New York Yankees one win from World Series title, and Mariano Rivera makes it seem certain

PHILADELPHIA

The broken promises stretch from Boston to Los Angeles. From Minnesota to Colorado.

Every team to exit baseball's postseason this fall will be haunted by some ninth-inning heartbreak. Jonathan Papelbon blew a save for the Red Sox in the clincher against the Angels. Joe Nathan blew a ninth-inning lead for the Twins in Game 2 against the Yankees. Ryan Franklin, Brian Fuentes and Huston Street had late-inning implosions in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

In the most critical time of the season, some of the most esteemed relievers in baseball were brought to their knees. The guys who are paid to handle the pressure of the final innings fell apart when it mattered most.

In all, 11 relievers have combined to blow 12 saves in the 28 playoff games of 2009. Their collective ratio of saves is 9-for-21.

And then there is Mariano Rivera. In the year of meltdowns, he is the picture of calm. Five opportunities, five saves. Eleven appearances and a 0.63 ERA.

If there is ever an argument for having an elite closer at a manager's beck and call, it is the man they call Mo.

You saw it again Sunday in Game 4 of the World Series. Setup man Joba Chamberlain couldn't hold the lead for the Yankees in the eighth inning. Closer Brad Lidge could not keep the score tied in the ninth for the Phillies.

But Rivera showed up in the bottom of the ninth to retire the Phillies in order in a 7-4 Yankees victory for a record 11th career save in the World Series. As a point of reference, Hall of Famer Rollie Fingers is second on that list with six.

Rivera was the final pitcher standing when the Yankees won World Series titles from 1998-2000, and a decade later it is hard to imagine anyone else on the mound now that New York is one victory away from another championship.

"Mo is a once-in-a-lifetime player. When he's done, there will probably be no one who will follow him," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "It's just something you don't see. His longevity, his consistency. I've seen him do it all. There's nothing else he can do."

It's not just the number of saves, though he is closing the gap on Trevor Hoffman as the all-time leader. It's not just the career 2.25 ERA, though it is the best mark for anyone with at least 1,000 innings in the past 80 years.

It's the absolute confidence the Yankees have had in the back end of their bullpen for more than a decade.

"He's a huge weapon, especially with the little bit of struggle we've had with the guys who lead up to him," said leftfielder Johnny Damon, whose ninth-inning single and two steals began the winning rally. "There's no doubt about it, Mo is special."

He is a weapon unlike any other in playoff history. He has 39 saves in the postseason, and the lowest ERA of any pitcher with at least 50 innings. He changes the strategy not only in New York, but for opposing teams.

Manager Charlie Manuel is so frightened by Lidge that he left Cliff Lee on the mound in the ninth inning of Game 1 with a 6-0 lead. Joe Girardi has so little faith in his setup men that his desire has been to go straight from the starter to Rivera.

The reputation might indicate otherwise, but he is not quite perfect. Rivera was on the mound for two of the most infamous blown saves of his generation. He gave up the bloop single to Luis Gonzalez to end Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, and he blew the lead in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS that led to Boston's historic comeback from three games down.

But where other relievers never recovered from high-profile failures, Rivera just keeps coming. He is perfect in seven save chances since the '04 ALCS.

And the remarkable thing is, a few weeks from his 40th birthday, Rivera still pitches the same way he did more than a decade ago. He is the master of the cut fastball, and he throws very little else.

"It's been one pitch for my whole career, almost," Rivera said. "I started throwing the cutter in 1997, and since that year it has been one pitch, yes. But it does a lot of things. It doesn't go in the same direction always, and it's not always in the same spot. So I mean, I've had to learn how to work with it and make it better. And that's what I have done."

After Rivera pitched two scoreless innings for a save in Game 2, Manuel suggested his hitters had a strategy that might minimize Rivera's effectiveness in the rest of the Series. Since, then Rivera has retired all five batters he has faced.

"They can have whatever solution they want," Rivera said. "I have faith in myself."

And for 15 seasons, New York has had faith in Rivera.

For there has never been a reliever quite like Mo.

New York Yankees one win from World Series title, and Mariano Rivera makes it seem certain 11/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 2, 2009 6:35pm]

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