<
>

Yankees reliever named MVP after 3 innings

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.