With Signature Pitch, Rivera Stays a Cut Above
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
NEW YORK -- The former teammates walked together through a corridor inside Yankee Stadium. Paul O'Neill wore a suit. Mariano Rivera wore pinstripes. There they were, two integral parts of New York's last dynasty years chatting casually before a game earlier this month.
As O'Neill, now a television analyst, departed for the broadcast booth, he offered his former teammate a suggestion: "Keep throwing that cutter."
"You got it, buddy," Rivera replied as he turned into the clubhouse.
The 39-year-old Rivera does not need the advice. By relying on his signature cut fastball, Rivera has become perhaps the greatest closer in the history of the game. For years, he has used his cutter with clockwork-like regularity. Yet the pitch, with slithery movement and precision placement, has remained a source of frustration for hitters.
"He's got two different cutters," Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners said. "One that's good, and then he's got one that's devastating."
After Monday's 2-1 loss, the Baltimore Orioles face the Yankees twice more this week as part of New York's 10-game homestand. Rivera, who did not pitch in Monday's game, has 57 saves in 62 career opportunities against the Orioles, thanks mainly to his cutter.
In fact, the course of Rivera's career has been linked to the pitch. He was an unsuccessful starter before he learned to throw the cutter that morphed him into the Yankees bullpen's lockdown force. On June 28, Rivera joined Milwaukee Brewers closer Trevor Hoffman as the only pitchers to record 500 saves. The milestone was fitting for a career that has earned a spot in Yankee lore. Rivera, a four-time World Series champion, is an institution in New York.
Derek Jeter has called him the greatest player he has ever played with. Andy Pettitte said Rivera "has literally dominated the game" like Michael Jordan on a basketball court or Tiger Woods on a golf course.
Speaking about Rivera, Manager Joe Girardi said, "Since '96, the four championships they had, the trips to the World Series, the playoff appearances, the success of this club, I don't think there's any one player that is more important than him."
Although the key to Rivera's success has been his cutter, the origin of the pitch is not easily traceable. Growing up in Panama, Rivera learned to play baseball by using a shoebox for a glove. He learned to play well to impress the local girls who watched the games.
When Rivera arrived in New York in 1995, he was used as a starter but did not last in the rotation; his 10 starts that year are the only of his career. He had a breakthrough as a setup man in 1996, and became the Yankees' closer the next season.
Rivera altered his career by chance, accidentally developing a cutter during a game of catch. While throwing with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, Rivera said he first threw the cutter that would make him famous. It had velocity and violent movement. Unbeknownst to Rivera, a legend was born.