Over the last 15 seasons, Mariano Rivera has been the most consistently dominant pitching force in baseball.
Eventually, that run had to end, but after a brilliant 17-plus seasons with the New York Yankees, the best closer in the game deserved to go out on his own terms. Instead, the final image of Rivera on the field could be the 42-year-old veteran writhing in pain on the warning track before Thursday’s game in Kansas City.
New York’s iconic closer was shagging fly balls during batting practice when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee — an injury that will likely end Rivera’s season, and perhaps, his Hall of Fame career.
After Rivera was carted off the field in a John Deere utility trailer, Yankees manager Joe Girardi needed few words to express what everyone who saw the injury occur was already thinking.
“This is bad,” Girardi said. “There’s no question about it.”
Rivera’s foot caught the edge of the outfield grass and the warning track dirt, causing his knee to buckle. Teammates and trainers immediately sprinted to his aid.
He underwent an MRI with Royals physician Dr. Vincent Key, who diagnosed a torn ACL.
“I thought it wasn’t that bad, but it’s torn,” an emotional Rivera said after the Yankees lost to Kansas City, 4-3. “Have to fix it.”
Rivera hinted that he would retire after the season during spring training, telling reporters, “I know now, I just don’t want to tell you.” But after the injury, it’s unclear whether a man whose physical conditioning has been as consistent as his virtually unhittable cutter will be able to return.
Through the first month of the 2012 campaign, he had been his usual, reliable self. After blowing the save on opening day, Rivera is 5 for 5 in save chances and has not allowed a run.
If he never takes the mound in the ninth inning again, Rivera will retire as baseball’s all-time saves leader (608). He has recorded at least 28 saves in each of the last 15 seasons and only once posted an ERA above 2.85 during that span. Rivera is also the last player in the majors wearing Jackie Robinson’s No. 42 jersey, and if this injury does end his career, he could be the last star pitcher to ever shag flies during batting practice, too.
Rivera had previously pleaded with Girardi to let him play center field in a game before he retired, but Girardi said while he would like to, he worried about his nearly-automatic closer suffering an injury in an unfamiliar position.
For a bullpen already without Joba Chamberlain, Rivera’s injury is devastating. Either David Robertson or Rafael Soriano will likely take over the closer’s role, further depleting the bullpen’s relief options. But the emotional toll of Thursday’s scene will be far greater.
“I saw it all go down,” Alex Rodriguez said. “Obviously it’s a huge blow. Mo means so much to this team. It’s hard to even talk about it tonight. Mo means so much to us on a personal level, and on the field.”
Rivera’s long-time backstop, catcher Jorge Posada, retired in January, leaving Rivera and shorstop Derek Jeter as the last remaining players from the core group who helped lead the Yankees to five World Series titles from 1996-2009. And while Andy Pettitte continues to work his way back to the big league club, the curtain may have come down a few more inches one of the most successful foursomes in MLB history.
Do you think Rivera can recover from this? Will he pitch again in the majors? And if not, how will you remember him?
Nationals Journal: An unfathomable ending