MINNEAPOLIS – The best pitch ever notched four more kill shots Wednesday night. Mariano Rivera(notes) throws a cut fastball that at its 55th foot takes a hairpin turn into the fists of left-handed batters, and their feeble attempts to hit it end up reinforcing a long-held certitude: The only thing more dangerous to lumber than wood-boring beetles is the New York Yankees' closer.
The impressiveness of Rivera's four-out, four-broken-bat save during the Yankees' thievery of home-field advantage from the Minnesota Twins in a 6-4 victory in Game 1 of the American League Division Series wasn't because he set some record. He once cracked five bats in an outing. Nor did he earn extra credit for turning baseballs into buzzsaws. An out is an out, shrapnel or not.
What's mystifying – what has mystified for more than a decade now and will continue to mystify until Rivera retires, which, even after his 40th birthday, remains a long way off – is that he throws a single pitch, a dirty bomb of a pitch, yes, but just one nonetheless. Not only can hitters damn near never make solid contact, they fare so poorly that the lone weapon at their disposal often turns into a useless recyclable.
Instead, the wounded wood ends up in the hands of batboys who bring it back to the dugout gingerly, the fear of splinters evermore palpable following a meeting with a cutter. The bat goes one of three places: in the trash can, a charity auction or a trophy case, affixed with the label: Mo got me, too.
[Big League Stew: Postseason officially opens with blown call on Golson's grab]
He's been breaking bats, after all, since the 1997 day when the cutter mysteriously appeared. Rivera credits it as a gift from God. Hitters have prayed to deities since he learned it. And though Sandy Koufax's curveball and Steve Carlton's slider and Nolan Ryan's fastball and Pedro Martinez's(notes) changeup may argue, Rivera's cutter is the best because it stands alone – nothing to complement it, nothing to throw hitters off its scent, no mystery, no compromise. Here it is. You cannot touch it. If you manage to, give your bat its last rites.
"He's taking someone's gamer that they've had a couple hits in. He makes sure there are no more hits left in that thing."
Exactly how many bats Rivera has slain is unknown. The New York Times kept a tally during the 2001 season and counted 44, including the five-spot against Toronto. Over 80 2/3 innings, that comes out to more than a half-bat per inning, and extrapolating that figure over Rivera's regular season and postseason innings, he has broken approximately 700. At about $100 a bat, Rivera has caused around $70,000 in wood damage. Termites would be proud.
Per postseason custom, the Yankees summoned Rivera for a four-out save Wednesday. With runners on second and third and the two-run lead precarious, Rivera threw three consecutive balls to Denard Span(notes) before forcing the count full. Span's swing on the 3-2 pitch ended routinely: a nothing ground ball to shortstop Derek Jeter(notes), and a fleck of Span's bat separating from the rest.
Orlando Hudson(notes) led off the ninth inning. He fought off cutter after cutter – high and inside, then low and inside, then low and outside, then high and outside. Finally, he got what looked like a hittable pitch. His bat crumbled like balsa.
"That's why he's the best closer in baseball," Hudson said. "That's the reason he's still out there. He's still throwing that."
Standing inside the batter's box and watching Rivera's cutter – it's an experience almost beyond description, Hudson said, and when he tried to do so, his most effective communication came via an onomatopoeia: "Vooooom!"
And he didn't quite do that. Delmon Young(notes) lined a ball to right field that Greg Golson(notes) caught for what should've been the game-ending out. Only the umpiring crew missed the call and gave Rivera an opportunity to rekindle some broken-bat glory.
Up stepped Jim Thome(notes), the fourth left-hander Rivera would face. In his previous 26 plate appearances against Rivera, Thome had swung at the first pitch twice, the last time nearly 12 years to the day, Oct. 7, 1998, in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series. The lumberjack's hack Thome took ended with the distinct thud of fractured timber, and the ball soon thereafter settled into Alex Rodriguez's(notes) glove for the final out.
The deed was done. Four outs. Four broken bats.
"I don't keep track of that," Rivera said.
Because he knows that not all dead wood is equal. One time, he fractured three bats in one inning. All three swings fell for hits, including one of the most famous ever. Even on the worst night of his career, Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, Rivera was breaking bats.
That he continues to do so truly is a marvel. Jeter is showing the signs of aging. Andy Pettitte(notes), the Yankees' starter in Game 2, had difficulty staying healthy this season. Posada's defensive skills are nonexistent, and the wear of the position limited him to 78 starts there this season, two fewer than Francisco Cervelli(notes).
Meanwhile, Rivera chugs on, the one-pitch express, the ageless wonder, the bat-breaking genius. Hitters will rejoice when he leaves baseball, tickled that they no longer have to wonder why they can't figure out what should be so conquerable. Though they'll be far from the most excited.
That night, there will be one hell of a party on bat racks everywhere.