Look back at: Divisional Playoffs | League Championship
Thursday, October 26
Rivera and mates to the rescue
By Sean McAdam
Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- In past years, the game plan has been so simple, it's been nearly formulaic.

When the postseason arrived, the New York Yankees would ride the work of their starting pitcher deep into the game, utilize Ramiro Mendoza and maybe Jeff Nelson or Mike Stanton for a few outs in the eighth and bring in Mariano Rivera for the ninth.

This year, aging and less dominant, the strategy has been altered out of necessity. David Cone, an October mainstay, has been reduced to mostly spectator status. Roger Clemens, so magnificient in his last two starts, nonetheless was saddled with two Division Series losses. Even Orlando Hernandez proved he wasn't unbeatable in Game 3.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera retired six of the seven batters he faced to earn the save in Game 4.

In Game 4, there was more patching and filling for manager Joe Torre. He hooked starter Denny Neagle with an out to go in the fifth and turned to his relief corps for the final 13 outs.

Seldom has a Yankee bullpen been so depended upon. Never has it been so responsive.

"It was a battle of the bullpens," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "Fortunately, ours did a great job. It was huge for us."

Four Yankee relievers -- including, incredibly, Cone for one out against Mike Piazza in the fifth -- blanked the Mets over the final 4 1/3 innings, securing a 3-2 win for the Yanks and inching them one step closer to yet another title.

"If you told me three runs were going to be all we needed after Piazza's home run (in the third)," manager Joe Torre said. "I wouldn't have believed it."

Particularly after the disastrous ninth inning in Game 2 in which Nelson and Rivera nearly squanderd a 6-0 lead, allowing a combined five runs.

Torre seemed to have lost confidence in Nelson so much that he stuck with Hernandez too long in Game 3, opting to take his chances with a tired starter rather than a slumping reliever.

But in Game 4, all was forgiven and the bad outings were forgotten.

After Cone got Mike Piazza to pop up to end the fifth, the familiar trio of Nelson, Stanton and Rivera shone.

Nelson yielded a leadoff single to Todd Zeile to start the sixth, but one batter later got Benny Agbayani to line softly into inning-ending double play back to the box.

To start the seventh, Nelson slipped a nasty slider past Jay Payton for a called third strike before walking pinch-hitter Lenny Harris.

When Bobby Valentine sent up lefty Darryl Hamilton, Torre countered with Stanton, who faced righty Bubba Trammell instead. Stanton fanned Trammell and fellow pinch-hitter Kurt Abbott to finish the inning.

Going for the kill, Torre went to Rivera for the final six outs as he had to do throughout this postseason, and the closer breezed. He retired Edgardo Alfonzo and Piazza before yielding a single to Todd Zeile. But he got Robin Ventura to strand the only baserunner he allowed.

"That's the save right there," recounted Rivera later. "You've got to give it everything, go as hard as you can. I was able to get away with the victory. Those guys are dangerous."

The ninth was even more routine -- three hitters, three outs, two by strikouts, both called, including Matt Franco on a pretty pitch on the corner to end the game.

Valentine, in an expression of admiration and frustration, praised the dominance of the Yankee closer.

"It's really hard to center him," said Valentine. "(His fastball) is moving two ways and it's moving pretty quickly. It's moving forward at 90-plus, and it's moving sideways rather late and rather quickly. He's not an illusion. He's the real deal."

After his slip-up Sunday in Game 2, in which his consecutive scoreless streak in World Series play was snapped, no one in the Yankee clubhouse doubted that Rivera would bounce back when called upon again.

"Mo has ice water in his veins," said Stanton. "His fastball moves all over. It's tough for pitchers to pitch with different pitches, but Mo has one -- and it's enough."

The save was Rivera's sixth in World Series play, pulling him even with Rollie Fingers, who, ironically enough, was on hand at Shea Stadium as part of a pre-game promotion.

It's possible that Rivera will soon tie Fingers in another category. Fingers' Oakland A's of 1972-74 were the last team to win three straight World Series championships.

The Yankees are one victory shy of duplicating that feat. Should it happen in Game 5, or over the weekend at Yankee Stadium, it's a good bet that Rivera will be on the mound for the final out for the third straight year, clincing another title -- and passing Fingers in saves for good.

Sean McAdam of the Providence Journal writes a major-league notebook each week for ESPN.com.

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Next stop: Threepeat Station

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