NEW YORK — So this is what the ninth inning must be like sometimes for the other 29 teams that do not have the luxury of calling on Mariano Rivera.
The career saves leader has spoiled the New York Yankees, rarely slipping up in 17 years as their closer.
But last week, the 43-year-old baseball sage stunned a generation of fans by blowing three consecutive save opportunities for the first time in 721 chances. Rivera said Monday the problems have nothing to do with fatigue or age. Instead, he said, it’s his delivery.
Rivera said he’s not repeating his release point and has left pitches up to some pretty good hitters.
“There’s a lot left in the tank,” he said.
Plus, Rivera can draw upon a lot of previous success. Blown saves aren’t part of his repertoire, especially not three in a row.
“At least it’s the first time,” Rivera said Sunday after Detroit dented him. “I just try to go out there and do my job. ... The last three opportunities, I haven’t done it. So we have to continue battling and get better. Have to keep working and eventually it will happen.”
It always has.
That is until last Wednesday, when Rivera’s rut began.
Entering the ninth with a one-run lead over the White Sox, he got two quick outs before allowing a double. Rivera then yielded a tying single to Adam Dunn for only his third blown save this season. Rivera recovered to pitch the 10th, his first two-inning relief outing in two years.
The mound woes continued Friday in the Bronx when Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera tagged him. Cabrera hit a tying, two-run homer with two outs in the ninth that shocked the crowd.
Still, unlike in many ballparks where closers are routinely berated after a couple poor outings, Yankees fans treat Rivera with reverence. .
So when the bullpen gate opened Sunday and Metallica’s Enter Sandman kicked in over the stadium sound system, the crowd showed its appreciation with another roaring ovation.
There was little time to celebrate, though. With the Tigers trailing 4-2, Cabrera led off by crushing a drive to right field. One out later, Victor Martinez tied it with a laser into second deck in right field seats.
“You’re facing professional hitters and you don’t put it where you need to, you’re going to get hit,” Rivera said.
Rivera’s former catcher and current manager Joe Girardi certainly isn’t worried.
When asked after Sunday’s game how concerned he was about Rivera’s struggles, Girardi held up his right hand and used his fingers to make the shape of a zero.
“It’s not like you forget how to pitch in a week,” Girardi said. “He just had a bad week.”
And that is why his teammates – and Yankees fans – are hardly worried.