually 91 or 92 mph, down several ticks from his prime).
Think about that. Deception, accomplished through the power of choice, is a pillar of pitching. Rivera's approach is so elemental that Posada often doesn't even bother giving him a sign. "I'll just go like this," Posada says, waving both hands toward his body, "like, Let's go. Bring it on."