Wednesday, July 17, 2013
2013 All-Star Game: Priceless
Who'd have figured Neil Diamond to be The Mariano's setup man? And who'd have figured The Mariano, in his farewell season and at his final All-Star Game, hearing Diamond warbling "Sweet Caroline" somewhere other than Fenway Park when the Yankees visit the Red Sox, before going to work with just one unforgettable disruption?
But who'd have figured American League All-Star manager Jim Leyland thinking he could perform the marriage of sentiment and sound strategy in a single gesture and get away with it because, damn it, it worked, the American League held onto a 3-0 win? With nobody but the sourest puss believing Leyland should be crucified for his trouble?
If you'd like to find a precedent, you'll have to go back to the seventh game of the 1924 World Series, with the Washington Senators having tied it up in the bottom of the eighth when player-manager Bucky Harris, rapping a freak high-hopper above New York Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom's head, drove home Neimo Liebold and Muddy Ruel.
Harris called on Walter Johnson to pitch the ninth. Johnson had already lost twice in the Series, including the fifth game, and you'd have had to be stone cold crazy to believe Harris was unaware that the Griffith Stadium audience wanted to see the Big Train one more time in the Series. Johnson, after all, was approaching the sunset of a remarkable career, and who knew if, never mind when, Original Nats fans would get a chance like this again?
The know-nothings might crucify him for making the move with the Series on the line if the Giants could pry back even a single run lead out of the man they'd already touched up for eight earned in his two Series starts. Harris, however, banked on his man's pride. Johnson's widow would remember "men crying unshamed, and men and women praying aloud."
Johnson merely pitched shutout ball for the next three innings, before the Senators nailed it with Earl McNeely's one-out RBI double in the bottom of the twelfth.
Leyland may have been aware historically of Harris's striking move, but he had his own burden to bear. The All-Star Game isn't exactly equal to a World Series elimination game, but it does mean home field World Series advantage for the winning league's representative, for better or worse. And while a Citi Field throng of Met, Yankee, and other fans warbled along with Neil Diamond enthusiastically between halves of the eighth Tuesday night, Leyland was about to upstage that in the only way that made both sentimental and baseball sense.
He made the call to the bullpen. The Citi Field public address system cued up and cranked out Metallica's "Enter Sandman," The Mariano's entrance music since about midway through the Clinton Administration. Rivera whipped a final warm-up toss in the bullpen, then turned to the gate and began the long walk in toward his customarily short evening's work.
Not a muscle moved out of the American League dugout, except to lean against the outside part of the railing, probably on Leyland's orders. The National League All-Stars did likewise. The ovation swelling around the ballpark and through the dugouts seemed almost consciously designed to be just loud enough for the man of the hour to bask without drowning out his theme song. As though the honor being paid The Mariano this night should have nothing and no one to stain it.
Rivera is so accustomed to making the trip in to the mound with a softly stoic look on his face that he seemed almost unable to decide how to respond as he took step after step through right field toward the infield. At one point, you swore he was fighting to keep a sheepish grin from splitting his otherwise friendly-looking face in half. Then he arrived at his usual place of business and, after tipping his cap to the audience, began pumping the ritual eight warm-up pitches to Salvador Perez (Royals), catching in relief of Joe Mauer (Twins) since the seventh.
"Priceless," the soft-spoken Panamanian said of the entire entrance tribute. Repeated after he'd been presented the game MVP award (a shimmering clear acrylic bat, in honor of Ted Williams, for whom the award is named) and, with his family joining him at the mound, a gleaming, royal blue 2014 Corvette. The car can be priced. Rivera's career can't.
Who cares if he was named the game's MVP as much for sentiment as anything else? Even if you figured a better candidate in baseball terms might, maybe, have been Manny Machado, the Orioles' third base acrobat. His whirling-dervish pick on Joey Votto's (Reds) high hopper up the line to lead off the bottom of the seventh could have meant extra base trouble and a one-run game, considering Votto might have reached second and David Wright (Mets) would slash a two-strike line single to left to follow. But Machado picked the hopper and, in foul ground, set and whipped a throw that just did nip Votto at first, and Wright ended up stranded by back-to-back punchouts from a pair of Toronto bullpen mates, Brent Cecil and Steve Delabar.
Leyland had made no secret that he wanted the fans in the park and watching on television elsewhere to get a good long look at the Yankee bellwether one last all-star time. The Tiger skipper made even less secret that he planned to manage the game as if it were week last with a postseason trip at stake. And guess what? Nobody seemed to think in the immediate aftermath that putting The Mariano on his pedestal, letting him receive tribute, and then having him pitch the bottom of the eighth, was out of line.
Especially not with the game being mostly uneventful, if you didn't count rookie mound star Matt Harvey (Mets) inadvertently drilling Robinson Cano (Yankees) above the side of his knee in the top of the first (before striking out two of his next three hitters following Angel Mike Trout's game-opening double), the American League scoring but a run each in the fourth, fifth, and eighth, or Prince Fielder (of all people) flipping on the afterburners when Carlos Gomez (Brewers) couldn't shoestring what turned into a rare (for Fielder) triple.
Now, you can look around and probably find any one of a number of Joe Fans, in Yankee colors or otherwise, questioning Leyland's sanity in not saving Rivera for his customary assignment of the ninth inning, never mind that Rivera has a full pocket of two-inning saves on his resume. Hadn't the American League pried a three-run lead over eight previous and mostly dry innings? Don't you know that you save baseball's closer of closers for the ninth to hammer it down tight shut, you old fart?
But Joe Fan isn't a Hall of Famer, and his All-Star picks have come under scrutiny enough over the past few years. Leyland, however, was well aware that he could have saved The Mariano for his usual assigned hour. But the National Leaguers were no pushovers, no matter how futile they were looking so far. And there was always the chance that Jean Segura (Brewers, in relief of Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki), Allen Craig (Cardinals, pinch hitting for Tulowitzki's teammate Michael Cuddyer), or Gomez (Segura's teammate, in relief of Washington's Bryce Harper since the seventh), to name the three scheduled National League batters, could start a little rough stuff, maybe even enough to make Rivera a game non-topic for the ninth.
So Leyland went to Rivera knowing damn well that the moment would transcend the game outcome, but that the game outcome all but depended on it. A lesser arm could have been manhandled, the American League's lead could have been shrunken or overthrown, and the World Series home field advantage lost to the AL's eventual representative — who might yet be Leyland's own Tigers, assuming they can find their own serviceable closer and soon.
And Rivera dispatched Segura (a ground out to second), Craig (a sharp line out to left), and Gomez (ground out to shortstop) as if they'd been programmed to fall before him. Leyland's double gambit paid off double handsome. The Mariano got his 42 guns (did you really think he'd get a measly twenty-one), and Leyland got his game security.
All Joe Nathan (Rangers) had to do was protect what he'd been handed. He isn't The Mariano; in fact, there was time enough when baseball faithful wondered whether injuries would keep him from continuing to be Joe Nathan. But he carried thirty regular-season saves into the All-Star break, and he's no pushover.
Matt Carpenter (Cardinals; punchout), Andrew McCutchen (Pirates; swishout), and Pedro Alvarez (Pirates; pop out behind the hole at second base) found that out, even if Paul Goldschmidt (Diamondbacks) managed to sneak a parabolic double off the bottom of the right field fence after two out. Now, Nathan will get to tell his grandchildren that the one-time setup man turned Hall of Fame closer was his setup man in the All-Star Game.
And that's rather priceless, too.