It seemed Mariano Rivera’s career might have prematurely ended the last time he visited Kauffman Stadium.
Baseball’s all-time saves leader is back, and he’s sticking to his routine, too.
Rivera returns to Kansas City for the first time since tearing his ACL there as the New York Yankees face the Royals on Friday night.
Last season was supposed to be the finale of Rivera’s spectacular 18-year career, but the swan-song tour came to an abrupt end May 3 in Kansas City. While shagging fly balls in the outfield during batting practice, Rivera’s knee buckled and he crashed to the ground in obvious pain.
A torn ACL ended his season, but the 43-year-old closer is back for one more year.
“Nothing is going to change. I’m going to do what I love to do,” Rivera said of shagging fly balls again. “Yes, I got hurt like this. But I’m going to enjoy it. It’s nothing to regret.”
Rivera is also planning to go to dinner with the Royals’ doctor who helped him.
“We’ll stop at a place he said was good,” the 12-time All-Star said. “I’m just going to have the same fun that I have been having. The same fun I’ve always had. That’s not going to put me down or say, ‘You know what? I don’t want to be here.’ I want to be there. I want to be there and to enjoy, to see the doctor that took me to the hospital and say, ‘Thank you.’ I want that.
“It’s not to feel sorry. It’s to have joy, because I’m still doing what I love to do.”
He’s doing it superbly, posting a 1.88 ERA and converting all 13 save chances, extending his all-time record to 621. He’s shut the door in each of the last two games as the Yankees (20-13) won two of three at Colorado, including Thursday’s 3-1 victory.
Rivera has converted 35 of 37 save opportunities against the Royals (18-13), including 27 in a row dating to Aug. 18, 1998.
Phil Hughes (1-2, 3.60 ERA) will look to beat Kansas City for the fifth straight time. He owns a 1.93 ERA and 30 strikeouts in his last four starts overall, spanning 28 innings, after allowing nine runs in seven innings through his first two.
The right-hander turned in his best effort of the season Saturday, yielding four hits and striking out nine in eight scoreless innings of a 4-2 home win over Oakland.
“I feel like I’m kind of clicking right now,” Hughes said. “I’m just happy that I’m starting to find my stride and hopefully we can maintain what I’m doing throughout the course of the season.”
Royals manager Ned Yost felt keeping the same course wasn’t a good idea with his team having dropped three straight entering Thursday, so he shuffled the lineup and Kansas City won 6-2 at Baltimore.
Alex Gordon was moved from the leadoff spot to third and responded with two hits, including a two-run homer. He’s 7 for 17 with five RBIs over the past four games, homering in each of the last three.
“I just think the most important two spots we have in the lineup now should be manned by Gordy and Billy, three and four,” Yost told the team’s official website. “Everything else is kind of interchangeable, matchups, who’s producing.”
Butler has hit .378 with 10 RBIs in his last 11 games against the Yankees, and Gordon batted .346 in last season’s seven meetings as Kansas City went 3-4.
Royals right-hander Wade Davis (2-2, 4.75) will seek his first win in four starts, having gone 0-2 with a 7.53 ERA over the last three with 10 walks in 14 1-3 innings. However, he’s coming off his second quality start of the season, yielding one run in six innings in a 6-5 win over the Chicago White Sox on Sunday.
Davis is 2-3 with a 4.70 ERA in six starts versus the Yankees.