World Series: Gotta get to Mo

mo riveraPHILADELPHIA—It was back in Washington, probably in late August or early September when all we did was write about the proper way to use a relief pitcher and closers. Needless to say it was during one of Brad Lidge’s many rough patches of 2009 and there was a whole bunch of name dropping and philosophizing by the likes of me.

It wasn’t just willy-nilly name dropping, either. Oh sure, there was Eckersley, Sutter, Goose, Sparky Lyle, Mike Marshall and, of course, Fingers. But we also waxed on about Rawly Eastwick, Will McEnaney and the socialism of baseball with its division of labor and labels.

Labels, we decided, were bad. However, since the Phillies seem to have their label/labor issues figured out, there is no need to go overboard when discussing the best use of the so-called “closer.”

Besides, Mariano Rivera makes that Rawly Eastwick look like Will McEnaney.

Oh yes, Mariano Rivera. His two-inning save against the Phillies in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday night might have been a record-breaker, but it wasn’t exactly a study in the efficiency of pitching. The Phillies made Rivera throw 39 pitches in order to get his 10th career save in the World Series. They also brought the go-ahead run to the plate in the eighth inning, and the tying run in the ninth.

These weren’t mere flash-flood rallies either. In the eighth with one out Rivera had to face Chase Utley with Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino on base. Utley had ripped two homers the night before to pace the Phillies to the win, but this time Rivera got the inning-ending double play.

Sure, the TV replays showed that Utley was safe, but it was significant enough that Rivera got Utley to hit into a double play considering the lefty hit into just five of them all year and has grounded into just 49 double plays in his entire career.

Indeed, the lefty hitting Utley got one of those cutters Rivera throws.

In the ninth Matt Stairs faced Rivera with two outs and a runner on with a chance to tie it. Stairs, as we know, has had some success against big-time closers, but this one ended just as it has so many times with Rivera.

As soon as Stairs made the final out of the game, the talk started. For instance, there are a few that suggested that even though the Phillies didn’t score against Rivera, they got to him a bit. They saw those 39 pitches, of course, and sent eight hitters to the plate in those two innings. The idea, as it’s been written and spoken, was that the Phillies got a good, long look at Rivera and will be ready for the next time.

“Now you have a game plan,” Rollins said. “We didn’t really see Mariano during the season. Spring training, he comes in, I’m out of the game. So, it’s a mystery. Like, we know what he’s going to do. It’s no surprise. It’s not a secret. You’re getting a cutter. All right. You’re getting another cutter. All right. Now here comes another one. That’s what makes him such a good pitcher, because he’s not trying to trick you. But when you see him, you figure out how much his ball is moving. Once you find your approach, you’ve got to be stubborn with it because he’s going to be stubborn with what he’s going to do to you.”

Manager Charlie Manuel was one of those who believed the Phillies’ long look at Rivera was beneficial.

“We can hit Rivera. We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that,” Manuel said. “He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching and we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

Here’s the big question from all of this… what makes this time so different? What is it the Phillies get that no other team, for the last 15 years, couldn’t figure out?

What makes the Phillies so darned special?

Certainly the Phillies didn’t need to see 39 pitches to know all about Rivera. He throws the cutter and like Pedro Martinez, Rivera is a force of nature. Hitters know what he’s going to throw and when he’s going to throw it, but he still turns bats into kindling. The Phillies, like every other team in the world, send scouts to watch Rivera pitch, they’ve seen him on TV, during spring training and on a continuous loop on the monitors in the clubhouse.

Really, what makes those 39 pitches any different?

“I don’t think you can be scared of anyone in baseball,” Victorino said. “You have to have the resiliency to say, ‘This guy is good. but we can beat him.’ His numbers show how good he is, but you can’t go with that mindset because then you’re beating yourself.”

OK, fine. But in the carefully choreographed world of relief pitching, Rivera is just like all those names we dropped earlier. Actually, check that… he’s better than them. That’s because in 21 World Series appearances—one fewer than Whitey Ford’s all-time record—Rivera has pitched 33 innings, finished 16 games and notched 10 saves.

Needless to say the 10 saves are the best in World Series history, with Fingers second with six. More notable, Rivera has saved four World Series games with multi-innings outings. Again, that’s another record.

So why is it that the Phillies think they can do what only one other team has done in 21 tries?

Maybe it was the 11-pitch at-bat from Rollins in the eighth where he earned a walk (like he really earned it) after falling behind in the count 1-and-2 and then fouling off five pitches. That’s the harbinger.

After all, the last time Rivera threw as many as 39 pitches when going for a two-inning save, the Red Sox rallied for a victory in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS and began the greatest comeback in baseball history.

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