By Sweeny Murti
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What’s left to say about the greatness of Mariano Rivera? What we have now are our memories of a career that we will talk about the way past generations talked about Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, and Mantle.
So many memories. You have yours, good and bad. But what are Mariano’s recollections? What’s his perspective on the events that you will recall to your kids and grandkids? I sat down with Mariano recently to ask him about 10 specific moments in his great career. I will share with you his thoughts on those events each day this week, as we count down to his final appearances ever in a Yankee uniform.
Today, we start at the beginning, remembering the seeds of greatness.
1995 Division Series: Signs Of What Was To Come
He wasn’t the closer, not even the setup man yet.
“I was the long guy,” Rivera said of his first postseason appearance in the 12th inning of the epic Game 2 against Seattle. “Buck (Showalter) put me in there three-plus innings.”
Rivera pitched 3.1 innings, gave up only two hits ,and struck out five. He was blowing gas past a feared Seattle lineup and earned the win when Jim Leyritz slugged his famous 15th-inning walk-off home run. Rivera went on to pitch two more scoreless innings in Games 3 and 5, but the Yankees would lose the series in a classic battle with the Mariners. It was a disappointing Game 5 loss as Ken Griffey Jr. dashed home with the series-clinching run. It is still described as a bitter defeat by every member of that 1995 Yankees team.
“I got a lot of experience in those games. Thank God that I was able to do good,” Rivera said.
“The experience that you get from those games is amazing, puts you on a different level. And you get the desire to go back and do it again. That’s what I took from that.”
Rivera was John Wetteland’s setup man in 1996 — so good and so dominant in that role that he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting.
He was pitching two to three innings at a time, giving the Yankees an advantage unlike any other team, before or since. Rivera earned his first save ever on May 17 against the Angels. But his most memorable appearance of that year was on August 23 against the A’s.
Wetteland was on the DL, so Rivera was elevated to closer. He saved three games in fifteen days, and none was more heart-stopping than this one.
Rivera pitched 2.1 innings and threw 59 pitches. It is still the most innings and most pitches he’s ever thrown in a save. Rivera struck out Mark McGwire with the tying run on second base to end the seventh, and after a scoreless eighth he faced McGwire again in the ninth with two on and two out. Rivera struck him out again to end the game, his high fastballs no match for the hulking McGwire.
“I remember striking out Mark McGwire twice in that game,” Rivera said. “That was a big challenge against Oakland. The whole year was like that as a setup man, throwing two or three innings. But again this experience I was getting was huge for me for what I do now. That was kind of like the preparation for me to get to this level.”
Rivera returned to the setup role when Wetteland came off the DL. He went on to pitch 14.1 innings in the 1996 postseason, allowing only one run. The Yankees went on to win the first of five World Series championships during Rivera’s career.
Tomorrow, the highest high in 1998 and the lowest low in 2001.
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