Mariano Rivera, the best closer in baseball history who was coming off a torn ACL, appeared in his first New York Yankees’ game since sustaining the injury on May 3, 2012, and did what he has done better than anyone else in his position.
That is, he got the job done.
It was not vintage Rivera — he walked a batter and allowed a run — but he shut down the hated Boston Red Sox in the ninth inning to preserve a 4-2 win, the Yankees’ first of the season. It was his first since April 30, 2012.
Thursday also marked Rivera’s first outing in what will be the final season of his 19-year career. He received a standing ovation during his jog from the bullpen to the mound, accompanied, as always, by Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”
“It was like another one,” Rivera said. “The only difference was this one I waited for almost a year to pitch again, but it feels the same. It was wonderful to be there.”
Rivera walked Dustin Pedroia to open the ninth, but retired Mike Napoli on a fly to right before allowing a double down the left-field line to Jonny Gomes that put runners on second and third with one out. Rivera said it took him a batter or two to adjust, as he rarely walks batters, but he felt things were much better after the Napoli at-bat.
Will Middlebrooks then grounded out to drive in a run and slice the lead to 4-2, but Rivera then struck out Jackie Bradley Jr. to record his first save of the year. He preserved starter Andy Petitte’s first win of the season, the 69th time Rivera has closed out a Pettitte victory.
With his appearance Thursday, Rivera surpassed Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter nd Yogi Berra for the most seasons played with the Yankees, although Jeter will tie him after he returns from the disabled list. The closer acknowledged he was emotional as he ran to the mound.
“At the same time, you have to control that. I have to be able to do that because I still have to finish the game,” Rivera said. “It was wonderful. You wait for almost a year to be on the mound and get your job done, especially here at home.”
Rivera, 43, last pitched in April 2012, recording a save in a 2-1 win over Baltimore. It was during the Yankees’ next series in Kansas City that he tore his ACL and meniscus while shagging fly balls before a game. Rivera pitched just 8 1/3 innings and notched five saves last season, the shortest of his career.
Although there had been speculation that last season would be Rivera’s last, the closer said he would return after the injury, not wanting to end his career like that. He rehabbed to ensure he would be ready for this season, and during spring training, he announced this would be his final year.
“There were times, because the therapy and the pain and all that stuff, I thought if it would be worth it to come back,” Rivera said. “At the same time, the love and the passion and the drive that you have for the game motivated me to keep going.”
Rivera’s manager and teammates described Thursday as a special night. Manager Joe Girardi said the combination of the Yankees being 0-2 entering the game, facing rival Boston, and Rivera returning to a raucous ovation, made for a memorable moment. Teammates recognized that Thursday began the final stretch of time they’ll see Rivera work his craft.
“It’s amazing. I always say I’m going to tell my kids I caught Mariano Rivera,” Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli said. “It’s one of the greatest moments I ever had in my career because he’s going to be the best reliever I ever see in my life.”
Added Pettitte: “It’ll be special for me watching him this year and knowing this is it. After this, he won’t be closing any games for us, so I’ll savor it as much as I can.”
After the victory, Rivera received the game ball, as he normally does. While he usually gives away the ball, he told ESPNNewYork.com that he plans to keep this one.
Rivera is baseball’s all-time saves leader with 609.
“I did miss (these moments) a lot,” Rivera said. “At the same time, I have to be patient. I couldn’t push it, I couldn’t rush it, I just had to make things right.”