It was a whacky 9th inning to be sure. The Yankees were holding on to a precarious one run lead going into the top half of the inning and the cat and mouse game between Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Mets manager Jerry Manuel began.
To set this up you have to go back to the bottom of the 8th inning when RHRP Brian Bruney took the ball from Phil Hughes. Hughes came into the game in the 6th and threw a scoreless and hitless 1-1/3 innings. Bruney was a mixed bag of tricks as he walked Mets third baseman David Wright to open the frame, and then induced OF Gary Sheffield to pop out to Derek Jeter. Bruney subsequently walked Fernando Tatis, moving Wright into scoring position before striking out Fernando Martinez.
Seeing a chance to sweep their cross town rivals Girardi pulled out Bruney and handed the ball to his closer Mariano Rivera.
Rivera, who has been the Yankees stopper since taking the reins from John Wetteland after the 1996 season, was on the verge of making history. Rivera was sitting on 499 saves with a chance to become only the second man in baseball history to record 500 saves. The leader in the saves category is Trevor Hoffman who currently owns 571 of them.
After Wright stole third Rivera buckled down and struck out Omir Santos to end the inning.
The weirdness began as the Yankees came to bat. Manuel realizing how bad his team needed this game against their home town foes brought in his closer, Francisco Rodriguez, to hopefully hold down the Bombers and keep the Mets within a run. Unfortunately, Rodriguez ran into bad luck…..again.
On June 12, Rodriguez entered a game against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Rodriguez and the Mets were nursing an 8-7 lead. Rodriguez retired Brett Gardner before giving up a single to Jeter. He was able to strike out Johnny Damon with Jeter stealing second, and then intentionally walked first baseman Mark Teixeira in order to face Alex Rodriguez.
Things went according to script for the Mets as A-Rod popped the ball up into short right field. He slammed his bat down in disgust and ran towards first base as second baseman Luis Castillo drifted under the ball. He put his glove up, in went the ball, and then it came back out and landed on the grass at Castillo’s feet. Both Jeter and Teixeira raced around the bases and scored the tying and winning runs on Castillo’s muff. It was Francisco Rodriguez’s first blown save in 17 attempts.
The first batter Rodriguez faced in Sunday’s contest was Jorge Posada. Posada blooped a pop up into short center field as shortstop Alex Cora and Castillo went back on the ball. Cora looked at Castillo thinking he was going to get the ball and slowed down. When he realized Castillo wasn’t going for the ball Cora attempted to get to it, but ball made its way to the grass giving Posada a gift single.
Rodriguez had to be cursing Yogi Berra, because it was déjà vu all over again. He got Melky Cabrera to ground into a force play, eliminating Posada at second, but then allowed Cabrera to steal the bag on him. Rodriguez then walked Brett Gardner, putting the Yankees into somewhat of a quandary.
The next hitter was Jeter, but behind him Rivera was scheduled to bat. Attempting his best Houdini slight-of-hand Girardi tried to fool Manuel into believing the Yankees were going to have reserve catcher Francisco Cervelli bat for Rivera. While Cervelli stood in the on deck circle stretching, and going through the motions of acting like he was going to hit Rivera sat in the dugout with a batting helmet and gloves on. Somebody must have said something to him, because Rivera took off the helmet, but left the gloves on. He was having a hard time keeping a straight face.
It was difficult to tell if Manuel was taking Girardi seriously or whether Rodriguez and Santos (catching) misread a sign, but as Jeter settled in to face him Rodriguez threw the ball over the outside corner of the plate for a strike. Jeter backed out of the batter’s box and smiled, glancing toward the Mets dugout with a look of “are you kidding me? You’re going to pitch to me?”
Apparently, sanity returned to the situation and Jeter was intentionally walked to load the bases.
Up walked Rivera who was making only the third at bat in his decorated career, and the second of this season. It was a rare instant where the closer of one team was batting against the closer of the other team. It was just another bizarre moment in an odd inning.
Rodriguez worked the count against Rivera to 2-2. Rodriguez poured in a fastball, which Rivera fouled straight back. Appearing more dangerous now, Rivera evidently rattled Rodriguez who then threw balls three and four, walking his opposite number and forcing in an insurance run. It was Rivera’s first recorded RBI.
As Rivera trotted toward first and Cabrera crossed the plate to make it a 4-2 Yankees lead the Bombers dugout erupted into whoops and hollers. It was though Rivera’s teammates had seen Santa Claus for the first time. They were genuinely acting like a bunch of little kids reacting to what had just transpired.
The fact that Teixeira struck out to end the inning didn’t matter to him or the rest of the squad. They put a fork into their longtime adversary and now it was Rivera’s turn to show why he is the greatest closer the game has ever seen.
Rivera induced Castillo to ground to second; he struck out Jeremy Reed looking and ended the game by also getting Cora to ground out to second. As the ball nestled into Teixeira’s glove at first to record the final out Rivera sealed his name once again into the record books.
Teixeira was one of the first to reach him and handed Rivera the ball.
Posada, Rivera’s battery mate had a message for him. “I told him he’s the best ever,” Posada told reporters later. “The best I’ve seen. Nobody can even compare,”
Every member of the Yankees came out onto the field and gave Rivera a big hug and words of encouragement. Some of them commented on Rivera’s historic at bat against Rodriguez.
“He looks good up there,” longtime teammate Andy Pettitte said to reporters after the game. “I think in Atlanta they gave him a take sign and he swung anyway.”
Even Rivera remarked on the at bat.
“I had one thing in mind—just try to do something,” Rivera said, before talking about his save. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely special.”
Manuel, whose team has been ravaged by injuries, had to say this about Rivera’s night.
“He’s one of the premier closers in my time,” Manuel told reporters. “I wasn’t applauding him tonight, but you do have to applaud that.”
Another first happened in this game as well. Yankees starter Chien-Ming Wang recorded his first victory of the season after staggering to a 0-6 start. Wang allowed two earned runs on four hits in 5.1 innings of work. He struck out three and walked three batters. The loser, Livan Hernandez (5-3), actually pitched better than Wang. He went seven innings and allowed three earned runs on three hits. He walked five and struck out one.
The nightmare for the Mets didn’t end with this game. After getting swept at home by the Yankees and losing five of six overall in interleague play the Mets had to catch a flight for Milwaukee to play the Brewers tonight at 7:08 pm EDT as part of ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball. The Yankees fared much better, catching a bus for the Bronx where they will open a home stand on Tuesday night against the visiting Seattle Mariners.
Getting back to Rivera, anyone who has the chance to watch this remarkable talent play should take every opportunity to do so, because as much as Yankee fans will hate to admit it, Rivera’s career is winding down. No matter how much he’d like to Mariano Rivera can’t pitch forever. He has been at the top of his class for much longer than most closers are expected to last. To be in the upper echelon for nearly 13 years is mind blowing.
How much more gas is in the tank? Only God and Mo know the answer to that one.