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Angels know Mariano Rivera could shatter more than bats

Facing the Yankees closer, who in 121 postseason innings has struck out 100, means fighting off his cut-fastball if the Angels are to get to the World Series.


New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has left a trail of broken bats over the last 15 years that, if you were to stack them together, could fill a cord or two.

"He could probably build himself a 10,000-square-foot log cabin down in Panama with all of them," Angels outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. said. "That's how many bats he's broken.

"You just want them to die a hero. The bat might shatter into 30 pieces, but if the ball drops on the outfield grass, you don't have any problem with it."

Few of Rivera's October victims have been awarded Medals of Honor. The 39-year-old right-hander with the vicious cut-fastball is baseball's most decorated postseason closer, with an 8-1 record, 0.74 earned-run average and 35 saves in 79 playoff games.

In 121 postseason innings, Rivera has given up 10 earned runs and only two home runs. He has struck out 100 and walked 17.

He has blown only three save opportunities, one in the 1997 American League division series against Cleveland, one in the 2001 World Series against Arizona and one in the 2004 AL Championship Series against Boston.

Even in the most catastrophic of those rare failures, Rivera shattered a bat, but Luis Gonzalez got enough of the pitch to lift it over a drawn-in infield to give the Diamondbacks a walk-off victory in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

"I don't think you can put into words how valuable he is to this team," Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain said. "When we get to the postseason, he gets better. It's scary to say that, but it's true."

And now he is the Angels' problem.

The Angels are fresh off a win over another of baseball's most dominant October closers in Boston's Jonathan Papelbon, scoring three runs against the right-hander in the ninth inning for a 7-6 division series-clinching win Sunday in Fenway Park.

Papelbon had not given up an earned run in any of his 26 playoff innings, his postseason ERA, as one Boston Globe columnist wrote, the same as John Blutarsky's grade-point average: 0.00.

But success against Papelbon doesn't necessarily foreshadow success for the Angels against Rivera in the ALCS, which begins Friday night in Yankee Stadium.

"They're two different pitchers," Angels leadoff batter Chone Figgins said. "Just because we beat one, doesn't give us any more confidence against the other."

Figgins is the only Angel on the team's playoff roster with an extra-base hit against Rivera, a broken-bat (what else?) triple into the right-field corner in old Yankee Stadium in 2005.

In all, the current Angels have combined for 15 hits in 65 at-bats (.231) against Rivera, with five runs batted in, 16 strikeouts and three walks.

"I hope we never get to him," Angels batting coach Mickey Hatcher said. "You want to put pressure on them early. If we get to him, it's going to be a tough game."

The most amazing thing about Rivera is he has been so dominant for so long with one pitch, a cut-fastball that travels between 92 and 95 mph and is thrown to both sides of the plate.

The late movement and sharp break of the pitch has allowed Rivera to be as tough on left-handed hitters as he is on right-handers.

"Everybody knows the cutter is coming, they're ready for it, and he still puts the ball where he wants to," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "The location of his pitches is tremendous."

The key to hitting Rivera, if there is such a thing, is probably to choose one side of the plate, look for a pitch there and swing at it.

"You know what's coming, you know it's going to have a lot of movement, you just have to pick a pitch, take your swing and live with it," said Matthews, who will probably be called on to pinch-hit against Rivera.

"People don't expect you to have much success against those guys. You want to rise to the occasion and have a good at-bat."

Hatcher said the Angels "have a game plan" against Rivera, "but I'm not going to let you write it," he said. "We've faced him enough over the years that guys know what they need to do.

"He throws inside as well as anyone in baseball. You have to force him to throw strikes. You have to look for that one pitch over the plate and try to hit it. It might be the first pitch. You can't play a guessing game with him.

"He knows how to pitch, and he's going to be around the plate. He breaks so many bats, I told our guys they should tape their bats all the way up to the label."

What is Figgins' approach?

"I try to walk," the Angels third baseman said. "There is no approach to him. You have to battle him."

Center fielder Torii Hunter has three hits in nine at-bats against Rivera for a .333 average, but as he dressed for Wednesday's workout in Angel Stadium, he winced at the mere thought of facing the closer.

"Man, I don't even want to talk about Mariano Rivera right now," Hunter said. "You don't want to face him. I don't plan on getting to him. If we do, the game is probably in the bag."

If the Angels can beat Rivera even once in the best-of-seven series, it could puncture his air of invincibility.

If there was one common thread to the four division series, it was that each of the losing teams' closers blew a save -- Papelbon, Minnesota's Joe Nathan, St. Louis' Ryan Franklin and Colorado's Huston Street, who combined to convert 158 of 173 save opportunities this season.

"Rivera is more even-keel, but most closers are emotional, combustible," Matthews said. "They don't ever expect to lose. They say as a closer you have to have a short memory; that's a lie. You learn to put it in the past, but you never forget making a mistake and getting beat in a playoff game."


Times staff writer Bill Shaikin, reporting from New York, contributed to this story.



Closed case

Mariano Rivera has pitched in seven American League Championship Series since 1996, and his record shows what the Angels are up against.

Appearances: 25

Innings pitched: 38 2/3

ERA: 0.93

Strikeouts: 29

Walks: 5

Record: 4-0 with 10 saves


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