Mariano Rivera's 500th save wasn't going to come by closing out a game with a three-run lead, pitching just one inning.
No, the Yankees were going to make him earn it.
But this is the Great Mariano, so was there really any reason to worry?
Leading by one, but with runners on first and second and two outs in the eighth, the Yankees called on Rivera to get them out of jam.
Rivera struck out Omir Santos, bailed Joe Girardi out of some more bad managing by walking with the bases loaded in the ninth for his first career RBI, and finished off the Mets to preserve a win for the Yankees in a 4-2 victory at Citi Field Sunday.
The win was the Yankees' fifth straight and first for Chien-Ming Wang since June 15, 2008, and pulled the Yankees to 3 games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. The Yankees also swept this leg of the Subway Series and took 5 of 6 from the Mets this season.
But Rivera was the headliner.
And what's odd about this accomplishment is that in a sport that is so tied to statistics, a sport in which its history so beautifully told by numbers, those numbers really don't tell the story on this historic night.
Yes, Mariano became only the second pitcher to record 500 saves, joining the Brewers' Trevor Hoffman. We can talk about his 2.30 career ERA, his record 34 postseason saves and 0.77 ERA, and the four Rolaids Relief Man Awards.
But did that 500th save really change anything?
Did it make him a lock for the Hall of Fame? No, that likely happened with save No. 300 on May 28, 2004, against the Rays.
Did it gain him entry into the pantheon of baseball immortals as the greatest closer in history? No, that likely happened with save No. 400 on July 16, 2006, against the White Sox.
What 500 did is simply build upon Rivera's legend and allow his teammates and fans like us to show him just how much we appreciate him.
"He's the best ever, there's no doubt about it. There's not going to be another
Mariano Rivera out there. Ever," Jorge Posada said. "I was as excited as he was. I wanted to be there. Mariano has meant a lot to me and made my job a lot easier. He's the best ever."
Said Girardi, who was the catcher when Rivera recorded his first save on May 17,
1996, against the Angels: ""The longevity that he's had, the consistency that
he's had since (he became a closer in) 1997, what he's been able to accomplish
during the regular season and the postseason, he's a remarkable pitcher. To
think he did it with one pitch, it's even harder to imagine."
"He's the definition of consistency," Derek Jeter said. "You can add up all the players that have ever played the game, Mo's been as consistent as anyone."
That's all high praise, but let me put it like this. If there was no Mo, there would have been no dynasty, no four World Series championships in five years. He's been that important.
Closers walk a tightrope just about every time they take the mound. They are in high-pressure situations and performing without a net. If they fail, odds are their team loses.
Many are able to be very good for a short period of time, but most flame out either because of the pressure or injury or both. That Rivera, now in his 14 full season, has been able to endure this long is amazing.
In Rivera's case, all you need to know about his importance is that in the three postseasons (1997, 2001 and 2004) in which he's blown a save, the Yankees failed to win the World Series. And while we've seen other closers, such as Mark Wohlers, crumble after such devastating failures, Rivera has somehow been able to move past and continue to dominate.
What's more amazing is that even coming off of shoulder surgery this offseason, Rivera is rounding into form and it doesn't appear he's lost a damned thing. His cutter and fastball are still dominant and he still has insane control.
He's saved 18 of 19, including 14 straight, and has a 2.93 ERA. Those early season problems when he was allowing homers, including consecutive ones against Rays, are long gone. And if the Yankees somehow miraculously find themselves in another save situation against Boston, Sox fans can count on this: Mo will close it out. There will not be another repeat of Jason Bay's homer. I guarantee it.
But as wonderful an accomplishment this was for Rivera, it was more important for Wang.
It's been a long, hard road back from that Lisfranc injury Wang sustained more than a year ago. He's struggled with his command, struggled with is velocity and has been knocked around like pinata at an 8-year-old's birthday party.
So for Wang, this win might have been just as important as his very first.
"I think the win is great for his confidence because everyone needs a win, no
matter how good you're pitching," Girardi said. "Everyone
needs fruit from their hard work."
By starting 0-6 after starting 6-0 last season, Wang became the first pitcher since Luis Tiant in 1970 to experience that kind of reversal of fortune. Tiant was a pretty good pitcher and went on to have some pretty good seasons after that.
Wang could do the same and Sunday was just the start.
In some respects, this was a step back for Wang, who was sharp and efficient in his last outing against the Braves, against whom he allowed three runs in five innings and was lifted for a pinch hitter after throwing only 62 pitches as Girardi was searching for some offense.
But by getting the win, Wang (1-6, 10.06 ERA) made a hugely important leap. He pitched a season-high 5-1/3 innings, allowing two runs on four hits and three walks. He struck out three and hit 94 mph with his fastball, but he didn't have command of his sinker, which had spelled trouble in the past.
Instead, Wang gutted it out, relying on his slider and fastball, throwing 48 of 85 pitches for strikes.
"It seems like every time he goes out there, he has more confidence," Posada
said. "If we get this guy straight, we're going to have a fun summer."
Wang allowed a runner in every inning except the fifth, but the only time he couldn't escape trouble was in the fourth, when he walked Gary Sheffield leading off. After Fernando Tatis grounded out, Fernando Martinez rocketed an RBI double and came around to score on Luis Castillo's RBI single to make it 3-2.
Fortunately for Wang, the Yankees' offense actually provided him with just enough support, unlike his previous outing in Atlanta.
The Yankees jumped on Livan Hernandez in the first. Jeter doubled to lead off and advanced to third when Nick Swisher ground to first and beat Daniel Murphy's ill-advised throw. That set the Yankees up with runners on the corners and no out.
Mark Teixeira brought in both runs with a double, and after the Yankees avoided a double play when Murphy dropped the relay throw on a grounder by Robinson Cano, Teixeira scored on Posada's sacrifice fly, making it 3-0.
After that the Yankees wasted numerous opportunities to put this game away, highlighted by a poor decision by Girardi, who tried to have Wang sacrifice Brett Gardner to second instead of allowing Gardner to steal second and bunt him over to third. Wang ended up bunting into an inning-ending double play.
Cano also killed two rallies by hitting into double plays, giving him a team-high 11 for the season. When Cano is hitting, he's capable of carrying a team. We saw that in the second half of 2007. But when he struggles, he can drag down a lineup.
Though Cano did hit the ball hard Sunday, he's just not getting hits and he's killing the team in the No. 5 hole in the lineup. Yes, the Yankees believe he's going to be a big RBI guy, but he's not that right now and either has to be dropped down in the lineup or spotted in the No. 2 spot to try to get his bat going.
Cano's numbers in clutch situations are dreadful right now, hitting .215 with runners in scoring position and .167 with the bases loaded. You just can't have that kind of production in the No. 5 hole. It's killing the offense and prevented the Yankees from crushing Hernandez, who actually pitched seven innings, allowed three hits and three runs, though he did walk five.
Girardi's other big mistake came in the sixth. After Phil Coke replaced Wang with one out in the sixth and struck out Martinez, Girardi called for Phil Hughes and made a double switch.
According to Managing 201: The NL, when you double switch, you take out the guy who made the final out of the previous inning, unless it's a big run producer (read No. 3 or 4 hitter).
In this case, Cano made the final out of the sixth. Instead, Girardi took out No. 2 hitter Nick Swisher, moving the pitcher's spot up three spots earlier than he had to.
Cano had already hit into two double plays -- and it should have been three -- and has not been hitting well. There was no good reason for not switching out Cano, especially since Ramiro Pena is just as good a fielder as Cano, maybe better.
The move came back to bite Girardi in the ninth.
The Yankees put runners on first and second with two outs, bringing up Jeter with Rivera on deck. Keep in mind, had Girardi made the conventional move, Rivera would not have been due up. The Mets intentionally walked Jeter because there was no way Girardi could pinch hit for his closer.
Mo, though bailed out Girardi, drawing a walk against Francisco Rivera to drive in his first career run.
After that, it was business as usually as Mo picked up his 110th career save of more than one inning.
No, it wasn't easy for Mo, but we don't need numbers to tell us he's special enough to handle it.
Runners In Scoring Position
Since A-Rod's Return May 8
Vs. Red Sox
Tuesday vs. Mariners, 7:05 p.m., YES
Brandon Morrow (0-3, 5.64) vs. Joba Chamberlain (4-2, 3.81)
Joba started this five-game roll in Atlanta. Let's seem him continue it in Yankee Stadium. Throw strikes big boy. Don't worry about the homers.