September 2013

Pettitte bows out in style

What a way for Andy Pettitte to end his major-league career. The lefthander gave Yankees fans one more brilliant performance before a crowd of 37,199 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, some 20 miles from his hometown of Deer Park, Texas. Pettitte completed his 18-season career with a complete game, his first in seven years.

The 2-1 victory over the Astros brought Pettitte’s season record to 11-11, which means that he never had a losing record, the first pitcher to do so in a career of 15 years or more. Andy had one other .500 season – 2008 when he was 14-14 – otherwise it was nothing but winning campaigns.

“It’s a shame you have to grow old,” Pettitte said immediately after the game.

Yes, it happens to all players, even his teammate, Mariano Rivera, who is also finally stepping away from the game at season’s end. Pettitte hated walking away from the game so much once before that he came back out of retirement to pitch another two years for the Yankees.

andy
(New York Daily News photo)

The finish was a momentous way to go out. It reminded me of how it all began. The day I arrived at what was the last spring training camp the Yankees had at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1995, then manager Buck Showalter drove up to me in a golf cart on the sidelines of the main field and said, “Hop in; I want you to see someone.”

He drove to me to one of the back fields where two pitchers were warming up. I have long forgotten who one of them was, but the one I remember was Andy Pettitte. He wasn’t as cut as he would later become; he still had some love handles, but one pitch after the other sunk with stinging action.

Showalter, who grew up in the Florida panhandle and attended Mississippi State University, had an affinity for Southern players. Still does, probably, so I said to him, “Okay, which is it? Louisiana or Arkansas?”

“Texas,” Buck said. “You can’t quote me on this, but this guy might win 15 games for us this year.”

“Pretty tall order for a rookie,” I said.

Showalter missed on his prediction. Pettitte won 12 games, not 15, but he helped stabilize a rotation snagged by an injury to Jimmy Key, who finished second to David Cone, then with the Royals, in the previous year’s American League Cy Young Award race, and was a key ingredient in the Yankees’ reaching post-season play for the first time in 15 years, as the newfangled wild card.

Pettitte’s victory total was second on the staff only to another former Cy Young Award winner, Jack McDowell, who was 15-10. Pettitte’s 12-9 record and 4.17 ERA was not overwhelming, but it was good enough for him to finish third in the AL Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award voting behind winner Marty Cordova of the Twins and runner-up Garret Anderson of the Angels, a couple of outfielders.

The lefthander started Game 2 of the Division Series against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium and was not involved in the decision, a 7-5 Yankees victory on a two-run home run in the 15th inning by Jim Leyritz that gave them a 2-0 lead in the series before they went 0-for-Seattle.

With Showalter gone after turning down a two-year contract offer from George Steinbrenner, Pettitte had to prove himself all over again to a new manager, Joe Torre, in 1996. It wasn’t easy, either. Torre at first thought the deeply-religious Pettitte was a bit soft. Yet start after start, Pettitte kept the Yankees in games and ended up winning 21 of them and becoming a Cy Young Award candidate, although he finished second in the voting to the Blue Jays’ Pat Hentgen.

Pettitte never came closer to winning that award, but even better he won over Torre with 8 1/3 gutty innings of shutout ball in Game 5 of the World Series at Atlanta in the last game played at Fulton County Stadium, a 1-0 Yankees victory that put them up 3-2 and in position to take the Series two nights later, which they did. From that point on, Torre never questioned Pettitte’s toughness again.

Pettitte pitched that night with the authority he showed during his 21-8 regular season as well as Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Baltimore that clinched the Yankees’ first World Series appearance in 15 years. The key inning for Pettitte in Game of the ’96 Series was the sixth when he got himself in and out of trouble.

He gave up singles to opposing pitcher John Smoltz and center field Marquis Grissom, whose fourth-inning error accounted for the game’s only run. Pettitte pounced on a sacrifice attempt by Mark Lemke and forced Smoltz at third base, which prompted Braves manager Bobby Cox to say later, “He was a cat on that bunt; it took a lot of guts to throw that ball to third base.”

On Pettitte’s next pitch, Chipper Jones hit a one-hopper to the mound. Pettitte was a cat again, starting an inning-ending double play.

“Andy took the ball every five days, and if he had it his way, he’d get it more often than that,” Torre recalled. “What’s really unusual about him is that a lot of times pitchers are more consumed with themselves. Andy was probably the consummate team player, especially for a pitcher. He was so concerned not only about the day he pitched but he always had his arm around a young guy in between starts.

“He has been a huge favorite of mine because he’s such a standup guy, and he hasn’t changed from day one. He was a great teammate, and I think that’s why he won so many games. The guys that play behind him understand how intense he is, and it becomes contagious.

“I think the impact he had on the teams we had in the mid-to-late 1990’s was enormous even though he was never the guy in the spotlight. He liked the fact that he wasn’t the No. 1 guy even though I trusted him like a No. 1 guy. But he didn’t have an ego that dictated he needed all that attention.

“He did a great job of channeling his energy into competing, and he was about as consistent a performer as anybody in terms of getting your money’s worth. He glued our staff together. When you’re performing with the same people year-in and year-out, it’s always nice to have that security blanket. He was certainly that guy on the pitching staff.”

For other managers, the Astros’ Jimy Williams and Phil Garner and the Yankees’ Joe Girardi, Pettitte proved just as reliable in a career he brought to a halt this week.

That Game 5 of the 1996 World Series four nights after the Braves handed his head to him in Game 1 (seven runs, six hits in 2 1/3 innings) remains the centerpiece of Pettitte’s career, but there were plenty of other times when he gave the Yankees everything needed from a pitcher.

He was the Most Valuable Player of the 2001 ALCS when he won both his starts and held a Seattle team that had won 116 games during the regular season to four runs in 14 1/3 innings. Even in defeat, Pettitte could be magnificent, such as the Game 6 showdown with the Marlins’ Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series, Andy’s last start for the Yankees before signing as a free agent with his hometown Houston club.

Three years later, Pettitte was back with the Yankees reunited with Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada and helped ring in the new Yankee Stadium by winning the clinching games of all three post-season series in 2009 as the team achieved its 27th championship. In 2010, he was a Cy Young Award candidate for half the season before a groin injury cost him at least a dozen starts. That sent him into his first retirement, but he was lured back in 2012. Pettitte dealt with health issues each of the past two seasons yet was no less competitive

“Andy was a great teammate and a wonderful guy,” Rivera said. “He was a fighter and all about winning, and he was respected by every person in the clubhouse.”

“It has been a pleasure to play with Andy for all these years,” Jeter said. “The Yankees have been fortunate to have him representing the organization both on and off the field. More importantly, it has been an honor to get to know him as a person, and I consider him family. I wish for nothing but happiness for him and his family, as I know how important they are to him.”

Of course, it didn’t take long for Hall of Fame talk about Pettitte to sprout. Let’s give it the five-year wait before getting serious about that. Pettitte has a lot going for him – a won-loss record more than 100 games over .500 at 256-153, a postseason-record 19 victories and winning five rings in eight World Series overall. He also has some things going against him – allowing more hits than innings pitched, a rather high ERA (3.85) and three more dangerous capital letters, HGH, which he admitted to using after his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report.

His path to Cooperstown won’t be smooth. Over the next few years, the ballot will contain the names of starting pitchers superior to him in terms of statistics – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, even Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina.

“I don’t think about the Hall of Fame unless I’m asked about it,” Pettitte said. “I feel blessed that people will bring my name into that conversation. Have I been a pitcher who dominated? Every game has been a grind for me. I’d continue to pitch if [the Hall of Fame] was a desire of mine. I wouldn’t have retired in the first place.”

The writers who vote will be talking about him for a while. But to Yankees fans, Pettitte will always be in their personal Halls of Fame for his competitiveness and remarkable consistency.

Yankees fans get to enjoy Mo’s Stadium farewell

Who says there is no crying in baseball?

It would have been impossible for Mariano Rivera no matter how cool he is not to have shed tears when Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte came to the mound in the ninth inning to make a pitching change removing the game’s greatest closer that Yankees managers rarely had to do over the past two decades.

Mo simply lost it as he hugged his two longtime teammates while a capacity Yankee Stadium crowd of 48,675 lit up the night with camera flashes and filled the air with thunderous cheers.

The choice of Jeter and Pettitte to do the manager’s bidding was a stroke of genius by Joe Girardi, who had trouble composing himself after the game in describing his emotions.

“I have been around Mariano since 1996 through a lot of good times,” Girardi said as he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “As a player, he made my job fun. As a manager, he made my job easier. More importantly, he has made all our lives better the way he goes about his business with humility.”

I was watching Girardi closely when he came out of the dugout before the start of the ninth inning to talk to plate umpire Laz Diaz while Mark Reynolds came into the game to play third base and Eduardo Nunez moved over to shortstop after Brendan Ryan had been pinch-hit out of the game the prior half inning. Third base umpire Mike Winters, the crew chief, joined in the discussion, which struck me as odd considering the ordinariness of the player move.

Perhaps, I thought, Girardi was inserting Rivera into the batting order to get him a plate appearance in his Stadium farewell. Then I looked at the lineup and saw designated hitter Alfonso Soriano was the fourth batter due up in the bottom of the ninth, so there could be no guarantee that Mo would get the opportunity to swing a bat.

Girardi explained later that he asked Diaz if a player could be designated to make a pitching change. Then Joe realized that Jeter is on the 60-day disabled list, so just to play it safe he asked if two players could do it. Winters looked at Diaz, then back at Girardi and said, “Oh, go ahead.”

With that remark, another great moment in Yankees history was able to occur.

Rivera was so moved by the entire situation that even before Jeter and Pettitte came calling he had to duck into the trainer’s room between innings to get a grip on his emotions.

“I was bombarded with feelings I could not describe,” Rivera said. “Everything was hitting me in flashbacks as I tried to compose myself.”

The arrival of his teammates after Rivera got the first two outs in the ninth was not a surprise to him. It was not a save situation as the Yankees were trailing the Rays by 4-0, which would be the eventual final score. Besides, before Rivera took the mound Jeter said to him, “We’re coming out to get you.”

The trio on the mound in that poignant moment had all come up through the Yankees’ system together and reached the big club in 1995. Pettitte and Rivera found niches on the staff that year while Jeter, who came up for a brief period, made his impact the next season as the American League Rookie of the Year. Players in both dugouts stood and applauded along with the fans. If the Yankees had the lead and Mariano was trying for a save it would have been more fitting a finish for him in front of the home crowd but surely not a better scene could have been viewed considering the circumstances.

Just the night before, the Yankees had been eliminated from postseason play for only the second time in Rivera’s 19 seasons with the club. The game after elimination is usually a drab affair, but Mo for one last time gave his fans a special treat.

Stick to the rubber, Mo; stay out of the outfield

I hate to be the spoilsport on this topic, but what the heck, somebody has to. The idea that Mariano Rivera should play center field at least for one inning in one of the Yankees’ final games of this season is absurd.

Even Mariano in his afternoon meeting with with longtime Yankees employees said he did not think he should do it. I mean, when Derek Jeter plays his final game whenever that may be, does anyone expect him to pitch an inning?

We are all aware of Mo’s athletic versatility and that it had been a dream of his to play center field in a big-league game at some point. But that was some time ago. He is 43 years old. True, Mariano shags in the outfield every day during batting practice, but a former major-league center fielder told me recently that shagging in BP does not translate automatically to playing the position in a big-league game.

For fans intrigued by such a possibility, ask yourself if you want the great Rivera to embarrass himself for a sideshow moment in what has been a magnificent and classy career. There was no chance this would happen Thursday night at the sold-out season finale at Yankee Stadium, not with the wild-card situation in the American League still in doubt and the Rays the opponents. Mo was likely to get into the game but in his more familiar role on the mound outs of the bullpen.

Granted, the three-game series at Houston that concludes the Yanks’ season has no significance. It would seem the ideal place for the gimmick of Rivera getting his inning in the outfield without compromising the integrity of the game, although an Astros club that has already lost 108 games may not like having their noses rubbed in it by a grandstand maneuver. One look at the incline in center field at Minute Maid Park should present all the reservations Rivera would need.

Is this the way we want to remember Mo? As a 43-year-old pitcher trying to track down liners running uphill in an unfamiliar yard? God forbid he should get hurt the way he did shagging in Kansas City last year.

I for one want to see him pitch in all three games at Houston, to show the fans there what a true, surefire future Hall of Famer is all about. It is also my hope that Mo put away his pipedream and continue to excel at the position he helped define. If he wants to play center field, plenty of amateur baseball leagues throughout the tri-state area would give Rivera that chance once his retirement as a major leaguer is complete.

Ironic that Indians should eliminate Yankees

Go back to early April in Cleveland and who would have thought the season would end the way it has for the two clubs on the field in two games at Progressive Field? The Yankees outscored the Indians, 25-7, in those games. Cleveland fans treated former Tribesman Travis Hafner to a standing ovation for his past service as the Yankees newest designated hitter was well on his way to a very productive first month of the season. Many folks in the media were wondering if Terry Francona did a smart thing in going back to the dugout with that franchise.

It just shows how much things can change in six months. The Yankees were eliminated from the race for a postseason berth Wednesday night while the Indians were still in line for a shot at their first postseason appearance in six years. Cleveland still has to fight off the challenges of Texas and Kansas City but no longer has the Yankees to worry about.

The Yanks’ tragic number for elimination was down to one entering play Wednesday night. One more loss or one more Indians victory would knock the Yankees out of the playoff picture. As it turned out, both results happened. The Indians beat the White Sox, 7-2, to eliminate the Yankees, who lost a few minutes later to the Rays, 8-3.

In head-to-head competition, the Yankees were clearly superior to Cleveland this year. They won six of the seven games between them and outscored the Tribe, 49-19. The Yankees batted .295 with 13 home runs and 46 RBI against the Indians and averaged seven runs per game. Yankees pitchers combined for a 2.71 ERA in limiting the Indians to a .205 batting average and 2.71 runs per game.

But over the course of the entire season against all levels of competition, the Yankees finished behind the Indians. For all their success against Cleveland, the Yankees were done in by failing to beat inferior teams when it counted. Losing two of three at San Diego followed by getting swept by the White Sox at Chicago last month was a bad sign. Losing all four games this year to the Mets certainly hurt. And earlier this month after giving fans encouragement by winning three of four games at Baltimore, the Yankees were swept by the American League East winning Red Sox at Boston and then, even worse, dropped two of three to the last-place Blue Jays at Toronto.

Matters did not improve when the Yankees came home. They held the Giants to three runs total in three games but did not sweep the series, which was a must. Tampa Bay beat the Yanks each of the past two nights. Do not expect a spring-training lineup from the Yankees in the final home game of the season Thursday night.

“We have a responsibility to baseball,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

What he meant is that the Rays have not yet clinched a postseason berth, so for the sake of the Rangers and the Indians Girardi will field a representative lineup. Whether it will include Alex Rodriguez or not remains to be seen. He was lifted for a pinch hitter, Ichiro Suzuki, in the eighth inning and complained of sore legs.

Phil Hughes (4-14) lasted four batters into the third inning and was hung with another loss, his 10th in 11 decisions at Yankee Stadium this year. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Hughes’ 1-10 mark in 16 home starts made him only the second pitcher in major league history to win fewer than two home games in a season in which he made at least 15 starts at his home yard. The other was the Blue Jays’ Phil Huffman, who was 1-9 in 16 starts at Exhibition Stadium in 1979.

Evan Longoria whacked two home runs and David DeJesus one in a 15-hit Tampa Bay attack that supported last year’s AL Cy Young Award winner, David Price (9-8). Say this for Yankees fans. They were on their feet and applauding during an eighth-inning rally despite their team trailing by five runs.

Thursday night will mark the final Stadium appearance by Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte. Mo will almost certainly get in the game regardless of the score. He is hoping for one more save situation. So are all of us.

Sept. 24 ticket holders offered free 2014 tickets

Fans holding tickets for Mariano Rivera Bobblehead Night Sept. 24 may redeem their tickets for complimentary tickets to any regular season game at Yankee Stadium during the 2014 season, excluding Opening Day and Old-Timers’ Day, subject to availability.

Season ticket holders, group leaders and individual-game suite licensees who no longer possess their physical tickets from Tuesday night’s game should contact their Yankees ticket representative for assistance. Fans who purchased their tickets for Tuesday night’s game through the Yankees ticket office or yankees.com and who no longer possess their physical tickets should e-mail tickets@yankees.com.

Please note that the Yankees can only accept tickets with valid bar codes for the Sept. 24, 2013 game.

Fans may redeem their tickets at Yankee Stadium advance ticket windows beginning when 2014 individual-game tickets go on sale to the general public through May 31, 2014. Fans will be able to redeem their Sept. 24, 2013, tickets for select Field Level, Main Level, Terrace Level and Grandstand Level seats.

“The strength of this organization comes from the lifelong relationships we have developed with our fans,” Yankees chief operating officer Lonn Trost said. “Although a perfect storm of circumstances beyond our control led to the delay in the distribution of last night’s promotional item, the fact remains that our fans were inconvenienced. It matters little why – only that they were. We take last night’s event seriously, and to apologize to our fans and express our loyalty to them we are inviting all ticket holders from last night’s game back to Yankee Stadium for a complimentary game during the 2014 regular season.”

For complete information about the Yankees’ redemption policy with respect to the Sept. 24 game, please visit http://www.yankees.com.

Fans who did not redeem their bobblehead vouchers before leaving the Stadium Tuesday night may redeem them at either of the Yankees’ two remaining home games Wednesday and Thursday nights provided they have valid tickets for these games. Voucher redemption will take place inside Gate 2 through the end of each game.

Fans who are not attending either of the Yankees’ two remaining home games should mail their vouchers and their mailing address to: Fan Services, Yankee Stadium, One E. 161st Street, Bronx, NY 10451. Yankees Fan Services will mail them one bobblehead per original voucher received. Lost or misplaced vouchers as well as copies of original vouchers will not be honored.

Sabathia missed latest date with Price

CC Sabathia’s hamstring injury that has terminated the season prevented another matchup against the Rays’ David Price. The two former Cy Young Award winners have been paired against each other on a regular basis.

Sabathia’s last start was Friday night at Yankee Stadium against the Giants in which he pitched seven innings plus one batter and got the victory thanks to Alex Rodriguez’s record 24th career grand slam that unlocked a 1-1 score in the bottom of the seventh. CC somehow pitched into the eighth inning despite straining his left hammy in the second inning.

Had he not been hurt and stayed on turn in the rotation, Sabathia would have been scheduled to start for the Yankees Wednesday night against Tampa Bay and his fellow lefthander. Perhaps CC would just as soon avoid Price, whose most recent victory was Aug. 24 against Sabathia and the Yankees at Tropicana Field.

It was the ninth time Price and Sabathia squared off against each other. The Rays have won eight of those games with Price putting up a 6-1 record and 2.68 ERA in 59 2/3 innings. Nine of his 20 career starts against the Yankees have come against Sabathia.

Yankees’ condition is critical

As if the Yankees didn’t have enough trouble Tuesday night, a former teammate added to their misery. Jason Giambi put the finishing touch on a wild, 5-4 Indians victory over the White Sox in Cleveland while the Yankees were going down quietly, 7-0, to the Rays at Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees’ situation is now critical. They trail the Indians for the second wild-card playoff berth by five games with five to play. Do the math and it comes out to the Yankees’ tragic number being down to one. One more Yankees loss or Indians victory will keep the Bombers home during the postseason for only the second time in the past 19 seasons.

Tampa Bay kept a sturdy hold on the first wild-card spot with the victory despite a shaky start by Matt Moore (16-4). The lefthander struggled with command (six walks, three wild pitches, one of which put a strikeout victim on base) but gave up only three hits in five innings. The Yankees were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base against Moore and were 0-for-10 with 11 stranded runners for the game.

Runs have been hard to come by for the Yankees lately. They have scored one in their past 20 innings on Mark Reynolds’ third-inning home run Sunday against the Giants. The Yanks were shut out for the 11th time this season, the most in one year since they were blanked 15 times in 1990. This was the third time the Yankees were held scoreless this year by Tampa Bay.

As has been in the case in his recent starts, Hiroki Kuroda took a while to get into a rhythm on the mound. The Rays had a 3-0 lead four batters into the game. Kuroda gave up a leadoff home run to Matt Joyce, a single to Wil Myers, a double to David De Jesus (who took third on the throw home) and a sacrifice fly to Evan Longoria. The way the Yankees’ offense has sputtered lately, that was probably the game right there.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi had lefthander Boone Logan up in the bullpen in the sixth inning but curiously did not bring him into the game to face left-handed batting James Loney with the bases loaded and one out. Loney lined a double to right-center for two runs that pretty much sealed the deal for the Rays.

Meanwhile, the Indians had one of those inspiring victories that can propel a club into postseason play. Cleveland closer Chris Perez blew a 3-2 lead in the ninth by giving up two solo home runs. The Tribe had the last laugh, however, when Giambi went yard as a pinch hitter in the bottom of the ninth with two out and a runner on second base.

It was tough going all around for the crowd of 43,407 at the Stadium. The truck carrying Mariano Rivera bobblehead dolls for Tuesday night’s giveaway was late, which created long lines for ticketholders to collect their gift.

Sabathia vows to come back strong in 2014

The Yankees’ slim hopes of making the playoffs have been dealt a further blow with the loss of CC Sabathia for the remainder of the season. He sustained a Grade 2 left hamstring strain, which requires a recovery time of eight weeks, during Friday night’s 5-1 victory over the Giants. The amazing part is that Sabathia felt the strain as early as the second inning and still he pitched into the eighth and after the game told manager Joe Girardi he expected to make his next start. That was the adrenalin talking, of course. Once the strain was discovered, Sabathia was shut down for the rest of the way.

“It’s frustrating,” Sabathia said. “It came at a time when I felt I was going in the right direction.”

The 2013 season was something of a roller coaster for Sabathia, who finished with a 14-13 record and a 4.78 ERA, the highest of his career. The lefthander did not mince words when summing up his season.

“I had a bad year,” he said.

Well, that’s a bit harsh. What Sabathia had was an inconsistent season, one in which he could not take success from start to start as he had in the past during a career that included his winning the American League Cy Young Award in 2006 with the Indians and in five years with the Yankees that included an World Series championship in 2009.

“I didn’t grind it out the way I have in the past,” he said. “I gave up too many leads. Our guys would come back against a good pitcher, and I’d give back the lead the next inning. If I could have given Hiro [Hiroki Kuroda] more help, we’d be in a better position than we are now.”

In that last sentence, Sabathia acknowledged that he lost the staff ace designation to Kuroda at some point during the season, a position he hopes to regain in 2014.

“I had different issues; it wasn’t just one thing,” he said. “Earlier in the year, it was arm angle, not getting my elbow up. Another part of it was being stubborn, not wanting to change. I was never one to look at videos. I had to change my approach and started doing that to study hitters’ tendencies. I fell into a pattern where I was pitching people the same way. My preparation for the game needs to be better. I felt like I let my teammates down this year. I intend to work hard over the winter and next spring to go back to being the pitcher I was when I signed here.”

Painful ending to Mariano’s special day

And so the farewell tour finally came to Yankee Stadium.

Mariano Rivera’s year-long sojourn throughout North America in his last major-league season has given him the opportunity to connect with fans and employees of all teams. Sunday at the Stadium was about recognition and appreciation from the people who have felt that way about him all of the past 19 seasons.

No franchise handles ceremonies such as these better than the Yankees. And more often than not, the team tops it off with a victory. Not this time, however. The script that should have called for Rivera saving the victory in Andy Pettitte’s last start at the Stadium did not materialize. The two pitchers who have combined for the most victories and saves as a tandem did not push the record total to 73 as the Giants pulled out a 2-1 victory that put the Yankees’ wild-card chances on life support.

“We’re still alive,” manager Joe Girardi said, “but this one hurt.”

It hurt in many ways, not just in the back-to-the-wall posture it placed the team in reference to a postseason berth but also in the aesthetic quality of a feel-good conclusion to a special day before a crowd of 49,197 on a postcard afternoon.

The Yankees pulled out all stops in the pregame ceremony for Rivera, the all-time saves leader who is closing out the career of the game’s greatest closer. After a proclamation from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was read declaring Sunday “Mariano Rivera Day,” members of the families of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and the late Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson stood beside Mo for the unveiling of special plaques to honor the most distinguished player to wear uniform No. 42.

The plaque for Jackie Robinson marked the first in Monument Park for a player from another team. Jackie competed against the Yankees with the Brooklyn Dodgers in six World Series. When ‘42’ was retired in perpetuity in 1997 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in the big leagues, players wearing the number at the time could keep it. Rivera was the last of those players, and his ‘42’ was retired and placed where Robinson’s blue-toned ‘42’ has been located.

“I didn’t know what to feel,” Rivera said. “At the monument they retired my number, so I guess I am officially retired.”

On the infield in front of the mound were collected many of the people Mo considered important to his career – senior vice president and special adviser Gene Michael, former manager Joe Torre, former trainer Gene Monahan and former teammates Jeff Nelson, David Cone, John Wetteland, Hideki Matsui, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.

Current teammate Robinson Cano escorted Rachel and Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s widow and daughter, respectively, onto the field; longtime teammate Derek Jeter did likewise for Clara, Mariano Jr., Jafet and Jaziel, Mo’s wife and children. Performing on a bandstand on the center field warning track, Metallica belted out a live version of “Enter Sandman,” which has been his entrance theme since 1999, eight years after the song’s initial release.

Rivera walked to the mound rather than making his usual trot as the band played. The group also presented him with a custom speaker from a recent tour with a sign reading “No. 42 Sandman” on the front. Yankees team president Randy Levine, chief operating officer Lonn Trost and the Steinbrenner family presented Rivera with a $100,000 donation to his foundation.

Even the Giants got into the act. Pitching coach Dave Righetti, first base coach Roberto Kelly, batting coach Hensley “Bam-Bam” Meulens and assistant hitting coach Joe Lefebvre – all former Yankees – gave Rivera a water-color painting of him pitching at San Francisco’s AT&T Park and an electric guitar featuring the signature of Willie Mays imbedded on the front.

Girardi and Jeter on behalf of the players presented Mo with a rocking chair and a Waterford crystal replica of his glove.

Morock

Mariano Rivera rocks
(USA Today photo)

In addressing the crowd, Rivera got off a good line about his parents, “Thank you for having me that day or that night – I don’t know which – but gracias!” and then to the fans, “Thank for 19 years of support. You were always there for me and the organization, and I will never forget it.”

After paying tribute to his homeland of Panama and his adopted country of the United States (he lives year-round in Westchester County), Rivera said, “So let’s play ball, man. We got to go!”

Pettitte did his best to top the ceremony by flirting with a perfect game and no-hitter for five innings. He retired the first 14 batters before walking Pablo Santoval with two out in the fifth inning. Pettitte was still working on a no-no with one out in the sixth when rookie shortstop Ehire Adrianza hit his first career home run to tie the score. Mark Reynolds had homered off Giants starter Yusmeiro Petit (pronounced puh-TEET) leading off the third inning.

Pettitte admitted he thought about a no-hitter but admitted, “I don’t know if my body would allow me to pitch nine innings anymore.”

He lasted until the first batter in the seventh when Sandoval doubled. Rivera was up in the pen, but Girardi brought in David Robertson, who got the first out on a ground ball but hung a curve to Tony Abreu, who doubled to right to score what proved the deciding run. Rivera entered the game at that point and got out of the inning aided by a sliding catch in center field by Curtis Granderson. Mo worked a scoreless ninth as well and was intent on staying in the game until the Yankees won it.

They wasted a prime scoring opportunity in the eighth after getting runners on second and third with none out but both were subsequently thrown out at the plate. The Yankees went down in order in the ninth, so no victory for them or Rivera. A tough loss was hung on Pettitte, who unless he wins his final start later this week at Houston will have a losing record (10-11) for the first time in his career.

The Rays, Indians and Royals all won their games Sunday. The Yankees are four games behind Cleveland for the second wild-card spot with six to play, three of which will be against Tampa Bay at the Stadium beginning Tuesday night. They hope that series won’t be a farewell for the team in 2013.

Nova makes scoreboard watching easy

There was not too much scoreboard watching for the Yankees Saturday. The only game other than theirs against the Giants in the afternoon that involved the clubs ahead of them in the wild-card hunt was the Orioles at St. Pete where the Rays won, 5-1. The Indians, Rangers and Royals were all scheduled at night.

So the best scoreboard watching for the Yankees was their own as inning by inning Ivan Nova kept tossing zeroes at the distant cousins from San Francisco. The righthander, who has been the Yankees’ best starting pitcher in the second half, finished up with a six-hit shutout, his second complete-game blanking of the season. This one, a 6-0 final, was clutch because of the timing when the Yankees simply have to win every game they play.

“If we play like we did today, there is no reason why we can’t win all seven games we have left,” Alfonso Soriano said.

Soriano ranks right up there with Nova as the most important Yankees post the All-Star Game. Sori smacked out another home run Saturday. That gives him 17 in 52 games with the Yankees, the same total he had in 93 games with the Cubs. He also raised his RBI total to 101 in becoming only the fifth player in history to drive in 50 or more runs each for two different clubs in the same season. The others were Matt Holliday with the Athletics and Cardinals in 2009, Manny Ramirez with the Red Sox and Dodgers in 2008, Carlos Beltran with the Royals and Astros in 2004 and David Justice with the Indians and Yankees in 2000.

Similar to what Justice did for the Yanks 13 years ago; Soriano has re-ignited the team’s offense with 50 RBI in 52 games and 36 RBI in 26 games at Yankee Stadium.

“He has been special since he got here,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I think it is because he is excited to be here. He had fond memories of being here before and enjoyed it so much.”

Soriano’s 34th home run of the season overall was icing on the cake Saturday. The way Nova was pitching the three runs he got in the fourth were plenty sufficient. They came essentially from the bottom third of the order against Giants starter Ryan Vogelsong on singles by Mark Reynolds and Brendan Ryan and a walk to Chris Stewart that loaded the bases. A sacrifice fly by Ichiro Suzuki, an infield out by Alex Rodriguez and a two-out single by Robinson Cano scored all the runners. Eduardo Nunez contributed a two-run homer in the fourth, two innings before Soriano connected.

In the meantime, Nova (9-5) held the Giants to six hits and one walk with seven strikeouts in an efficient, 108-pitch effort. Nova had been the American League Pitcher of the Month for August but was 0-1 with a 7.07 ERA in his first three starts in September before Saturday’s gem. He had better command of his breaking ball and a good sinker that resulted in 14 groundouts. Splendid defense up the middle by Ryan at shortstop made this the kind of day to get ground balls.

So the Yankees pulled even with Baltimore again in the wild-card standings and would pay close attention to the night games to see where they stand heading into Sunday, which will be a special day for Mariano Rivera and they hope for the rest of the team as well.