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August 21, 2003

by Larry Mahnken

I'm not gonna do it. Not yet. 7½ up, 8 in the loss column. But I'm gonna be one of the last people to say it.

* * *

Hey, what's up with Mariano Rivera? I mean, the guy made a career out of inducing ground balls that turned into outs, and now he's inducing ground balls that turn into hits! He must be washed up!

Mariano Rivera is fine. Mariano Rivera will be fine. Let's take a trip back in time, to the beginning of Rivera's "slump".

July 25th, Boston. This was the great game in Boston--perhaps the best of the season. In the bottom of the 8th, the Yankees had a 3-2 lead, and Armando Benitez was on the mound. After striking out Kevin Millar, Benitez walked David Ortiz, and gave up a stolen base to Damian Jackson. Benitez then induced a popup to third by Bill Mueller, but fell behind 2-0 on Trot Nixon--the second being a passed ball by Jorge Posada. Rivera came in and walked Nixon, and after getting ahead of Jason Varitek 0-2, gave up a weak single to shallow left-center, and then struck out Johnny Damon. After the Yankees took the lead in the top of the ninth, Rivera gave up a double to Nomar Garciaparra and a walk to Ramirez, but struck out Millar and got Giambi to hit a soft liner to Soriano.

A week later, in Oakland, the Yankees had a 2-1 lead in Oakland, and Benitez was on the mound again in the 8th. With two outs, Benitez gave up a single and a walk, so with two outs and two on, Rivera came on again--a day after pitching an inning in Anaheim--and did his job, inducing an easy ground ball between first and second. But Alfonso Soriano butchered the ball, and Ellis came around to tie the game.

The next day, Torre brought Rivera into the game with a four-run lead, but two on and nobody out. They didn't need to bring him in, but they did anyway. A fly ball and a ground ball, and the game was over.

The Yankees took at 1-0 lead into the ninth on Sunday, but when Andy Pettitte walked Ellis to lead off the inning, in came Rivera for the fourth straight day. He struck out Guillen, but a single by Chavez and a double by Tejada, and the game was over.

Rivera got a couple of days off after that, but was back in action on Wednesday against Texas, pitching with a 1 run lead in the ninth. Rafael Palmeiro pinch hit and walked, and the next batter Donnie Sadler, bunted back to Rivera, who threw it past Nick Johnson, putting runners on second and third. A single to Hank Blalock gave the Rangers the lead, and Rivera then proceeded to sandwich three groundouts around an intentional walk to A-Rod. The next two days Rivera came in and got the save, giving up a run on two singles on Thursday, and putting down the M's in order on Friday.

A three-game losing streak gave Rivera some days off, but Torre brought him in to finish Tuesday's 6-0 win. Rivera gave up two singles that night, one of them an infield single. He also struck out the last batter and induced two groundouts.

Wednesday's 11-0 loss gave Rivera another day off before he was called in to get four outs on Thursday with a 6-5 lead, with two outs and nobody on. Rivera got a groundout to short, and after the Yankees scored two in the top of the ninth, he finished the game with a strikeout, groundout, single and pop out. And then, on Friday, Torre called on Rivera with a 3 run lead again. This time, Rivera was not sharp, giving up a leadoff homer, and then a single, groundout, single and two more groundouts. It was, however, his third game in four days, and the gametime temp was 95 degrees--I don't think there'll be too many 95 degree games in October.

They needed him again on Saturday, with a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, but he gave up a leadoff home run to Luis Matos to tie the game. But he retired the rest of the Orioles in order, and the Yankees went on to win on a freak play.

Two straight blowouts gave Rivera another two days off, but on Tuesday, Torre brought him into a 3-run game again. A single, strikeout and groundout and Rivera had another save.

And then there was today. Today, Rivera was brought in on short notice, as soon as it became a save situation, and not getting enough time to warm up properly. Still, he gave up a grounder to third base which was fumbled by Boone, and then the ball kept getting past Soriano and into the outfield. Finally, Rivera was able to keep the ball out of play, striking out Desi Relaford, and ending the game.

Rivera hasn't been knocked around once during his "slump". He's had bad defense, and bad luck, and one game his own defense did him in. He's given up big hits to good hitters, but most of the time, he's been fine. The times he's struggled the most have been after pitching three or four days in a row. That's something that might happen in the postseason, but it's unlikely to. More importantly, five or six of his appearances have been unnecessary, usually a result of Joe Torre bringing him in as soon as he's eligible for a save. It's a foolish way to manage, and the Yankees are fortunate that it hasn't hurt them much.

It's understandable that Torre doesn't trust his bullpen, they haven't done much to inspire confidence lately. But the Yankees have a lot of talent out there, pitchers who can get the job done, even if they're not getting the job done right now. What Torre needs to stop doing is using the one pitcher he can trust in situations where he doesn't need him, forcing him to pitch tired in situations where they DO need him.

There's nothing wrong with Mo. He's a victim of high expectations, an expectation of invulnerability. He's pitching fine, but he's getting used horribly. There are a few spots on the roster the Yankees should be concerned with--closer is not one of them.