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Close Horses Answer the Call

Rivera and fellow relief aces hold key to October success

October 01, 2002|JASON REID | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The New York Yankees are all about October, so they rested closer Mariano Rivera three times this season and kept their fingers crossed.

Rivera needed time off because of shoulder and groin injuries, and was recently activated, the Yankees hoping to begin another long postseason run. Now, though, the most successful reliever in playoff history no longer has an aura of invincibility. The Arizona Diamondbacks broke through against Rivera while winning last season's World Series, and the seven-year veteran may be out of sync after his lengthy layoff.

Each playoff team has a capable closer as the best-of-five American and National League division series begin today, inspiring confidence in would-be pennant winners as the stakes rise with every pitch. The Angels face the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, and Troy Percival joins Billy Koch of the Oakland Athletics, Eddie Guardado of the Minnesota Twins, Byung-Hyun Kim of the Diamondbacks, John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves, Robb Nen of the San Francisco Giants and Jason Isringhausen of the St. Louis Cardinals on the list of closers seeking the postseason spotlight.

"Mariano not only has proven he's great during the season, he's proven he's the best in the postseason," said Percival, who converted 40 of 44 save opportunities to help the Angels earn the AL wild-card berth.

"It's not that he's stepping up his game, that is his game. I want to go out and prove as well that my game will be the same, regardless of the situation."

Rivera tops the all-time list with 24 postseason saves, and the cut-fastball specialist had a streak of 23 when he was summoned to preserve a 2-1 lead in the eighth inning of Game 7 at Bank One Ballpark last November. The Diamondbacks completed a dramatic two-run rally on Luis Gonzalez's one-out, bases-loaded, broken-bat single over a drawn-in infield in the ninth, giving them a stunning 3-2 victory and denying the Yankees their 27th Series title.

"The Yankees are the epitome of the idea that no one guy is the single reason for a team being a success, but they know he's a big key for them," San Diego Padre closer Trevor Hoffman said. "Having him back right now is obviously huge for them. It was important for him to get the rest he needed, and I think he can bounce back."

The Yankees' career leader with 243 saves, Rivera was 6-0 with an 0.70 earned-run average in 51 playoff appearances before that final game against Arizona, and had not suffered a blown save since the 1997 AL division series against the Cleveland Indians. Rivera struggled this season, though, because of his strained pitching shoulder and strained groin, failing to record at least 30 saves for the first time as a full-time closer. He went 1-4 with a 2.74 ERA and 28 saves in 32 opportunities.

"There's no question how good [Rivera] is--he's awesome--but it's not like he's unbeatable," Angel center fielder Darin Erstad said. "When he comes in, you're not like, 'Geez, here you go.' That's really not the way it is."

In 24 career appearances against the Angels, Rivera is 2-2 with 12 saves and a 4.75 ERA.

Rivera was called into five playoff games in the eighth last year, but Manager Joe Torre, concerned about the right-hander's shoulder, said he planned to use Rivera only in the ninth this time around. Although the rest of the bullpen bridged the gap en route to the Yankees' fifth straight AL East title--setup man Steve Karsay was perfect in seven save chances--Rivera remains the centerpiece of the team's playoff plan.

"In the six [previous] years we've been in the postseason, he's been a main character," Torre said. "He's like a regular player for us. If you lose your shortstop, center fielder, closer or catcher ... that's a pretty good category to be in.

"With Mo down there, it's still our strength. You can't win games unless you finish them."

Said Yankee starter Roger Clemens, "Mo's still the best at what he does."

Postseason games are usually low-scoring, magnifying every move and putting more emphasis on relief pitching. Rivera has been a security blanket for Torre, and that's the best thing a manager can have in scary playoff moments.

"It's huge, because if you go to the playoffs, you're going to play some tight ballgames," said Padre Manager Bruce Bochy, whose club won the 1998 NL pennant. "It's such a pressure situation, and your closer is probably going to handle it better than anybody else.

"And those last three outs are ... there's just so much intensity. Then if you get into a one-run ballgame, the intensity seems to heighten more on those final outs. You need to have a closer who can get it done. For me, to have somebody like Trevor when we were there, it gives you a great sense of security and confidence."

And a shaky closer is a playoff team's worst nightmare.

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