BALTIMORE – Late Wednesday night the New York Yankees called for Mariano Rivera again. And diligently he trotted from the bullpen into another game that needed to be finished. It was the third straight night the Yankees asked him to do this and given the value of a great closer's arm, especially one 42 years old, three nights is a lot. Especially in an early April chill.
But the Yankees were feeling desperate so early in this season. Their two previous games had been long, strenuous affairs that taxed their bullpen.
"We were in a bind," New York manager Joe Girardi later said. "He said he could go."
Typical Rivera. He always says he can go. The temptation is to think he will be here forever, that age means nothing and he will fling 91-mph cut fastballs past hitters half his age for another decade. On Wednesday, Matt Wieters, the Baltimore Orioles' 25-year-old catcher, waved feebly at a Rivera fastball, becoming the 1,116th strikeout victim of Rivera's career. A few minutes later he had dispatched of the Orioles and another Yankees win – the 605th saved by Rivera in his 18-year career – was complete.
"He has tomorrow off," Girardi said.
It was a joke because the Yankees do not play Thursday. And the manager smiled at his humor. Yet somehow you could imagine that if the Yankees were playing and found themselves facing a late-game dilemma that Girardi would at least consider the possibility of using Rivera. That's how automatic he's been.
This seems a more vulnerable Yankees team than many in recent years. The clubhouse is loaded with players who would have been the beginning of a magnificent All-Star team in 2003 – Eric Chavez, Andruw Jones, Freddy Garcia, CC Sabathia and Derek Jeter. None of their starting pitchers have overwhelmed in their first outings. Andy Pettitte is coming back at some point, but if the Yankees have to rely upon Pettitte, who had been comfortably retired until a few weeks ago, then they are in more trouble than anyone imagined.
Which is why Rivera matters so much. He brings calm. No matter how much insanity swirls around the Yankees, he hardly seems to notice, staring serenely at the catcher then flinging his cut fastball. Nothing changes.
As a child, fellow reliever Cory Wade used to watch Rivera pitch. Never in those years could Wade have imagined he'd one day be sitting beside him in the Yankees bullpen. It was impossible. Rivera would simply be too old. He'd have retired. Instead, Wade watches him go through his routine, the same one all the time: stretching, warming up, then nodding when the phone rings and the manager is asking if he can pitch one more night.
"It's amazing," Wade said.
On opening day, Rivera was not perfect. He gave up two runs, three hits and two walks in blowing a save in a 7-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. Since Rivera almost never blows saves, the loss screamed that something must be wrong. Maybe age had finally caught up to him. Maybe his cutter was gone. Maybe it was a sign he was done.
"That's human nature," Wade said, laughing at the suggestion. "Everyone gets so spoiled watching him save game after game that you expect he will always do it. Then he has one blip."
And everyone thinks the worst.
"Yet what does he do?" Wade asks. "He goes out the next three games and gets two saves. It's the nature of the beast, he's so great at what he does everyone is surprised when he isn't perfect. He makes it look so easy."
The three games in Baltimore should make people laugh at the notion that something is wrong with Rivera. Whatever had happened that first game was gone. He's the same dominating, devastating pitcher he has always been.
Late on Wednesday, Rivera was asked if the first game had upset him, if perhaps the slightest bit of alarm had crawled into his mind. Things do get magnified on opening days.
"To me it means nothing," he said. "It's only one game, there are 161 left. That's the game of baseball."
He's been avoiding questions about his age even as they come from everywhere now. The Yankees play their home opener on Friday and people are suggesting this might be his last one, that he might be like his old teammate Jorge Posada, who had played through all those great seasons with Rivera and fought the reality that his game had diminished before retiring after last season. Rivera smiles at the queries but says nothing.
You can see he wishes the questions would go away. But they come because nothing lasts forever and a manager can't keep dialing a bullpen telephone night after night expecting the same 91 mph cut fastball to sizzle past hitters. Eventually age catches Mariano Rivera too.
Eventually, he too will be hit. Or break down. Someday the fastball won't fool anyone the way it did Matt Wieters on Wednesday.
Then what kind of bind will the Yankees be in?
Related MLB video from Yahoo! Sports:
Other popular content on the Yahoo! network:
• Royals' Jeff Francoeur sends 20 pizzas to A's fans during game
• Temporary fix or turning point, Shabazz Muhammad will restore enthusiasm at UCLA
• Y! News: Mike Tyson on George Zimmerman: 'It's a disgrace he hasn't been shot yet'