Commentary

Excited over 601? You don't know Mo

Mariano Rivera ties career saves record, curbs enthusiasm until he notches 602

Updated: September 18, 2011, 11:55 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- For Mariano Rivera, save No. 601 was a lot like many of the 600 that preceded it -- a strikeout on a cutter that froze the hitter, a groundout on a cutter that left the hitter's bat in shards and a harmless fly ball to shallow center field, followed by a low-key group handshake and a head-down lope back to the dugout.

In other words, a 17-year series of rather unspectacular innings that, taken as a whole, add up to an incomparably spectacular career accomplishment.

This is how Rivera prefers it. "Just another ho-hum save," is how he put it, which to a closer is the best kind of all.

"Don't get me wrong , it's a great number," he said. "You gotta hit 601 to hit 602. It's a great number. But the most important thing is, we won the game. Don't think that I don't appreciate it, but I am a team player and what happens to the team comes first."

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera
Kevin Hoffman/US PresswireAll eyes were on Rivera. As usual, he didn't flinch.

By his own admission, he will be more excited for No. 602, the one that puts him over the top, the one that, in the words of Joe Girardi, "puts the final stamp on him as the greatest closer of all time."

To Rivera, this one was special not because it placed him atop a peak formerly occupied only by Trevor Hoffman, but because it ensured not only that the Yankees would win on this day, but that they would lose no ground in the AL East race to the Boston Red Sox, who were just getting under way against the Tampa Bay Rays, their dogged pursuers.

Asked if he had taken time to reflect on the magnitude of his accomplishment -- 601 saves is the equivalent of saving a game every day for 20 months -- Rivera said, "That might come later. Now, we just have a job to do, and that's clinching the playoffs. There's a lot of things to think about besides this."

That is probably why Rivera described himself as "uncomfortable" with the crush of reporters around his locker after he had nailed down the final three outs of the New York Yankees' come-from-behind, 7-6 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre on Saturday afternoon.

"I don't like this much attention," he said. "I would much rather you guys just leave it alone."

That, of course, is not about to happen, not with the fetishization of numbers that is such a part of baseball's attraction, and certainly not with the amount of coverage and history surrounding this most record-laden franchise.

"When you've been around this club for as long as I have, as a player, as a coach and now as a manager," Girardi said, "you see a lot of great things."

Still, the feeling is that while save No. 600, which came on Sunday in Seattle, was special because of the roundness of the number, and 602 will be special because it will transfer sole possession of the record to its rightful owner, No. 601 was something of a middle child, easily overlooked.

So even though center fielder Curtis Granderson, who had tucked away the final out off the bat of Eric Thames, dutifully flipped Rivera the baseball, and Rivera's wife and two of his sons were in the crowd, there was a sense that this was business as usual.

"We're happy for Mo obviously, but I think he'll be more excited and we'll all be more excited for 602," Mark Teixeira said. "Today I think we were just more happy with the win."

That was anything but business as usual. Left to die in a 6-1 hole after four innings by an unusually ineffective Bartolo Colon, the Yankees seemed more likely headed for an embarrassing loss than a rousing win.

"After four innings it didn't look too good," Girardi said. "We had some opportunities early and kind of messed up on the basepaths."

The worst mess-up of all was the baseball burlesque routine performed in the fourth by Teixeira and Robinson Cano, who broke from second and third on Nick Swisher's long drive to center.

After Colby Rasmus made a spectacular, and spectacularly improbable, catch on the warning track, Teixeira tried to scramble back to third. To his surprise, he found Cano skidding past him on his way home.

"It really shouldn't happen," Teixeira said. "It was a heck of a play, you give [Rasmus] credit and all, but at the same time, there's no reason to be running like that. Robbie knows better. You make mistakes and you learn from them."

But things began to turn in the sixth, when Alex Rodriguez -- trying out his new split-hands grip in his first game since Sept. 9 due to lingering pain from a sprained left thumb -- belted a three-run homer off Henderson Alvarez to close the gap to 6-5.

"All of a sudden, you felt like maybe we got a shot here," Girardi said.

An inning later, after Derek Jeter had beaten out an infield hit, Granderson battled Carlos Villanueva for 11 pitches and then sent No. 12 over the fence in left-center for his 40th home run of the year, his league-leading 113th RBI, and the Yankees' first and only lead of the day.

With the help of an exceptional performance by the bullpen -- Scott Proctor, Aaron Laffey, Hector Noesi and Rafael Soriano followed Colon and retired all 12 Blue Jays they faced -- the Yankees took that slim 7-6 margin into the ninth, where in the hands of Rivera, a one-run lead has almost always been as safe a 10-run lead.

"To me, it was just a normal save," Rivera said. "And we won the game. If my teammates didn't score that many runs, I wouldn't get a chance to pitch at all. Whatever happens to me is because my teammates permit it."

Six hundred and one times now, Mariano Rivera has taken the opportunity his teammates gave him and handed back a saved game. One day soon, perhaps has early as Sunday, he will do it again, and once again, Trevor Hoffman will be alone on his mountain. That will be on a peak below Rivera, who even at 41 years and 10 months old still seems to have a long way to go.

"Now he can just add on to the record books after this because, as you guys know, Mo's not done," Teixeira said. "He's not gonna be done until somebody pulls that uniform off of him."

• • •

Girardi announced that Phil Hughes suffered back spasms after throwing his bullpen session on Friday and would not pitch Monday against the Twins at Yankee Stadium as originally planned. A.J. Burnett will make the start instead, and Girardi said Hughes would go Tuesday or Wednesday. Hughes said he was much improved on Saturday and expected to be ready to pitch on Tuesday against the Rays. ... Soriano has struck out the last seven batters he has faced and eight of the last 10. ... A-Rod hit fifth in the Yankees' lineup for the first time since Sept. 6, 2006. He said his thumb was "pretty much pain-free" after the game but plans to continue hitting for the rest of the season with his hands separated by a ridge of adhesive tape on his bat handle roughly a half-inch wide. ... Freddy Garcia (11-7, 3.71) faces RHP Brandon Morrow (9-11, 5.23) in the series finale Sunday; first pitch at 1:07 p.m.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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