NEW YORK – Just as the shadows were lengthening Sunday afternoon, Mariano Rivera(notes) pitched a perfect ninth inning, and the New York Yankees returned to first place in the AL East, and everybody went home reasonably satisfied the ninth inning was safe again.
Rivera smiled. The people who watched the final out while standing and stomping and holding their breaths smiled. The guys who filed out from the dugout and gathered near second base smiled.
The previous 24 hours hadn't been so reassuring.
See, Rivera had been knocked around by the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday. He'd pitched himself into some hitters' counts and his cutter had found some bat barrels and at Yankee Stadium very few conditions are allowed to stand all by themselves.
So, Rivera giving up four runs – three earned – and taking the loss naturally reflected his advancing age (39), his ineffective out pitch (cutter), or his inability to adjust to today's hitters (Rays, this time, but it might as well have been the Red Sox).
And if none of those, then it was the fault of his manager, who'd clearly insulted the esteemed Rivera by ordering him to walk the sturdy (if ailing) Evan Longoria(notes) to pitch to the .218-hitting B.J. Upton(notes), who singled in the second of those ninth-inning runs that would beat the Yankees.
It's exhausting, of course, keeping track of the dramas and crises and then resolving them all the next day, which is what happened Sunday when Rivera buzz-sawed Matt Joyce(notes), Gabe Gross(notes) and – you ready for the symmetry here? – Longoria on 10 pitches (eight of them strikes) and the Yankees won by a run.
For the past, oh, four or five years, the occasional misstep or lucky swing or bad day has elicited all the usual wobbly-voiced whispers about the end for Mo. One day it'll be true. That day wasn't Saturday, again. Not even close.
Because, when another ninth inning came around, and another one-run lead needed protecting, the Rays might as well have packed their bat bags and dragged them to the bus. Rivera was steady at 92 mph with his cutter. He worked about a foot from the lefties' hands, and about four feet from Longoria's. They played his song, the people went a little crazy, and the slight, elegant Panamanian calmly pitched the Yankees into another post-game handshake. That's 495, not counting the 34 in the postseason.
He's been doing this regularly since 1997, so Rivera is familiar with the way it goes.
"You'd think they'd learn," he said on his way out the door Sunday, grinning brightly, not at all unhappy. "Every year it happens."
This ninth-inning resurrection was different than most, however, if not all. And it speaks to the ballplayer Rivera is, and the teammate he is, and even the person he is.
For several hours before Rivera took the ball Saturday afternoon in that tie game, he'd suffered with a stomach ailment that brought aches and repeated vomiting, according to one Yankee. Rivera had rolled off the trainer's table, where he'd hoped to sleep it off, and into the bullpen in the eighth inning, when he began to warm up.
So, no, he didn't have his best command. And, no, he didn't have his best fastball.
But, he didn't sprinkle the Yankee Stadium mound with breakfast, which, in itself, was a small victory, even in defeat.
"He was so upset afterward," the teammate said.
And yet, Rivera did not mention it after the game, and he did not reveal it late Sunday afternoon, when it would have played less like an excuse than, in victory, the simple retelling of a trying 30 hours. He did not hang those hittable fastballs or that loss on his illness. He did not blame manager Joe Girardi for asking him to pitch in a tie game when a healthier body might have – and probably should have – done.
He accepted the baseball.
That was that.
A day later, when clearly his vigor had returned and the Rays had been helpless, Rivera said only that these are the public and emotional wanderings he accepts as a closer, indeed, as the Yankees' closer. He said he slept fine Saturday night, and that he would again Sunday night.
"Yesterday was yesterday," he said.
Today, he ate. And held it down.
"I'm happy that we won," he said. "That's the most important thing. It's not personal."
Asked if he felt better than he had the day before, Rivera said, "Oh, yeah. A lot better. Everything. The cutter. Myself. Everything."
It's all bound to come up again in the coming days. The Yankees on Tuesday begin a three-game series in Boston. They are winless in five games against the Red Sox this season. And Rivera has been vulnerable against them, a late-career anomaly that includes his only blown save this season.
You can be sure, of course, he'll take the ball. You can be sure a lot will be made of it.
After that, he said, "Whatever happens, happens."
- Mariano Rivera