- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- One of these seasons, the New York Yankees will get the old Mariano Rivera, not the Mariano Rivera of old. It will happen. As sure as his case for Cooperstown, the greatest closer of them all will fall to the undefeated forces of time.
Maybe it will be this season, maybe not. But long before Rivera came undone in a 7-6 defeat Friday, even the most optimistic Yankees fans had to concede that 2012 could be the year when hitters start crushing the cutter the way the Tampa Bay Rays crushed the one-and-only's one and only pitch.
And that is a sobering thought. As much as the payroll gulf between the Yanks and the wannabes have kept the ticker-tape flying, Rivera has been the living, breathing difference between his team and everyone else's.
So if the closer is going to be 42 years old this season, not 42 years young, Joe Girardi won't be upgrading his jersey number, 28, in the offseason.
The Yankees have contingency plans for almost everything. There's no such thing as a contingency plan for Mo.
"He's been so good for so long," Girardi said, "we've been blessed. This organization has been truly blessed with what he's done for us. When you see him blow one today, it's shocking."
No, Girardi is not a man easily shocked.
"We've seen him do it over 600 times," the losing manager said.
Six hundred and three times, to be exact, including 60 saves in 61 chances against the Rays. Rivera had nailed down 27 straight against Tampa Bay, but then again, there are reasons Rivera has hinted this season could be his last.
He knows that nothing, not even his right arm, lasts forever.
Rivera said in February he has already decided if he'll keep pitching into 2013 and beyond -- a decision he refuses to disclose -- and that nothing could change his mind. "Even if I save 90 games," he said then. "Even if they want to pay as much money as they want to, anything."
So this blown save on an opening day that felt more like Game 1 of a division series won't impact Rivera either way. "It's bad," he said. "You don't want to start a season this way. But at the same time, thank God it's only one game."
One game played at a postseason intensity and pace, with two contenders combining for 13 runs, 21 hits and 14 walks over a nearly four-hour death match between Girardi and Joe Maddon, who managed as if the loser would have to trade jobs with Stan Van Gundy.
Entering the bottom of the ninth, up 6-5, Girardi was heavily favored to prevail. The Yankees had already survived David Robertson's walk on the wild side in the eighth and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, they hadn't lost an Opening Day game after blowing a ninth-inning lead since 1934, when Rivera was a mere rookie (kidding).
But it only took six pitches for Rivera to surrender the save. He started with an 0-2 count on Desmond Jennings before throwing a flat 1-2 cutter up in the zone, one the Rays' leadoff man laced into center. "You don't want that in that situation," Rivera said.
He also didn't want Ben Zobrist to drive his next pitch into deep right center for a triple, a stunning development that turned Tropicana Field on its ear and left Girardi to intentionally walk two batters, substitute Eduardo Nunez for Nick Swisher, and play five infielders while asking Brett Gardner and Curtis Granderson to do the work of three men.
"You hope for a ground-ball double play," Girardi said of his infield alignment. "Mo can give up some soft ground balls, and you have to play the infield in that situation."
It was a strange scene. Rivera usually saves his manager with precision and poise, and here was Girardi trying to save his closer with smoke and mirrors.
Rivera fought the good fight, ignoring a standing, stomping crowd to recover from a 3-1 count and whiff Sean Rodriguez on a 91-mph cutter. Soon enough, Mo was ahead 1-2 on Carlos Pena, the slugger who grand-slammed CC Sabathia with two outs in the first inning after Girardi intentionally walked Rodriguez, a big gamble gone horribly wrong.
For a second it appeared Rivera might escape a prison of his own design. But Pena blasted the next pitch he saw over Gardner's head, and Mo lowered his head and trudged off the field while the Rays mobbed the slugger near second base.
"It's my fault," Rivera would say at his locker. "I felt good. ... I'm not making excuses. I just left a few pitches over the plate."
Rivera never leaves a few pitches over the plate, which is why Girardi was shocked his Yankees didn't leave the field in first place.
"It's not how you draw it up," the manager said. "You get your closer with a lead there in the ninth, you feel pretty good, especially when it's Mo. ... But it happens. It's baseball."
It happened 15 years ago, too, in Rivera's first home opener as the Yankees' new closer. He'd taken over for John Wetteland, World Series MVP, and blew his Bronx debut as the full-timer when Mark McGwire swatted one into the sky.
Suddenly people were wondering if it was such a smart idea to let Wetteland sign with Texas. All these seasons and saves and parades later, it looks like one of the smartest moves the Yanks ever made.
But there was Girardi on the losing side of Tropicana Field on Friday, reminding reporters that Detroit's Jose Valverde, who went 49 for 49 last year, also failed in his first attempt.
Only Valverde isn't Rivera, not even close.
"I didn't do my job," Mo said. "Hopefully it won't happen again."
One day it will happen, again and again and again. One day the Rivera of old will be reduced to an old Rivera.
Maybe that day comes in 2012, maybe not. To Yankee fans, the mere possibility is far more alarming than a tough Game 1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.