"Without Mo, I don't think we win [five] world championships," catcher Jorge Posada says. (The Yankees won the 1996, '98, '99 and 2000 titles under manager Joe Torre and the '09 championship under Joe Girardi.) "Maybe we run into two; 2000, I know we don't win that one."
After failing to reach the playoffs in 2008 for the first time since '93, the '09 Yankees had 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 have been the most valuable asset of all: an unbreakable closer who was as reliable as ever.
Rivera in 2009 was at the top of his game. At 28, he was undefeated in 54 appearances. A year later, he had more saves (45) than hits allowed (43) 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 ratio, missing his single-season best for ERA by .02 of a run. This year, at 39, he set a personal record with 36 consecutive converted save chances. He was 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."
This was 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.
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."
"You know what's coming," former Kansas City Royals first baseman Mike Sweeney once said of Rivera's stuff, "but you know what's coming in horror movies too. It still gets you."
ONE SUMMER DAY IN 2009 CHAD GAUDIN, A YANKEES pitcher working for his sixth organization, took a seat next to Rivera in the bullpen. The scene wasn't too different from one of those New Yorker cartoon drawings in which a man, having climbed some great peak, asks a serene guru a metaphysical question. How, at a time when most pitchers fail, are you able to continually succeed in clutch situations?
Rivera's answer: The secret is not so much confidence as focus. "Nothing derails him," Gaudin says. "No emotions get in the way. Ever. He is able to take all that energy of the moment and channel it into everything he has to do. Why doesn't everybody do that? Not everybody has the power or self-discipline."
Says Borzello, "He never speeds up his routine. If the [bullpen] phone rings, he goes through his routine at a very relaxed pace. There is no panic. In bullpens you see a lot of guys sprint to the mound, start firing pitches immediately, they can't breathe.... Mo, from Day One, was never like that. His thinking always was, I'll control it."