Rivera proves, again, he still has it

NEW YORK -- At its essence, a baseball game is a series of one-on-one confrontations, and in their past two games, the Yankees have finished up with two of the most compelling the game has to offer.

On Sunday in Anaheim, it was Mariano Rivera against Albert Pujols with the bases loaded and the Yankees clinging to a one-run lead.

On Wednesday in the Bronx, it was Rivera against Yasiel Puig with the bases empty and the Yankees trying to protect a two-run lead.

In both cases, the winner and still champion was Rivera.

And in both cases, he did it as decisively as it can be done, ending the game with baseball's equivalent of the knockout punch, striking out baseball's greatest veteran and arguably its most exciting young player three days apart.

And in doing so, it was apparent that at 43 years old, Rivera still relishes that one-on-one competition as fervently as he did 17 years ago, serving his apprenticeship as a young setup man for John Wetteland.

"I like to see young boys like that," Rivera said after playing a central role in the most compelling moment of the Yankees' 6-4 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first game of a day-night doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. "I love to see the aggressiveness of young boys who come to play hard, that's the way you play the game of baseball."

After the drama of the first game's closing act, the nightcap was a decided anticlimax in which Phil Hughes got lit up early and the Yankees never got started against the Dodgers' Chris Capuano, managing just three singles, two of which never left the infield.

But Puig had a big Game 2, as well, surprising the Yankees with a bunt single that became a first-inning run, and greeting Adam Warren by hitting his first pitch out of the ballpark to start the seventh inning as the Dodgers cruised to a 6-0 victory.

Rivera's admiration for the Dodgers' rookie right fielder -- a 22-year-old Cuban defector who burst onto the scene 16 days ago and has hit .474 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 15 games -- was obvious, and why not? This is how good Puig has been so far: He went 4-for-9 on Wednesday and lost five points off his batting average.

In the first game, Puig -- who received a louder ovation than anyone but returning hero Don Mattingly -- wowed the announced crowd of 40,604 with his reckless baserunning (he singled but was thrown out trying to stretch in the first inning), his rifle arm (he threw behind Thomas Neal, who had singled, in the second and just missed getting him) and the obvious violence in his swing.

"You see he's an aggressive young player that has tools, a lot of tools," Joe Girardi said. "He has speed, he has power, he has a good arm. You can recognize the tools right away. We saw him in the first inning, what he's able to do. There's an awful lot to like about this kid."

Puig's showdown with Rivera with two out in the ninth inning was the cherry on top of what became an exciting if ragged ballgame in which the Yankees led 6-2 after seven innings, helped enormously by a comical double error by Dodgers reliever Ronald Belisario, who fired an easy forceout grounder into center field, allowing what turned out to be two crucial runs to score.

But things tightened up considerably in the eighth when Preston Claiborne surrendered a two-run home run to Hanley Ramirez (4-for-4, 3 RBIs) to cut the lead to 6-4.

It was not quite as dire as Sunday afternoon, when David Robertson and Rivera combined to allow five ninth-inning runs, nearly wiping out a 6-0 Yankees lead.

That one ended dramatically when Mo struck out Pujols on three pitches, all of them sinkers rather than his signature cutter.

The fact that this one lacked the threat of sudden death did nothing to detract from the drama of the confrontation of old versus young, hot versus cool, raw talent versus vast experience.

Rivera acknowledged he had seen TV highlights of Puig's previous heroics, and had watched Puig's earlier at-bats -- he scorched a liner to center in the third that Brett Gardner ran down, hit a bullet of a one-hopper that Robinson Cano gobbled up and had an eighth-inning double -- but said the evident danger posed by Puig never entered his mind.

"Honestly, I never thought about that," he said. "He's got his job to do and I got mine."

It was an echo of what he had said in the Big A clubhouse on Sunday after besting Pujols. "I have tremendous respect for him," Rivera said. "He's a great guy, a great hitter, but in a situation like that you don't think and analyze things. You're just trying to get him out. And I'm sure he's trying to hit a home run. That's the just way it is."

Afterward, I had asked Rivera privately if he had ever been worried on the mound. "No, never," he said. "If you worry in this job, that's when you get beat."

It's a good thing, too, because he started off by missing twice with his cutter, giving Puig a decided advantage.

But he blew the next two cutters past the young man, and froze him with the last one, a perfect strike at the knees of the type that has been finishing hitters of all varieties for nearly two decades.

"I'm sure Puig has heard about Mo for a long, long time and probably hoped he'd see him one day," Girardi said. "And he got to see him. It was a good matchup. But Mo does what he does."

In his final season, Mo has been statistically as good as ever -- his save was the 25th in 26 opportunities this season, and his ERA is a tidy 1.73 -- but there have been outings, like Sunday's, in which he has been hittable, and he has allowed a higher-than-usual number of inherited runners to score.

Still, the combination of Mo and Robertson has so far shortened the game for their teammates the way Mo and Wetteland, as setup man and closer, did for the 1996 team that won the first of four world championships in five years.

There are a lot of important differences between those two teams, but one stat is similar -- the 1996 Yankees were 79-1 when leading after the seventh inning; so far, the 2013 Yankees are 33-1 in the same situation.

"It's been a combination that's been really, really good for a while here and you do feel fortunate when you have guys that lock down games," said Girardi, the starting catcher for that 1996 team. "Those are the toughest ones to recover from, when you have the lead and you let the lead slip away late."

That has happened only once so far this season, and it easily could have happened in each of the past two Yankees wins.

But both of them ended the same way, with the game's greatest closer facing two of its most dangerous hitters, in the one-on-one confrontation that for Mariano Rivera never seems to get old.