The clock struck midnight when the Mets' Mike Piazza, the tying run of the game with two outs in the ninth inning, swung for the Shea Stadium fences. The ball rocketed off Piazza's bat, and his bat did not shatter as it did in infamous Game 2 against Roger Clemens. This ball soared into the night. It went fast and far. Yankees Manager Joe Torre watched it and felt his heart beat hard.
"It was probably the most scared I've been when Mike hit that ball," said Torre, by then soaked with the champagne of a third straight World Series celebration, a fourth in five years. "I screamed, 'No!' Because any time he hits a ball in the air, it's a home run in my mind. Then I saw Bernie [Williams] trotting over for that. I said, 'Wow. I guess I misread that one.' "
Even managers with a roster of potential October heroes are prone to doubt. But Torre should have known that Game 5 was all but in the bank, 4-2, because the slender right-hander who threw the pitch was "Senor October." It was Mariano Rivera, once more closing a World Series. The Yankees have Panama's best knockout puncher since boxer Roberto Duran was in his prime.
Just a year ago, Rivera threw the last pitch of the 1999 season, also a fly ball, and Atlanta died quietly in four games. Rivera won a game and saved two against the Braves. For that, he was named most valuable player of the World Series. What the Braves' Chipper Jones said then, about Rivera's fastball and his pitch that cuts inside to left-handed hitters and often breaks their bats, still applied this year: "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 only an eight-inning game for the Yankees."
"This is the best," Rivera said last October when handed the MVP trophy.
Then it got better.
Thursday night, Rivera, who will turn 31 next month, threw the last pitch of a World Series for the third straight season. Game 5 was his second save of this Series and seventh World Series save of his career, a record. It was his 19th career postseason save, his 18th straight. Over those 63 innings, his earned run average is 0.71. At what he does, he simply is the best there ever has been.
"Success could not have happened without Mo," Torre said. "How many times have you argued about pitchers and everyday players, if you trade one for the other, who gets the better deal? But when you're dealing with a closer like Mo, he's like an everyday player because he plays five days a week. You can't freeze the ball in this game. You need to get 27 outs. And the last three, four, five, six are the toughest ones to get. He's been as good as I've ever seen."
Mets Manager Bobby Valentine offered verification, as if it were needed. "He's not an illusion," Valentine said. "He's the real deal."
Teams may be able to match or exceed the Yankees in offense, defense or speed. But no team can come close in postseason success, and no other team has Rivera. The Yankees found this championship season more difficult to achieve than the last two. It was harder, too, for their unrivaled closer, because setup man Ramiro Mendoza was injured and Rivera sometimes had to work longer; he needed more than three outs in 13 of his 36 saves.
He succeeded for two reasons aside from his pure talent.
He has a strong arm. In his rookie 1995 season, he started 10 games for the Yankees. He had a 5-3 record and an undistinguished 5.51 ERA. In 1996, Torre took over and made him the setup man for closer John Wetteland; in that role, Rivera usually threw two innings. Second, Rivera strives to be economical with his pitches; he is more interested in getting outs with the help of his teammates than trying to strike everyone out, thus saving on the number of pitches he throws.
"Sometimes you need a strikeout, and I'll go for it," Rivera said. "But I throw fewer pitches when I don't strike guys out. I'm healthier because of that."
Wetteland was Rivera's tutor as they sat together in the bullpen in 1996. From Wetteland, Rivera learned the closer's mentality: Never think twice about anything.
"I know that I learned a lot from him," Rivera said before he brought the Subway Series to a screeching halt. "We just talked about baseball. He was the kind of guy who always inspires confidence in you. So I just watched him and saw what he was doing. I took that approach. I believe in the challenge. I love the challenge."
After winning the World Series in 1996, the Yankees let Wetteland go to Texas and appointed Rivera their closer for 1997. The 1997 postseason was the only time Rivera failed them. In the American League Championship Series, he left a fastball high and over the plate, and Sandy Alomar hit it for the home run that carried Cleveland to the pennant.
In spring 1998, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, now battling cancer, began working with Rivera on different grips. Partly because of Stottlemyre's insights, Rivera became even more reliable. In the Yankees' last three championship seasons, he has appeared in 54, 66 and 66 games; pitched 61 1/3, 69 and 75 2/3 innings, and recorded 36, 45 and 36 saves, respectively. He reached 34 scoreless playoff innings before the Seattle Mariners stopped the streak in this year's ALCS.
Rivera entered the playoffs rested. He had only three save opportunities as the Yankees lost 15 of their last 18 regular season games. But he was perfect in his last 10 save chances of the season.
Usually emotionless, Rivera, at 6 feet 2, 170 pounds, jumped straight up from the mound, both arms extended above his head, and screamed for joy when Williams caught the last out on Thursday night. Rivera finished strong, saving Games 4 and 5. In Game 2 at Yankee Stadium, the Mets' Gary Payton hit a three-run home run off him in the ninth inning, which cut the Yankees' lead to 6-5. But he struck out Kurt Abbott to end that game.
"To get over a bad outing is the most important thing for a closer," Torre said. "You can't start pressing because you didn't do the job yesterday."
"Mariano is as cool as they come," Yankees pitcher David Cone said. "He is unfazed and unflappable in any situation."
Rivera has mastered the art of remaining cool in situations that might cause others to sweat.
"You know that nobody is coming behind you, so there you are on the mound with the responsibility of holding the lead and trying to save the game, so you do it," he said. "The setup man has the net. The closer doesn't have anything. If he falls, he's dead."