NEW YORK – Better ballpark, better ballclub, better closer. Game, set and match.
The Yankees remain kings of New York until further notice. Judging by the way they manhandled the misbegotten Mets in five of six interleague meetings, taking two out of three in Yankee Stadium and three straight this weekend in Citi Field by an aggregate score of 44-17, the expiration date on their most favored team status is stamped with something other than 2009.
As for applying the finishing touch to victories, the Mets can roll out K-Rod, Krypton Man or King Kong, it won't make a difference. The Yankees' Mariano Rivera(notes), the heavyweight champion of closers, is nowhere close to retiring his belt, as he proved in spectacular fashion Sunday night by not only recording four outs for his 500th save, but by going toe-to-toe with Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez(notes) with a bat in his hands and emerging triumphant, drawing a bases-loaded walk for his first career RBI.
"After the game, he said, 'Congratulations, you're the best, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,' " said Rivera, who is 19 years removed from the day he received a $3,000 bonus to sign with the Yankees in Panama, 13 years removed from his first career save, and untold years from calling it a career.
"As long as that shoulder and elbow stay healthy,'' said pitcher Andy Pettitte(notes), who with Jeter and catcher Jorge Posada(notes) have been with the 39-year-old Rivera for most of the journey. "I imagine he can do this as long as he wants to.''
Rivera was summoned to face pinch-hitter Omir Santos(notes) with two outs in the eighth after Brian Bruney(notes) had walked the potential tying and go-ahead runs. "Has to be like that,'' Rivera said about being asked by manager Joe Girardi to record four outs. "Can't be easy, one pitch, one out.''
After fouling off four pitches while running the count to 3-and-2, Santos, like both teams, the umpires, the grounds crew, the concessionaires and the 41,315 in attendance, knew what was coming: the cutter, the "bless" pitch Rivera discovered by accident while playing a game of catch with teammate Ramiro Mendoza in 1997.
"The pitch that he struck out the kid Santos tonight cut as much as I've seen balls cut all year,'' said Pettitte, who was watching on TV in the Yankees' clubhouse. "I don't know how much it moved, but it moved a lot. It looked like it was a few balls off the inside of the plate and ended up getting a lot of the plate.''
This one, Rivera said, was his backdoor cutter, which looks as if it intends to scrape the lettering off a hitter's uniform, then veers across the plate. He came inside, he said, after Santos had lined a ball just foul down the right-field line.
"It definitely had a lot of movement,'' Rivera said. "Quick and short.''
Rodriguez, who has been all that the Mets could have hoped for when they signed him as a free agent before the season, already had endured one of the most inelegant moments of this rivalry, losing a game in Yankee Stadium when Mets second baseman Luis Castillo(notes) dropped a routine pop fly by Alex Rodriguez(notes) for what should have been the final out of a Mets win.
This would be another tough loss. K-Rod was in the game in the ninth although the Mets trailed 3-2. A popup by Posada fell between shortstop Cora and second baseman Castillo for a single after they crossed signals. K-Rod got an out, walked Brett Gardner(notes), got another out, then walked Jeter intentionally to load the bases.
Because of some earlier double-switching, Rivera was the next scheduled hitter. On deck, though, stood Francisco Cervelli(notes), the Yankees' rookie catcher. Decoys this obvious are usually found only in rod-and-gun shops.
"I knew,'' Cervelli said with a broad smile, "there was no at-bat for me, but I tried to make them think that.''
The charade ended, Cervelli went to the dugout, and out emerged Rivera, toting Cody Ransom's(notes) bat, outfitted in Ransom's batting gloves and a helmet belonging to pitcher Alfredo Aceves(notes). Rivera doesn't own a helmet – in 15 seasons in the big leagues, he'd come to bat just three times in the regular season (also three times in the postseason) and had never been on base. In 1996, he struck out in Philadelphia. Wednesday night in Atlanta, he was told not to swing, and lined out to center.
And now this, against the man whom the Mets had hired to rival Rivera for last-call dominance. Rodriguez missed with his first two pitches. Rivera took the next two pitches for strikes, then swung at another fastball and fouled it back.
Rivera had his first walk and first RBI.
The Yankees had an insurance run.
Rodriguez, meanwhile, had no place to hide.
"A tough situation for everybody,'' Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain(notes) said. "Bases loaded, that puts on a little more pressure. Mo's an athlete. He's not just going to give it away. It was a good at-bat.''
When the inning ended, Jeter stopped Rivera on his way to the dugout.
"He was telling me,'' Rivera said, "to take a bigger lead off first base.''
Rivera returned to more familiar territory in the bottom of the ninth. Daniel Murphy(notes) lined an opposite-field single with two outs, but one pitch later it was over and Rivera was in the company of Trevor Hoffman(notes) as the game's only 500-save pitchers.
"I think they were more happy,'' Rivera said, "than I was.''
Ransom tucked his bat in a sanitary sock to take home. With interleague play over, Rivera shouldn't need it for awhile.
"No, he's done,'' Jeter said. "Not till next year. No more at-bats for him.''