Getting carted off of the field before the game even starts. That’s not how anyone wants to end their career, but that could be the case for Mariano Rivera.
Rivera, the New York Yankees’ sure-fire future first-ballot Hall of Fame relief pitcher, saw his 2012 season, and quite possibly his career, end unexpectedly on Thursday afternoon before his teammates took on the Royals in Kansas City, Mo. Rivera was in the outfield of Kauffman Stadium shagging fly balls during batting practice, something he had routinely done throughout his 18-year career, when he slipped awkwardly on the warning track.
Stunned teammates and others present all looked on in disbelief as the 42-year-old closer clutched his right knee and grimaced in pain. Following the game, a 4-3 Yankees’ loss, everyone’s worst fears were confirmed – Rivera tore both the ACL and meniscus in his right knee.
With season-ending surgery almost a certainty, the biggest question is this – has baseball’s all-time saves leader thrown his last pitch?
Before the 2012 season even started, retirement was a hot topic surrounding Rivera during spring training. Rivera himself stopped any immediate speculation by saying he knew if this would be his last season or not, he just wasn’t ready to tell anyone.
That was back in February, but what about now? Will we see one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball back on the mound in 2013?
"At this point, I don't know. At this point, I don't know,” is what the understandably distraught Rivera told ESPNNewYork.com’s Wallace Matthews.
Surgery to repair the extensive damage is just the first step Rivera will need to undergo if he plans to pitch next season. The rehabilitation process involved with ACL injuries is grueling and painstaking in and of itself, and that’s before you consider that Rivera will turn 43 in November has pitched in 1,051 games (8th most in baseball history) in his career.
There’s no doubting Rivera’s competitive fire and determination. After all this is a guy who has thrived as a closer, arguably the most pressure-oriented role in all of baseball, for the Yankees, baseball’s highest-profile team, in New York, the media capital of the world.
But you know how the saying goes, the spirit’s willing, but the body is weak. And in Rivera’s case, his body may just not be able to do what he wants to in his mind.
Whether this is the end to Rivera’s Hall of Fame career or not, we won’t know for sure until several months down the road. For now, let’s focus on the present and what Rivera’s loss means to the Yankees.
For starters, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Thursday night even before the severity of Rivera’s injury was confirmed, “You lose a Hall of Famer… If that’s what it is, that’s as bad as it gets.”
In his career, Rivera is 76-58 with a 2.21 ERA, which is first among active pitchers and 13th all-time in baseball history. He is a 12-time All-Star whose 608 saves are the most in baseball history and is a total that is all but certain to stand forever.
For all his regular-season success, the postseason is where Rivera cemented his legacy, winning five World Series titles with the Yankees and dominating opposing hitters in October.
In 32 postseason series (16 AL Division Series, nine AL Championship Series and seven World Series), Rivera is 8-1 with a microscopic 0.70 ERA and 42 saves to go along with 110 strikeouts in 141 innings pitched. He also was named the World Series MVP in 1999 and the ALCS MVP in 2003.
This year, Rivera was 1-1 with a 2.16 ERA and five saves in six opportunities prior to his injury. After giving up two runs on three hits and two walks in a 1/3 of a inning against Tampa Bay in his season debut on April 6, Rivera had only surrendered three hits and nary a run with seven strikeouts and no walks in his last eight innings pitched.
So now that Girardi can’t hand the ball off to Rivera in the ninth inning with the game on the line, whom does he turn to? The Yankees have two viable candidates in right-handers David Robertson and Rafael Soriano.
Robertson has developed into a highly productive and reliable set-up man for Rivera as he has not allowed a run in his last 24 1/3 innings pitched, dating back to Sept. 1 of last season. Soriano, who the Yankees signed to a three-year, $35 million deal last year, has closing experience, saving a combined 72 games in 2009-10 with Atlanta and Tampa Bay. However, he was mostly ineffective (2-3, 4.12 ERA, 2 saves) in his first season in pinstripes in 2011 and has been relegated to seventh-inning duty for the most part this season.
Regardless of which direction Girardi decides to go, this much is clear – neither of these options are Rivera and his mere absence results in a shuffling of the bullpen that could find more than one pitcher in a role they are not accustomed to.
It’s just like Girardi said, losing a Hall of Famer like Rivera is bad as it gets, and this is a devastating, potentially season-altering loss for him and the Yankees. It’s also a loss for baseball as a whole, however, especially if Rivera is unable to return in 2013 or decides to call it a career.
And if that’s the case, then it’s truly a shame that Rivera will have ended his career in the back of a cart, rather than saying good-bye the way he wanted to, most likely walking off of the mound after closing out another Yankees’ win.
— by Mark Ross, published on May 4, 2012