New York Yankee closer Mariano Rivera put San Diego Padre third baseman Ken Caminiti on his rear end twice with vicious inside fastballs Tuesday night, one that Caminiti fouled off and one he swung and missed at to end the eighth inning.
Padre posteriors were not the only things dropping in Qualcomm Stadium, though. So were jaws in the Yankee bullpen, which watched again in amazement as Rivera, without what he considers his "best stuff," threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings to save the Yankees' 5-4 victory in Game 3 of the World Series.
"Mariano makes us all just stand there with our mouths open," fellow reliever Mike Stanton said. "It's one thing to be effective with one pitch--he dominates with it. The Lord blessed him with a 95-mph fastball and movement you're not supposed to have. The amazing thing is he's not trying to cut his fastball. That movement is natural."
But for the first time this post-season, Rivera, who has not given up a run in 12 playoff innings, did not seem like an immovable force Tuesday night.
After giving up one hit in his first eight playoff games, the Padres actually nicked Rivera for three hits Tuesday, one that put the right-hander in a mini-jam and two that put him in a major jam, both of which he escaped.
Scott Brosius' dramatic three-run homer off San Diego closer Trevor Hoffman had given the Yankees a 5-3 lead in the top of the eighth, but the Padres counter-punched with Quilvio Veras' one-out double off Ramiro Mendoza in the bottom of the eighth.
Yankee Manager Joe Torre did not hesitate going to his closer in the eighth, a strategy he avoided for most of the season--that's one reason Rivera threw only 61 1/3 innings compared to Hoffman's 73--but has done four times in the playoffs.
Rivera gave up a bloop single to Tony Gwynn and Greg Vaughn's sacrifice fly, which trimmed New York's lead to 5-4, but Caminiti looked almost helpless against Rivera on his strikeout.
"He's a tremendous hitter, but I think he's having trouble with his legs," Rivera said. "That's why I pitched him inside."
Rivera then got himself into trouble in the ninth, giving up two-out singles to Carlos Hernandez and Mark Sweeney, putting runners on first and third.
"You get anxious no matter who is out there," Yankee pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. "The Padres keep on coming at you. Even though we have Mariano on the mound, it's not really a relaxed feeling."
Andy Sheets replaced shortstop Chris Gomez as part of a double-switch in the eighth, but Padre Manager Bruce Bochy chose to leave the right-handed hitter in to face Rivera instead of going to left-handed Greg Myers, who had a pinch-hit homer against Atlanta in the National League championship series.
"We felt like the right-handed hitters were seeing the ball better off Rivera," Bochy said. "The ball was cutting in on the lefties."
Sheets fouled off two fastballs before taking a ball. Rivera then threw him a rising fastball that Sheets waved at, striking out to end the game and give Rivera his fifth save of the playoffs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Rivera did not think he was as sharp Tuesday night as he has been this postseason. "Thank God I'm throwing strikes," he said. But Rivera was able to reach back for a little extra when he needed it most.
"Mo has the uncanny ability to come up with the big pitch when he needs to," Stanton said. "He actually made a couple mistakes tonight that didn't hurt him. He threw a few 0-2 pitches down the middle. But with his velocity and movement he can get away with it."
THE LAST WORD
The bitter taste left in Rivera's mouth from the way 1997 ended has finally dissipated. Yes, he gave up a critical eighth-inning home run to Cleveland's Sandy Alomar in Game 4 of a division series the Indians went on to win, but Rivera has proven in 1998 that he has the mental toughness and physical ability to be one of baseball's best closers.
"It feels good," Rivera said. "Last year was disappointing because I only had two chances to pitch. I've been waiting for this opportunity for a whole year. I finally have it. I'm going to enjoy it."