In the wet, chilly first week of May, the Tampa Bay Rays swept a brief series at Yankee Stadium that had been shortened from three games to two due to rain. Both were tough losses for the Yanks, coming after they’d fought their way to late game-tying rallies.
On May 7, with the Yanks trailing 3-0 at the bottom of the eighth, Mark Teixeira hit a bases-clearing double to knot the score at 3-3 and force extra innings. But after pitching a scoreless ninth, Mariano Rivera was replaced in the tenth inning by lefty reliever Phil Coke, who surrendered what proved to be the game winning home run to Rays’ firstbaseman Carlos Pena.
At the time I’d written a column asking a question on the minds of many Yank fans: Why hadn’t Rivera, whose workload had been light that week, remained on the mound for a second inning of relief?
I would get my answer the next night following yet another bitter defeat for the Yanks — one that was especially shocking because of the future Hall of Fame closer’s role in giving Tampa a decisive lead.
For the second game in a row, the team had come back twice from an early four-run deficit to even things up at the bottom of the eighth. Called on to preserve the tie at the top of the ninth, however, Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria tagged Rivera for back-to-back home runs. It was the first time in his career that happened.
Crawford hit the first after Rivera shot him a steady stream of cutters with one four-seam fastball mixed in. All were in the 89-91 mph range. The ninth pitch, a 91 mph cutter, left the park in right field.
Longoria’s homer came after five pitches. The first four were 90-91 mph cutters. The fifth was an 89 mph four — seam fastball that Longoria smashed into the left field stands with a sound like a thunderclap.
Answering questions from the press hat day, manager Joe Girardi admitted that Rivera, who’d had offseason surgery to eliminate calcification — or a bone spur — in his right shoulder, had experienced some days “where he hasn’t felt the greatest.”
“The velocity is not there,” he’d said of Rivera’s cut fastball, which has in recent seasons typically registered at 93-94mph. “That’s part of it. I still think he’s coming back from the surgery he went through. That’s why we’ve been very careful with him.”
The cutter is of course Rivera’s trademark pitch, the key bullet in his arsenal, its velocity and movement running it sharply in on right-handed batters and away from lefties.
But what happens when some of that speed drops off?
The question remained in the background for almost a full month after Rivera was stunningly bested by the pair of Tampa hitters. Although he’d given up more hits than Yankee fans were accustomed to seeing in that period — and allowed home run in a rocky save against the Baltimore Orioles on May 20 — his strikeout rate was high and most innings thrown scoreless. Overall for the season, he was 12-for-13 in save opportunities going into Saturday’s game — the first in another rain-shortened series between the Yanks the Rays in the Bronx.
But, almost exactly a month after Rivera was stunningly beaten by Crawford and Longoria, bad history seemed to come around and bite him again. The game was uncannily similar to the May 7 loss. The Yanks had twice rallied from deficits, beginning the second with a dramatic Teixeira home run in the eighth. The Yanks went into the inning trailing 5-3. When it ended the game was tied at 5-5.
Rivera entered in the ninth to preserve the tie. When he was pulled from the game after inducing only two outs, the score was 7-5 Rays. He had faced six Tampa batters and left a pair of men on base for his replacement, Phil Coke. Before that inning ended, Tampa would tack on another pair runs to make the score 9-5 and withstand another Yank surge to hang onto a 9-7 victory.
This is how Rivera’s 2/3 of an inning vs. the Rays breaks down:
1) He threw five 90-92 mph cutters to shortstop Ben Zobrist. The fifth was hit out to left field for a triple.
2) He threw two four-seamers to Joe Dillon, one at 92 mph, the second at 93 mph. His third pitch, a 93 mph cutter was singled out to center.
3) He elicited a soft groundout from Dioner Navarro with three 91 mph pitches, a four-seam fastball followed by two cutters.
4) He threw Matt Joyce three cutters that ranged from 89-92 mph for what would appear on the box score as a flyball out — but that, in fact, might well have been an extra-base hit off the right field wall if not for an excellent running catch by Nick Swisher.
5) He issued an intentional walk to Evan Longoria to face outfielder B.J. Upton.
6) He threw three 92 mph cutters to Upton, the third of which was lined into centerfield for a single.
This brought Rivera’s disastrous outing to a close as he was removed from the game to watch the rest of the carnage — and as Yankee fans were left wondering whether this was just another rough spot along the way for the 39-year-old closer, or a sign that time was finally robbing him of his unparalleled effectiveness.
I think the answer probably falls somewhere in the middle. Rivera is the greatest reliever in the history of baseball. But he’s also human, vulnerable to the effects of aging — and recovering from shoulder surgery, as Girardi pointed out back in early May.
Yankee pitching coach Dave Eiland would likewise emphasize his return from surgery on Thursday, June 4, after Rivera notched his twelfth save of the season with a scoreless but dicey outing against the Texas Rangers in which he allowed a double to Michael Young and a single to Hank Blalock.
“The guy’s come off shoulder surgery,” he responded to a question about Rivera’s pitch speed, which that day had measured between 91-93 mph on the radar gun. “He’s never had to do that before. But if his velocity doesn’t ever go back up, he still has the command of his fastball — that late movement he has to both sides of the plate. He commands the baseball as good as anybody in the game, so for me his velocity is not a big deal. If it comes back, great. We think it will. But if it doesn’t, we’re still comfortable with what he can do where he’s at velocity-wise now.”
At his locker a few minutes later, I listened as Rivera himself assessed how he felt about the way he’s currently pitching with these words: “I’m okay. I’m okay?” he said. “I don’t have to ask for nothing better, you know what I mean? I’m gonna go there, I’m gonna give my best.”
When a reporter asked if he felt altogether back to himself after some rough early season outings, Rivera replied, “Well, I mean, I’m pitching, more, more. So, I have more opportunities. The longer you keep throwing on these occasions, everything is gonna be good.”
Never one to make excuses, Rivera was hardly unequivocal about his current physical condition. He is obviously aware he isn’t in top form.
So what’s next for him?
Rivera has for years reportedly thrown a changeup in Spring Training bullpen sessions, and he may have to expand his repertoire to occasionally include it in game situations, throwing hitters off-balance, and stopping them from waiting on his fastball when it lacks bite.
It’s also important that we remember he is made of flesh and blood that is still in the process of healing–and that we acknowledge the signs that his arm is getting stronger as the season progresses. Though not entirely back up to speed, his fastball has gained a mile or two from earlier in the season and is getting close to its optimum velocity. Also, as Eiland stressed, his comma
nd has been mostly superb.
There is certainly reason for concern, nevertheless. Rivera cannot go on eternally pitching at the level to which we’ve been accustomed. We have seen him get hit harder, and more often, this year than ever before. And will likely see more bumps in the road.
But even at the latter stages of his career, Rivera remains the best and most consistent closer in baseball.
I’d rather have him on the mound closing games for the Yankees than anyone. Bumps and all.