Yankees closer delivers 1-2-3 eighth -- not ninth -- after standing ovation
NEW YORK -- Mariano Rivera's spikes crunched into the warning track as Metallica's "Enter Sandman" began its familiar strains over the public address system, accompanying the all-time saves leader for one last All-Star Game jog across the outfield grass.
Rivera scaled the back of the mound, looked around, and realized he was completely alone on the playing field. For nearly two minutes, it remained that way, as players in both dugouts and bullpens kept their distance and applauded the 43-year-old's final appearance in the Midsummer Classic.
"When I got to the mound, I saw both sides, both teams in the dugout, and it was amazing," Rivera said. "It almost made me cry, too. I was close. It was amazing -- a scene that I will never forget."
It was odd to see Rivera in the eighth inning and not his customary ninth, but American League manager Jim Leyland wanted to ensure that Rivera would be able to appear in the game -- something that might have been impossible if the National League rallied to take an eighth-inning lead against another pitcher.
That wasn't going to happen with Rivera on the hill, not on this night. After doffing his cap to all corners of Citi Field, Rivera was finally joined by his teammates and set down the NL in order with a memorable 16-pitch frame, inducing two groundouts and a lineout to left field.
"This one, I think that the only one that will top this is the World Series," Rivera said. "Besides that, I mean, it has been outstanding. Especially when you are not expecting this. I wanted to pitch. I wanted to come to the game, and since this will be my last one, I wanted to enjoy it and be able to pitch for the last time in the All-Star Game. You know, the rest was indescribable."
Leyland had kept his options open while discussing the All-Star Game with the media, only promising that Rivera would pitch -- not when. Before Tuesday's game, Rivera was the last to address the AL players, following Leyland and outfielder Torii Hunter, and even the grizzled Leyland acknowledged he felt tugs of emotion listening to Rivera speak.
"I said to the players before the game, 'I'm not a motivational speaker, but my motivation for tonight is to work our fannies off and bring in the greatest closer in of all time,'" Leyland said. "If something freaky would have happened in the eighth to score some runs and take the lead, there possibly wouldn't have been a ninth, so that's why I did it."
Rivera was informed of the plan during batting practice and told Leyland it was a "great idea," and so warming up for the eighth was not a surprise to him. He jogged in at the half-inning change, flushing away Neil Diamond's on-field rendition of "Sweet Caroline" with the backing of James Hetfield's clean guitar riffs.
Making use of his late-arriving defenders, Rivera set down the Brewers' Jean Segura (groundout to second base), the Cardinals' Allen Craig (lineout to left field) and the Brewers' Carlos Gomez (groundout to shortstop). Perhaps the only shock was that all three bats survived the night.
"When I got to the mound, I saw both sides, both teams in the dugout, and it was amazing. ... It was amazing -- a scene that I will never forget."
-- Mariano Rivera
"That's one of the moments I'll never forget," Craig said. "That was probably one of the coolest at-bats I've had in my career. I saw some cutters. Shocking, right? Then more cutters."
The clean inning preserved Rivera's career All-Star Game ERA at a perfect 0.00 before Joe Nathan hurled a scoreless ninth for the save.
"It was cool. It was more to get him his credit and get him that moment, to make sure he got in the game," Nathan said. "It was pretty cool to hand over a save ball to him that he got a hold in. He doesn't have too many holds in his career."
First baseman Prince Fielder planted the final out ball in Rivera's glove, which he said was "cool, because in 1996, I was there in the clubhouse for his first World Series." Rivera then exchanged some words of appreciation with his catcher, the Royals' Salvador Perez.
"I just said to him, 'I just feel so happy to catch him the last All-Star Game,'" Perez said. "That means a lot to me. You feel great, great, great. He tells me, 'You go have more All-Star Games. That's why we're here, to be in the history of baseball.'"
The owner of a Major League record 638 saves and counting, Rivera would know. This All-Star Game is a final stepping stone on his path to Cooperstown, and with the event being held in New York, the festivities took on the form of a tribute to the game's elder statesman -- one that quite literally halted the game.
"It choked me up. It was a touching situation," Hunter said. "I promise you, you're not going to see anybody like that again, because in all my years, I've never seen anybody with that pitch, ever. Everybody tries to imitate it, there's some fake ones out there, but he has the true cutter."
Many of the All-Stars in both clubhouses made pilgrimages to speak to Rivera. Mets captain David Wright approached Rivera before Tuesday's red carpet motorcade, telling him that he appreciates how he has handled the game on and off the field.
"I don't feel intimidated too often, and it's intimidating talking to Mo," Wright said. "I kind of had to collect myself, because I was stuttering a little bit. I just wanted to tell him that I think he's an unbelievable ambassador to the game. I thanked him just for being so good for the game and that every young baseball player should try to follow in those footsteps, because he's a remarkable role model and someone that I look up to."
Rivera remarked before the game that he had spent much more time signing autographs for fellow players this year. Those signed baseballs and jerseys will be wonderful keepsakes down the line, but anyone fortunate enough to be anywhere in the vicinity of Citi Field for the eighth inning on Tuesday had the opportunity to savor the real treat of the night.
"As a team player, you don't look for these things. They just happen, or the Lord permits it," Rivera said. "I'm honored and proud to be a member of the New York Yankees, and being able to play for this city and doing it the way that I have done."