Mariano quietly marching toward saves record

Mariano quietly marching toward saves record

Mariano quietly marching toward saves record
NEW YORK -- When you've been efficient and effective at the big league level as long as Mariano Rivera, it can become easy for those contributions to be taken for granted.

Rivera figures to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer no matter what happens the rest of the way, so there won't be much surprise when he finally supplants Trevor Hoffman as the game's all-time saves leader. It's considered a given.

When Rivera buzzed a 90-mph pitch past the Tigers' Alex Avila on Thursday afternoon, the Yankees' closer recorded his 560th career save, needing just 41 more to match Hoffman's lifetime total of 601.

Feel free to count along if you'd like, but Rivera promises he won't be keeping track.

"That's nothing I'm thinking about," Rivera said. "That's nothing that has to do with me. It's part of the game, part of the team. I always play like that. Why change?"

Why change, indeed? Steadiness is a trait that has served Rivera's Yankees career well.

Consider that when Rivera showed up for Spring Training, staff members didn't even bother to take new uniform measurements, trusting that Rivera will come in looking and weighing exactly the same as he did when the season ended.

In a clubhouse where it seemed at times as though general manager Brian Cashman was banking on finding a time machine to roll back to 2005, Rivera is the trusted constant, offering promise that he will make a two-year contract to a 41-year-old look like a good investment.

He earns that paycheck with a familiar routine. Draped in the only remaining No. 42 jersey in the big leagues, Rivera gracefully jogs across the Yankee Stadium outfield while Metallica's "Enter Sandman" plays, fires a few pitches (12, if you were counting on Thursday), hugs his catcher, brushes his hair and heads home to Westchester, N.Y.

"You expect that out of Mo," CC Sabathia said. "It's definitely the strength of our team."

No wonder it raised alert eyebrows when Rivera started showing up in Spring Training games with his socks hiked as high as Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Dave Robertson. Any change from the norm is an oddity.

If that fashion choice -- spurred by nothing more than a bout of spring boredom -- is the biggest question the Yankees have to deal with out of their closer this season, they'll consider themselves fortunate.

"I just wanted to do it like that," Rivera said, a confused grin spilling across his face. "Guys, it's my socks. Please."

In any event, Rivera has earned the latitude to do pretty much whatever he likes in the Yankees' clubhouse.

He already owns the most saves in American League history and an 89.3 percent conversion rate in 627 save opportunities, to say nothing of his Major League record 42 more (appropriately enough) in the postseason.

"Mo's one of the few guys you allow to tell us when he's ready," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said this spring, as Rivera spent most mornings chatting with teammates, not even lacing up his game spikes.

"He's had an unbelievable career. He clearly knows how to get ready for a Major League season," said new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, whose only concern with Rivera was getting him through the spring healthy.

Having notched at least 28 saves in 14 consecutive seasons since 1997, Rivera has an outside shot at overtaking Hoffman over the Yankees' next 161 games, still shattering bats despite losing a few ticks in velocity.

He has averaged 36 saves over the past five seasons, recording 44 during the 2009 World Series championship season, and is on his way after going 1-for-1 thus far -- surprisingly, just Rivera's third career Opening Day save and his sixth in a Yankees home opener.

"It's a great feeling, but still, it's a save," Rivera said. "It doesn't matter what the situation is, it's just another game that we have to win."

Derek Jeter may be the Yankees' captain, marching forward in pursuit of his destiny with 3,000 hits, but Rivera is the steady force and the sage voice in a bullpen where Joba Chamberlain quips his Spanish had better improve in a hurry.

Of course, Rivera has some backup in case his body gets cranky later on. It's possible Rivera could yield a handful of opportunities this season, with Rafael Soriano -- last year's AL saves leader -- waiting in the wings.

"He's done it before. This is no exception," Rivera said. "This is something that he's done for many years."

That relief mix could make the difference of how memorable the Yankees' season will be, as they head into 2011 with some question marks in the rotation but high hopes for the pecking order that gets the ball to Rivera.

If the formula keeps working as it did on Thursday, with Sabathia hurling six solid innings to allow Chamberlain and Soriano to gift-wrap a three-run lead for Rivera, all the spring hand-wringing will have been for naught.

"We don't have the strong rotation that we used to have before, the [same] names," Rivera said. "I think we have a tremendous rotation, but the bullpen was decided for that. You get to the sixth inning from the starter. Then we take over from there."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.