When Mariano Rivera earned his first save, in May of 1996, baseball was still being played in Montreal, Derek Jeter had 48 career hits and Alex Rodriguez just 12 career home runs.
Safe to say this guy has enjoyed a long, not to mention productive, major-league career.
The Yankees, in Toronto to begin a three-game series against the Blue Jays Friday night at Rogers Centre, are intent on solidifying their hold on first place in the American League East.
C.C. Sabathia was on the mound in search of his 20th victory while Rivera, now 41 and in his 17th big-league season, was in the bullpen, his place in major-league history already assured with 600 saves to his credit.
Only the retired Trevor Hoffman has more career saves than Rivera, with 601, so it is just a matter of time before the slender right-hander owns one of baseball’s cherished records.
Not a bad accomplishment for a shy Panamanian native who was signed as a free agent by the Yankees in 1990.
“He’s into territory now that he’s going to be in uncharted waters and easily labelled as the best closer of all time,” Toronto manager John Farrell said of Rivera. “What’s remarkable is when you watch video of when he first came up to where he is now, it’s the same exact delivery.”
Rivera had 559 saves to his credit heading into this season. The Blue Jays as a team had 546 over the same time frame.
When he plays at Yankee Stadium, the unforgettable strains of Enter Sandman pound through the sound system to herald his arrival.
The heavy-metal anthem is an apt entrance song for Rivera, who relies on one pitch, a cut fastball, to lull opposing hitters to sleep.
“I just sit in a certain spot and nine times out of 10 he’s going to hit that spot,” said Russell Martin, the Canadian who became the Yankees’ starting catcher this season. “It makes my job a lot easier.”
But it’s no ordinary cut fastball. It’s a sharp, late-breaking heater that confounds hitters to this day as Rivera has 41 saves to his credit this year, the eighth time he has recorded at least 40 in a season.
“You think you’re going to crush every pitch and then right at the last second he jams you,” Toronto’s Adam Lind said. “He throws it right down the middle, and it’s not an early break. And you can’t really see it coming.”
Farrell said that although Rivera relies primarily on the cutter, it is his pinpoint control that sets him apart.
“He can throw it to four quadrants of the strike zone,” said Farrell, a former pitching coach. “So even though every one [of the batters]has an idea that that pitch is going to be thrown, the lateness to it and the ability to execute on both sides of the plate still keeps the guessing game clearly in his favour.”