But as has been the case for more than a decade, when the stakes are at their highest for the Yankees, Mariano Rivera serves as his own setup man.
The future Hall of Fame closer got it done yet again in Sunday night's Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, working his way through a sticky eighth-inning jam that took 21 pitches but still preserving the lead. After blowing away the Angels in a 1-2-3 ninth to end the 5-2 Yankees win, Rivera had extended his all-time record of postseason saves to 37, and it was the 13th that required six outs or more.
"You know that he's unbelievable when he goes out there," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "I've had a chance to catch him, I've had a chance to coach him, I've had a chance to mange him. Let me tell you, it's nice having him down there, whatever you're doing."
As a measure of Rivera's greatness, just the fact that he gave up a run to the Angels in that eighth was newsworthy. It was the first time Rivera had given up a run in a home postseason contest since Game 2 of the 2000 World Series against the Mets. It also snapped a 16-inning stretch in which Rivera was unscored upon in any postseason game, dating back to Game 2 of the 2005 AL Division Series against the Angels.
Rivera wasn't much concerned with his streak, however. He just wanted to win the game and get the Yankees back to the Fall Classic, which used to seem like their annual rite of passage.
"It feels great," said Rivera, who has helped the Yankees win four World Series championships. "The last time we were there was 2003. It feels long. It's a long time since we've been there. I think we fought hard for this one, and we did it."
|2.||Brad Lidge||16||38 1/3|
|4.||Jason Isringhausen||11||26 2/3|
|6.||Mark Wohlers||10||38 1/3|
|7.||Rollie Fingers||9||57 1/3|
|8.||Rich Gossage||8||31 1/3|
|Randy Myers||8||30 2/3|
|John Wetteland||7||18 2/3|
|Troy Percival||7||9 2/3|
There Rivera was again in October, being mobbed by catcher Jorge Posada and his teammates as the Yankees celebrated their 40th AL pennant.
"It feels great," said Rivera. "What do you think? It feels awesome. Thank God for that."
As for the decision to bring Rivera out for the eighth, that wasn't an urgency-of-the-moment type of thing. Girardi had made the decision hours before the game, and Rivera was expecting nothing less. Girardi was conservative with Rivera all season, never asking him to record a two-inning save. The idea was to conserve the 39-year-old righty so there would be bullets left in October.
That plan has worked perfectly so far. Rivera has pitched in eight of the nine games the Yankees have played in this postseason, allowing just the one run over 10 2/3 innings.
"I knew I was going to be there for at least two," Rivera said matter of factly, as if two-inning saves in the postseason are just his way of life.
"The Angels have [rallied back] a lot of times, but when he gets out of that eighth, I feel really good about it," said Girardi. "We felt we could use him for 35, 40, 45 pitches if we needed it."
Rivera ended up throwing 34 pitches. Most of the stressful ones occurred in that eighth inning, when the Angels tried to charge back and send this series to Game 7, which would have been played on Monday.
Chone Figgins started the inning with a single to left and moved to second when first baseman Mark Teixeira made a nice diving stop on a groundout by Bobby Abreu. After Torii Hunter grounded out for the second out, Vladimir Guerrero proved Rivera to be human by belting an RBI single up the middle.
But Rivera didn't let the Angels get any closer than that, inducing Kendry Morales to ground out. The Yankees gave Rivera some insurance in the bottom of the eighth, adding two runs, thanks in large part to two errors by the Angels.
Rivera took it home from there with no more drama from the Angels.
"We took our best shots, but they had all of the answers," said Figgins. "Rivera is one of the greatest ever."
The Yankees try not to take that for granted.
"Not every team has that luxury," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. "Mo is as good as anyone who has ever played this game. We know when he comes in the game, it's going to be awfully tough to score some runs."
The Phillies will be the next team to encounter what an enormous challenge it can be to solve Rivera this time of year.
"Mariano Rivera is unbelievable," said Posada. "There is nobody like him, there will never be anybody like him, and I've got him on my side, so I don't have to hit against him."
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less