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Mo's apprenticeship set stage for future as master

Closer-to-be dominated during time as Wetteland's understudy

As Mariano Rivera prepares to retire, the closer's farewell tour has become a central subplot to the season. Major League Baseball's all-time saves leader has been greeted warmly in each of his road stops, and the Yankees are planning a ceremony of their own to honor Rivera's illustrious career in September.

Rivera will be the last active player to regularly wear uniform No. 42, with the number having been retired throughout MLB in 1997 to honor the achievements of barrier-breaking great Jackie Robinson. During his 19-year big league career, Rivera has also chiseled his own mark on the number's legacy. In honor of Rivera and his contributions, is commemorating 42 notable moments from Rivera's career -- the 42 Days of Mo.

As the seventh inning began and Mariano Rivera took the mound, FOX broadcaster Joe Buck set the stage and the expectations. The Yankees held a 3-1 lead over the Braves in Game 6 of the 1996 World Series and were nine outs away from capturing their first World Series championship in 18 years.

"This has been the formula for the Yankees all year long," said Buck. "You get a start from whoever -- [Andy] Pettitte, [Jimmy] Key; doesn't matter -- you have a lead, you hand it over to Rivera for the seventh and eighth and you hand it over to [John] Wetteland for the ninth."

Rivera has carved out his place in baseball history as a closer. But before he inherited that role in 1997, he performed an apprenticeship under Wetteland. His one full season as a setup man served as a preview of his future ninth-inning dominance, as Rivera posted a 2.09 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 107 2/3 innings. He completed at least two frames in 40 of his 69 appearances, including the postseason.

As manager Joe Torre told The New York Times in 2006, the formation of that late-inning duo was a crucial element of that championship season.

"We felt if we played hard for six innings, no one was going to beat us," Torre said.

Rivera's fourth appearance of the Series began inauspiciously, with a four-pitch walk to Terry Pendleton. But Rivera, never one to panic, settled down immediately. He recorded six straight outs from there, working through the heart of Atlanta's lineup -- Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff and Javy Lopez -- in the eighth. After striking out Lopez, he handed the baton to Wetteland, who gave up a run but ultimately shut the door on the game and the Series.

By the time the old Yankee Stadium closed after the 2008 season, Rivera had won three other World Series, made nine All-Star teams and saved nearly 500 games. But in his mind, no other moment at that ballpark compared to the championship he helped bring home before he became the legendary closer fans know today.

"My favorite moment was the end of the World Series in '96," Rivera told the New York Daily News in '08. "Why? Because it was the first one. Winning the first one in my first full year in the big leagues, [and] winning it and the way we won it, it was great.

"I'll always remember that one."

Andrew Simon is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @HitTheCutoff.
Read More: New York Yankees, Mariano Rivera