SI Vault
 
MARIANO SAVES
TOM VERDUCCI
October 05, 2009
As the gates swing open upon another October, baseball will once again attempt to divine one of the game's great mysteries: how a man, closing fast on 40 and armed with but a single pitch, continues to dominate in the clutch like no other player
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 05, 2009

Mariano Saves

As the gates swing open upon another October, baseball will once again attempt to divine one of the game's great mysteries: how a man, closing fast on 40 and armed with but a single pitch, continues to dominate in the clutch like no other player

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

On this night, the last plate appearance of the game for Gross plays out the same way as hundreds of other at bats against Rivera have played out all these years: a cutter on the hands, a broken bat and a feeble pop-up to third base. Rivera alone is responsible for a small forest of destroyed wood, so much so that hitters have been known to use their batting practice bats against him rather than risking their gamers.

"I admit I've thought about it," Gross says. "It's like when you have a long carry over water in golf. Do you drop that old ball in your bag or do you go ahead and hit the brand-new Titleist?"

If batters know the cutter is coming, why can't they hit it? First, Rivera throws enough variations of the cutter to keep hitters honest. He can throw the classic cutter on the hands of a lefty or he can start it off the plate and cut it back to the outside corner, known as the backdoor cutter. Further, by varying the pressure from his fingertips, he can vary how much the ball cuts. And finally, he almost never misses his intended spot.

"A lot of lefthanded hitters like the ball down and in," says Gross, who bats lefty, "and if the pitch is down there, you can just drop the head of the bat on it and square it up. But he makes sure to keep that cutter up just enough where you can't get to it. I've faced him, like, nine times. I may have two jam shots that eked over the infield for hits. I've come back to the dugout with only a piece of the bat left in my hands probably three times. I've struck out two or three times. I hit one ball well. One."

The most dastardly aspect of the pitch is that, like a teenager, the cutter starts misbehaving just when it gets out of sight. A hitter cannot track a delivery out of a pitcher's hand all the way to the point of contact; his eyes just can't maintain their focus on something moving that fast toward him. A hitter swings for the point where he judges the ball will be, not where he last saw it. Rivera's cutter doesn't move until those last five feet when the hitter is no longer tracking it.

"His ball, the last time you see it, that's when it starts doing this—wffft!" Ortiz says, indicating the late movement. "You don't see it just when it starts to cut. You can make up your mind, O.K., when he starts to throw it inside, I've got to take it because it's going to finish in off the plate. But there are times when he throws me pitches inside and I take them and the umpire calls it a strike because that one didn't have the big cut. That's when he's really sharp, when he can control how much it cuts."

Lefthanders have actually fared worse against Rivera (.206 batting average) than righthanders (.218) in his career. He has given up just one opposite-field home run to a lefty in his career, and that was 14 years ago, in his precutter days. He has not allowed a home run on 2 and 0, a count normally heavily advantageous to hitters sitting on fastballs. And control? Until last week, when the Angels' Kendry Morales drew a free pass to begin the bottom of the ninth, Rivera hadn't walked the leadoff man in the ninth with a one-run lead since 2005. He has thrown three balls, never mind four, to only 14% of the hitters he has faced.

"I've actually had a couple of guys tell me the approach they take against Mariano is not to swing at all," Gross said. "They think more than 50 percent of his pitches are never in the strike zone. Those are the ones guys swing at and can't hit. So some guys have told me they won't swing because they think he's not going to throw you three pitches that are in the strike zone.

"Think about that. If the game is on the line and you need a hit, do you stick with that approach? I don't know if I could. But against Mariano, some guys swear you're better off not swinging at all."

Rivera's success with the cutter has influenced an entire generation of pitchers, much as Sutter did with his split-finger in the 1980s. The cutter has become wildly popular, with pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Danny Haren and Scott Feldman among the many who have added one in recent years. Rivera, in fact, showed Halladay how to deliver it when they were teammates at the 2003 All-Star Game.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8