The career numbers all point to Mariano Rivera being the greatest postseason pitcher ever. He saved 42 postseason games—by far the most ever. The next three guys saved 44 combined. He ranks first in ERA, third in WHIP and first in reputation by a huge margin. Nobody is as feared as he is. Now that the Yankees postseason run has ended, so, too, has Rivera’s. A look back at the beginning, middle and end of Rivera’s incredible October career:
A person born the day Mariano Rivera made his postseason debut can vote in the upcoming November elections. He or she is likely a senior in high school or freshman in college, and the Yankees have missed the postseason only once in his or her life before this season.
Rivera first took the mound in the playoffs deep in the night of October 4, 1995, in Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS. Who knows, it might have been the morning of October 5 by then. Rivera entered the game in the top of the 12th with the Yankees down by one run thanks to a Ken Griffey Jr. home run off of John Wetteland.
With Edgar Martinez on first, Jay Buhner—a former Yankee prospect whose trade from New York to Seattle is considered among the worst in Yankee history—stepped to the plate. Rivera struck him out on four pitches. Buhner doesn’t remember that plate appearance in particular. But in regards to Rivera in general, even then: “He’s got balls the size of basketballs,” Buhner says.
The Yanks tied the game in their half of the inning. Rivera returned to the mound and eventually faced 12 batters, and through a total of 96 postseason games, that remains the most he ever faced. He earned the win when Jim Leyritz hit a walkoff home run off of Tim Belcher in the 15th inning at 1:22 a.m. on October 5.
Doug Strange, now a Pirates executive, faced Rivera twice in that game, popping out to the catcher to lead off the 13th and striking out looking in the 15th. Strange had no reason to believe he was witnessing the start of anything special. “I remember he threw hard. I remember high fastballs,” Strange says. “He was a young guy who had a live, loose arm.”
But greatest ever? No way. Rivera was good, but his struggles as a starter left him relegated to the bullpen. Future Hall of Famers don’t enter postseason games in extra innings while their team is losing. Rivera didn’t have his unhittable cutter yet. He didn’t develop that pitch until 1997. “Once his cutter showed up, forget it,” Strange says. “You knew he was going to throw it. You saw it, but you couldn’t hit it.”
Only in baseball: Raul Ibanez is connected to Rivera’s beginning, middle and end. At different times in his career, he was teammates with the first postseason hitter Rivera ever faced (Buhner), the last postseason hitter he ever faced (Ramon Santiago), the guy precisely in the middle (David Bell), and even Rivera, as Ibanez played for the Yankees in 2012. His double off of Rivera in the 2009 World Series stands as the last extra base hit he gave up in the postseason.
Of the 527 hitters Rivera faced in the postseason, the middle came in Game 2 of the 2001 ALCS against Seattle. When first asked about the at bat, Bell, now a coach with the Cubs, couldn’t recall it precisely. “I remember that I faced him. I’m guessing I struck out,” he says. “They all ended the same way.”
Forgive Bell for the foggy recall. At bats against Rivera tend to run together because they all look the same: He throws cutters. The batter flails at them. If he’s lucky, he hits one in fair territory. Informed that he faced Rivera six times in his career and went one for six, Bell expressed surprised that he ever got a hit. When told he struck out against Rivera only once, he laughed and said, “Then I do remember that at bat. I struck out on a cutter up and away.”
That ended the game, a Yankees win, the fourth of five saves for Rivera in the 2001 postseason. Of all the pitchers he ever faced, Bell felt the worst about Rivera. “You talk yourself into believing you’re going to win a competition,” he says. “I remember, anytime I would face him really having a gut feeling deep down that I didn’t have a chance.”
That sounds defeatist, but the numbers support defeatism. From Buhner in 1995 through Bell in 2001 until Santiago in 2011, Rivera pitched 141 innings and allowed only 86 hits and 21 walks.
Rivera gave up just two home runs, one in 1997 in the ALDS (his first blown save in the postseason) and another in the 2000 World Series, which was meaningless because the Yankees had a huge lead and still won. He faced 304 more batters in the postseason without allowing another homer. The last name of every man who scored against Rivera in the postseason, earned or not, would fit easily in one tweet.
But Rivera’s career has more texture than the tributes of the last week suggest. When he blew saves, he made history. Of his five blown saves in the postseason, four came in clinching games for the Yankees in series they eventually lost. He coughed up leads in consecutive games at Fenway in 2004, which allowed the Red Sox to come back from a 3-0 deficit and win the ALCS, the greatest comeback in baseball history.
Only once did Rivera pitch in the bottom of the 9th in Game 7 on the road—the iconic setting for a closer. That came in the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and not only did he blow the save and take the loss, he also gave one of the worst performances of his career, postseason or not. He hit a batter, committed an error and gave up four hits, including a World Series-ending walkoff single to Luis Gonzalez. He is the only closer in history to give up the tying and winning runs in the bottom of the 9th of Game 7 of the World Series.
Rivera’s final postseason appearance seemed no more significant than the first. Ramon Santiago of the Tigers had no way to know this was the end of an era. When he faced Rivera with two outs in the 9th inning of Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS at Yankee Stadium and the Tigers holding a one-run lead, he thought about bunting, and who could blame him? Swinging away hadn’t worked. In eight previous at bats against Rivera, Santiago had managed just one hit. “Every time I swing, I try to hit the ball in front, don’t let it get deep because if you let a cutter get deep, you’ll break your bat all the time,” he says.
On an 0-2 pitch, Santiago grounded out to third on the same cutter Rivera threw him in every other at bat.
Well, almost the same.
“What people don’t know is he doesn’t throw it in the same spot every time. He throws a backdoor cutter. He’ll throw a cutter in, and he’ll elevate a cutter,” he says. “It’s the same pitch but different location, and he controls where it’s going. Some other pitchers don’t do that. When you’re looking in, he’ll throw it back door. When you’re looking for it maybe in the center, he’ll throw it up.”
That was the last of Rivera’s 1,828 postseason pitches. Or was it? Buhner, the first man he faced in the playoffs, hopes Rivera comes back for another season. “I’d love to see it. He can keep all the parting gifts,” Buhner says. “He can scratch off the ‘13’ and put ‘14’ on them it next year.”