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Thursday, October 16, 2003
Updated: October 17, 2:39 PM ET
Yankees reliever named MVP after 3 innings

Associated Press

NEW YORK -- In a battle of pitching attrition, Joe Torre had the man he wanted on the mound for the New York Yankees at the end of Game 7 of the ALCS against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday night.

For two innings, Mariano Rivera is as close to a sure thing as there is in baseball. But after Rivera had pitched two innings Thursday night, the game was still tied at 5. Torre squeezed another inning out of him, the first time he had asked the slender reliever to go that long since 1996, when Rivera was not yet the Yankees' closer.

One more inning? No problem. Rivera sailed through the 11th and when he reached the dugout, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre told him he was done fore the night.

"I was feeling great," Rivera said. "I was kind of upset when Mel told me I'm not going to pitch in the next inning."

Then Aaron Boone made sure there would be no next inning when he hit the first pitch in the bottom of the 11th for a game-winning homer that gave New York a 6-5 win.

Rivera came out of the dugout and went to the ground, grateful, it seemed that he had kept the team in position to win and reach another World Series.

"I see those guys coming back, coming back, coming back, and I think, 'I've got to hold this,' " Rivera said. "I was thinking, 'No way do I give in. I have to do my best and hold it.' "

And he did. His three-inning pitching line included just two hits and three strikeouts. After saving two other wins in the ALCS, he was dominant again, getting the win and earning the series MVP award as the Yankees advanced to the World Series for the fifth time in six years.

For Torre, Rivera is the ultimate safety net, a premier closer who usually trims games from nine innings to seven.

Rivera is deceptively slender, equipped with the complete arsenal of pitches that makes him the premier postseason closer. He saved two of New York's three victories in the division series against Minnesota and two more in the pennant playoff against Boston before winning the clincher. He bordered on the unhittable, allowing one run and five hits in 12 innings.

This has become routine stuff for Rivera. He sailed through the regular season with a 5-2 record and a career-low 1.66 ERA. There were 40 saves in 46 opportunities, pushing his career total to 283, a franchise record. And that was after he missed the first 25 games because of a groin injury and had just four saves in the Yankees' first 59 games.

"I was missing my spots then," he said. "My fastball was moving over the plate. If I go away, I have to stay away." He made the adjustment and flourished after that.

Rivera did not allow a run in his final 15 regular-season appearances and saved all 16 opportunities he had from Aug. 19 through the end of the season.

He saved Roger Clemens' 300th victory, the 29th time he saved a win for Clemens. So with the Rocket pitching Game 7 against Boston Thursday night, it figured that Rivera would show up at the end.

In the last five seasons, the soft-spoken right-hander has 199 saves, the most in the majors.

Rivera, who will be 34 next month, signed with the Yankees as out of Panama in 1990. By the time the team started its current run of nine straight postseason appearances, he was in the bullpen. In 1996, Torre's first year as manager, he was a setup man for John Wetteland, who saved all four wins in that World Series.

When Wetteland left as a free agent that winter, Rivera inherited the closer's role. There was some doubt that he could carry that burden. He lacked the intimidating presence of previous Yankees closers like Goose Gossage, Sparky Lyle and Wetteland. What he had was a devastating array of pitches.

He blew a lead in Game 4 of the first round that year against Cleveland and the Yankees went home early.

But he quickly grew into the closer's role and has been at his best in the postseason. In his postseason career, he is 7-1 with an 0.88 ERA in 92 innings.

He has a record 29 saves with eight in the World Series, another record. And he established another postseason record with a streak of 33 1-3 scoreless innings.

Now he gets a chance to add to those numbers starting Saturday against Florida.