With lead to protect, Mo was always main man

With lead to protect, Mo was always main man

The postseason is looming, and when the best teams in baseball meet with everything on the line, there's little doubt that the game will often rest in the hands of the men pitching the ninth inning. When those times come, some of the best closers take the mound.

Each time they jog in from the bullpen, they can only hope to live up to the legacy of the man who closed games better than anyone, especially in October: Mariano Rivera.

Rivera, in his 19-year Major League career, protected leads like no one else has before or since. For the Yankees, No. 42 saved the game 652 times, an MLB record. And that was only in the regular season.

Learn more about how the greatest closer of all time protected leads

Come the playoffs, the most dominant closer ever somehow became even more indomitable. Rivera, who won five World Series championships with New York, was the king of pitching in the postseason, in the tensest of situations.

"I think you look for those moments," Rivera said this August at Yankee Stadium, when the Yanks unveiled his plaque in Monument Park. "I must be a masochist, but I looked for those moments."

In 96 playoff appearances -- also a record for pitchers -- totaling 141 innings, Rivera notched the lowest postseason ERA of all time, an almost-flawless 0.70. His 42 career postseason saves, fittingly matching his uniform number, represent yet another all-time mark, more than double that of Brad Lidge, his nearest competitor, who had 18.

"He is the greatest closer, no disrespect to anybody else," Yankees captain and fellow "Core Four" member Derek Jeter once said. "But [for] what he's done in the regular season, more importantly, what he's done in the postseason is unmatched."

During four of the five World Series he won with the Yanks, Rivera was on the mound for the final out. Three of those times, he recorded the save in the Fall Classic-clinching game. In 1999 against Atlanta, Rivera was the World Series MVP.

"I've always loved the competition," he told The New York Times in 2004. "I'm not afraid of it."

Rivera first pitched in the playoffs in 1995, as a 25-year-old rookie setup man. By the time he saved his final postseason game in 2010, at age 40, his name had become synonymous with lead protection -- a win all but inevitable once "Enter Sandman" began to play on the Yankee Stadium sound system.

"It never gets old," Rivera said before the 2010 American League Championship Series, the series in which he recorded postseason save No. 42. "I take every shot in the playoffs like it's the first one. I don't know when I will be doing this again. ... I will never take it for granted."

Rivera was so legendary, his success such a near-guarantee, that the few times he faltered -- most memorably Game 7 of the 2001 World Series against the D-backs -- were barely to be believed.

So when Rivera closed out his fifth World Series, pitching the final 1 2/3 innings of a 7-3 Game 6 win over the 2009 Phillies, Jeter's remarks were fitting. When Jeter saw Rivera coming in to seal the Yankees' 27th title, he said, he was struck by "the same feeling you have every single time he comes out of the bullpen," a confidence in the game's outcome that no other pitcher has ever provided with such consistency: "That's it. It's over."

And, of course, it was.

David Adler is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @_dadler. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.