Mariano Rivera is in the process of completing a farewell tour, getting recognition even within rival ballparks. Just on its own, this tells you a few things. One, Rivera is on the verge of retirement, preparing to officially hang up his spikes, figuratively if not literally. Two, Rivera has been great. Great and beloved and unanimously respected, but mostly, great. Players who weren’t great don’t get the Rivera treatment. Few players, really, get the Rivera treatment. Fans in other cities are saying goodbye to one of the greatest pitchers the game’s ever seen. Three, Rivera’s seen a whole lot. He’s had a long enough career to establish himself as a hall-of-famer — and to make an impression on every place he’s been to — so there aren’t many things Rivera hasn’t seen, that he hasn’t experienced. He’s given everything he’s had to baseball, and he’s squeezed baseball for everything it’s worth.
Some of the only things Rivera hasn’t experienced are different varieties of failure. He has, simply, been too good, too consistently and reliably good, to fail often. He has failed before, sometimes memorably, but there have been plenty of ways in which he hasn’t failed, and ways in which he never will. At the moment, though, Rivera’s experiencing something he’s never experienced before. For the first time in his big-league career, Rivera’s blown three consecutive saves. He hasn’t been through everything, but he’s been through one more thing than he had been.
If it’s narratives you live for, Rivera’s pitched three times since Alex Rodriguez returned to the Yankees. Against the White Sox on Aug. 7, he allowed a double and a single. Against the Tigers on Aug. 9, he allowed a two-run homer. Against the Tigers again on Aug. 11, he allowed a pair of solo homers. There are some things we can say about Rivera now that we couldn’t have said before and been truthful. Again, he’s blown three straight saves for the first time ever. He’s allowed multiple homers in a save situation for the first time ever. Since becoming the Yankees’ closer in 1997, Rivera has allowed multiple hits in three straight games only six times. On Sunday, Rivera allowed as many homers in one appearance as he’s allowed in the playoffs in his career. Rivera’s now allowed multiple homers to Miguel Cabrera, and Cabrera’s just the fifth hitter with such an achievement. He’s the first hitter to go deep against Rivera two times in a row.
You can learn a lot about greatness by investigating a player’s greatness. I also believe you can learn a lot about greatness by investigating a player’s failures. There’s significance in the facts surrounding Rivera’s three-game slump. There’s significance in the way Tigers and Yankees have responded, in the way the Tigers were amazed while the Yankees are unconcerned. There’s significance in people wondering if this is Rivera showing signs of his age. Rivera’s 43, but through Aug. 3, he’d allowed eight runs. We all take players for granted, and with the great ones, it’s laughable how little it takes for people to worry. There’s nothing at all wrong with Mariano Rivera. But the meaning is in people wondering if something is wrong.
We might as well review how this has all happened. Following, the most critical pitches from Rivera’s last three games.
In the first blown save, Adam Dunn drove in the tying run with a sharp single to left. Rivera threw a low-away cutter that caught just a little more of the plate than he wanted, given the 0-and-2 count. Still, he didn’t miss his spot by much, and one doesn’t expect Dunn to drive the ball like that to the opposite field. Rodriguez nearly came up with the ball at third base.
In the second blown save, Miguel Cabrera drove in the tying run with a two-run dinger to center. Rivera wanted to bust Cabrera inside — as he had earlier in the at bat — but he threw a cutter that drifted a little over the plate. From the looks of things, Rivera immediately knew he’d made a mistake. Cabrera is the greatest hitter on the planet, by the way.
In the third blown save, Miguel Cabrera hit a solo shot, and Victor Martinez hit another solo shot. Both were hit against cutters, because, yeah. The cutter to Cabrera caught maybe an inch or two too much of the plate, but it wasn’t at all like the cutter Cabrera hit out the appearance before. The cutter to Martinez was more or less where it was supposed to be, but Rivera later claimed it was flat, even though it had good velocity and movement and caught maybe just the very edge of the zone. Martinez simply knew what he was going to get.
In some ways, it’s amazing how close Rivera came to successful saves. He was a strike away in Chicago, facing Dunn, and maybe a better defensive third baseman makes a tough play. He was a strike away in New York on the ninth, and this is the result of the first pitch of his two-out showdown with Cabrera:
Lyle Overbay was inches from clinching the game, and Overbay’s a guy who’s always been known for his quality first-base defense. Later, with two strikes, Rivera made Cabrera hurt himself with consecutive heaters:
Rivera nearly retired the game’s greatest hitter, until the game’s greatest hitter emerged triumphant. Cabrera effectively hit his home run on one leg. To paint that as Cabrera defeating Rivera is to ignore how the plate appearance progressed, as Rivera was in control for six pitches. Cabrera won, but Rivera easily could’ve.
The end result of all this is three consecutive appearances in which Mariano Rivera was visibly, unusually frustrated. You’ve seen a lot of images of frustrated pitchers, but as you look at these .gifs, think about how rare it is to see Rivera in this way. Rivera is an emotional man, in that he’s in touch with his feelings, but seldom does he express himself on the field. Mostly because seldom does he fail.
The last one might well begin with Mariano Rivera smiling. There does exist — within the spectrum of human emotional response — the frustrated smile. Another interpretation would be that Rivera just didn’t know how to respond to the situation because he’d never been in it before and his brain short-circuited.
Eyes to brain: blown save
Brain to self: third straight
Brain to self: /whrrrr
Brain to self: /kkkkkkxxkxkxxkxxkxkxkx
Brain to self:
Brain to mouth: smile?
As what I promise is the post’s final .gif, here is the Tigers’ dugout after Cabrera went deep against Rivera the second time:
Included within is everything you need to know about Miguel Cabrera and Mariano Rivera. That’s pure awe, pure disbelief, pure bewilderment. Cabrera’s teammates, I’m sure, don’t quite understand how he’s able to do what he does. But this goes beyond a reaction to just another ordinary home run. These are people seeing something they never could’ve imagined. These are people seeing someone hit his second home run against Rivera in two at bats. The reaction tells you something about Cabrera. The reaction tells you something about Rivera.
The Tigers still lost to the Yankees on Aug. 9. Usually, when a player or team does something incredible but still loses, the quotes are to the effect of, “That was nice, but what matters is we lost.” The Tigers, however, couldn’t say enough about the top of the ninth, and Cabrera and Rivera:
“They should make a movie from that at bat,” Torii Hunter said.
“Tonight was special,” Rick Porcello said. “I mean, we ended up losing the game, but that was pretty incredible.”
Added Hunter: “You’ve got the best closer in the game ever, and probably the best hitter of our time at the plate. Mariano threw the two-seamers in, he fouls them off, and it looked like he was defeated. It looked like a movie. He’s like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t walk.’”
For the first time in his life, Mariano Rivera has blown three consecutive saves. It required the intervention of the league’s greatest hitter, and the response has been universal surprise and amazement. This is a new experience for Rivera, a new experience at 43, and perhaps he just wanted to see what it feels like to be human. The significance is in our collective disbelief over Rivera’s humanity. Rivera came so close to avoiding some of these outcomes it’s astonishing he avoided them so regularly and for this long. Rivera’s left so little room for luck.
Sunday afternoon, Rivera blew his third consecutive save, allowing a pair of home runs. In his first-ever multi-homer appearance in a save situation, Rivera came away with the win.
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