Mariano Rivera reared back and threw the last pitch of the 20th century. As the ball rose, he pointed skyward. And when the ball came down in Chad Curtis's glove, the New York Yankees were world champions for the third time in four years. Somehow, it was fitting Rivera was on the mound for the end.
Rivera, who was named the most valuable player of the World Series, is the Yankees' ultimate door-slammer. Any game in which the Yankees get to the ninth inning with a lead, Rivera is going to close it. He has not given up a run in three months.
"It's hard enough to hit a guy throwing 95 miles per hour. But to hit a guy throwing 95 miles per hour with eight inches of cut? That's why it's an eight-inning game for them," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said of Rivera. After the Yankees' 4-1 win in the Game 4 clincher--in which he notched his second save--Rivera stood in the middle of a chaotic, champagne-raining, cigar-reeking clubhouse and accepted his MVP trophy.
"This is the best," he said. "It's incredible."
It was a series without a clear-cut hero, but that's fitting for an efficient, resourceful Yankees team that didn't have a 20-game winner or a 30-homer hitter.
Because of the four-game sweep, each starting pitcher went only once. Curtis hit two home runs in the pivotal Game 3, including a walk-off game-winner in the 10th inning, but didn't even start the other three games.
Chuck Knoblauch scored six runs. Derek Jeter hit safely in all four games, extending his postseason hitting streak to 17 games, tying Hank Bauer for the longest in history. Scott Brosius, the 1998 World Series MVP, hit .375.
For sheer dominating performances, nobody topped Game 4 starter Roger Clemens, who gave up only four mostly weak singles and did not allow a fly ball out to the outfield.
But in the end, it was Rivera who was on the mound for the final out, and it was Rivera who was named MVP. Of the four games in the series, Rivera won one and saved two, including tonight's clincher.
As he watched the game from the bullpen at Yankee Stadium tonight, Rivera got the feeling his services would not be needed. Clemens was cruising, pitching a shutout through 7 2/3 innings, and the contest had complete-game written all over it.
"I wanted to be the guy" to throw the final pitch, Rivera said. "But when I saw Clemens pitching like that, I thought he would be out there."
But Clemens hurt himself on Walt Weiss's ground ball to the right side, and one batter later, he was out of the game.
Rivera, forced to warm up more quickly than usual, entered the game with the tying runs on base and the winning run--in the person of Jones--at the plate. After a dramatic duel, which included a smoked line drive down the right field line that was just foul, Rivera got Jones to ground out to second.
Far from jaded winners who have grown used to spraying champagne this time of year, the Yankees celebrated like a team that had overcome a lot to get to this point. From fighting cancer (Joe Torre, Darryl Strawberry) to playing through deaths in the family (Brosius, Luis Sojo, Paul O'Neill), the Yankees put a thrilling ending on a season-long drama.
"It's really been a tough, tough year for all of us," Strawberry said. "But we have a tendency for overcoming. We didn't let ourselves down."