Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet. He’s the reigning American League Most Valuable Player. He’s on pace to claim his third consecutive AL batting title. He has a realistic chance to become the first hitter ever to win back-to-back Triple Crowns.
Against Mariano Rivera, he’s 0 for 5 with a strikeout.
Cabrera has a World Series ring and growing Cooperstown resume. But unless the Tigers and Yankees meet in the postseason, three games in August represent Cabrera’s last chance to secure one rarefied piece of baseball history: a base hit against the greatest closer of all time.
“If not, it’s OK with me,” Cabrera said admiringly a few days ago. “He’s the best in the game.”
As Rivera nears the end of his peerless 19-year career, his impact on the sport is perhaps best reflected in the recollections of his opponents. The stories are rarely triumphant but abidingly respectful. Rivera’s adversaries admire not only his unparalleled success — a major league record 638 saves (entering Sunday), 42 more in the playoffs — but the dignified manner in which he achieved it.
Rivera is perhaps the only pitcher in baseball who can break a hitter’s bat and leave the defeated foe feeling somewhat grateful for the experience.
So fittingly, Rivera, 43, was the sport’s feel-good story over the All-Star break, making the last of his 13 All-Star Game appearances on Tuesday night at Citi Field. And in a scene fit for Broadway, Rivera entered the game in the eighth to a standing ovation — by fans and players — and pitched a perfect inning as the AL prevailed 3-0. He got his Hollywood ending, too, being named the game’s MVP.
To mark the occasion, I spoke with a number of Rivera’s rivals — active and retired, those who solved him and others still searching for an answer to the most famous cut fastball in baseball history.
Mueller faced Rivera 18 times, all during the apex of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry from 2003 through 2005. Mueller batted .353 against him, including two of the most memorable hits Rivera allowed in his career.
Today, Mueller works as a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And no, he hasn’t been asked to file a report on No. 42.
“It would be an easy one to write, that’s for sure,” Mueller said over the phone with a laugh. “Perennial All-Star. Stud.”
With Rivera and Mueller, the yarn cannot stop there. Particularly in New England, they will be remembered together for their roles in one of this century’s most dramatic sports stories.
Mueller’s walk-off home run against Rivera on July 24, 2004, was the turning point of that season in Boston. And with the Red Sox on the brink of elimination in Game 4 of the ALCS, Mueller’s ninth-inning single off Rivera scored Dave Roberts with the tying run. Without Mueller’s success against Rivera, the Curse of the Bambino might have endured. So, how did Mueller figure out the man who — to this day — remains a mystery to so many hitters?
“I was never comfortable against him — never felt good against him, never felt like I had the advantage,” Mueller said. “It was one of those things where I went up there trying to keep things as simple as possible — be a positive out, really. It’s so difficult to think you’re going to have success against such a great player. It wasn’t anything more than that. He was so dominant. To have that success, I guess you could say you’d rather be lucky than good.”
As Mueller elaborated, though, a few keys to his success became clear: Mueller, a switch-hitter, had an especially short stroke when batting left-handed, with a swing path that covered the inside part of the plate very well. (That’s crucial against Rivera, because his cutter darts toward the fists of left-handed batters.) Mueller also was known to have excellent hand-eye coordination. That combination of factors gave him a better chance than most.
And there was one more thing: Mueller normally used Louisville Slugger bats. But during those years, he special-ordered a half-dozen Rawlings bats that were shorter and lighter than his usual model.
He saved them for Mariano.
“I couldn’t get too attached to them, either, because there was a good chance he was going to break them,” Mueller said, laughing. “And if those bats didn’t come in for some reason, I had to choke up (on his normal bat). I just used the lightest bat I had. It was maybe a mental confidence-booster more than anything.”
Mueller isn’t sure what became of the bats he used for the walk-off home run and game-tying single. He isn’t a big memorabilia collector. But he did leave the game with a deep appreciation for the way Rivera remained mentally and physically strong — and resolutely motivated — through a period of such sustained excellence.
Mueller knows, too, that he’s one of only three men who can say they delivered a game-tying hit against Rivera, in the postseason, during a game the Yankees lost. Sandy Alomar Jr. (1997) and Tony Womack (2001) are the others. Rivera has appeared in 96 postseason games, and it speaks to his brilliance that we mostly remember those stunning occasions when he didn’t record the final out.
“That’s why you’re talking to me,” Mueller acknowledged. “It is shocking. That’s how dominant he’s been over the years, especially in the playoffs. He’s one of the most special guys in the history of the game.”
Of all the hitters with at least 24 plate appearances against Rivera, only four have an OPS greater than .800: David Ortiz, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez and Mike Bordick.
“That’s funny,” Bordick said over the weekend, when I mentioned the statistic to him. “I never realized that. I only remember one hit. It was a triple to left-center. He sped up my bat with a slider. It was one of the highlights of my career, and it might have been the only slider he ever threw.”
Rivera’s cutter reached 97 miles per hour in those days. He had pinpoint location — still does, actually — and would cruelly entice batters with unhittable pitches up in the zone. Bordick felt that he had to start his swing earlier than usual just to have a chance. So it shocked him to see a slider — a hanging one at that.
Bordick’s last at-bat against Rivera came in 2002, the year before he retired as a player. A decade later, Bordick still watches Rivera in his role as a Baltimore Orioles television analyst.
Even with retirement beckoning, Rivera’s numbers — 30 saves, a 1.83 ERA — look about the same as they did when Bordick was in the league.
“I don’t think he’s changed too much,” Bordick said. “Sometimes, he’ll mix in that two-seamer with sink. But he’s just so comfortable on the mound. His velocity is in the low 90s now, but he’s still very effective. He’s able to locate. He’s just so smart.
“He’s had so many repetitions — all those innings, all those hitters, all those big situations. He’s become like a grand master. He knows what he wants to do, and he executes it perfectly almost every time.”
DeRosa was batting in the No. 9 spot for the Atlanta Braves at Yankee Stadium on June 8, 2001, when he came to the plate with one on and two out in the ninth.
The Yankees were ahead, 7-4. Brian Boehringer had been pitching for New York. And, well, I’m going to let DeRosa take it from here.
“Joe Torre summoned him [Rivera] from the bullpen,” said DeRosa, a 16-year veteran now with the Toronto Blue Jays. “I heard the music ["Enter Sandman,” the Metallica song that is Rivera’s walk-in standard], and I’m like, ‘This is awesome. I’m going to get to face Mariano.’ I remember looking up in the family section for my dad, and my brother was trying to fire me up, like, ‘Come on! You can do this!’ My dad had his head in his hands, like, ‘My son’s going to strike out.’
“I remember watching him warm up. I can tell you like it was yesterday. I’m like, ‘Man, I’ve watched this guy forever. I think I can get to that, you know?’ I got in the box. I was confident and ready. I remember closing my eyes when the first ball came up, because I really thought it was going to hit me square in the rib. When I opened them, the umpire went, ‘Strike one.’ And I was like, ‘Oh God, I’m going to strike out.’
“I tried to play it off like I was cool and in the big leagues, but I knew in the back of my head this was a matter of time.”
DeRosa’s father was right: He struck out on three pitches.
DeRosa remembers another at-bat against Rivera, five years later. He was playing with the Texas Rangers then.
“My first hit off him,” DeRosa said. “It was a meaningless hit up the middle. I guess he was probably getting work in or closing a game out. I don’t remember the exact situation. I remember hitting a line drive up the middle off him.
“You have moments throughout the course of your career where you really take it in for a second. I was running down to first going, ‘All right, man. You just got a knock off one of the greatest pitchers that’ll ever toe the slab.’ That’s a pretty cool moment for me.”
Rios, an American Leaguer for the last 10 seasons, is still waiting for his moment.
Rios is 0 for 15 lifetime against Rivera. He has the most at-bats without a hit against Rivera among all active players and is second all time. Two-time All-Star Ray Durham, bless his heart, went 0 for 26.
Rios’ Chicago White Sox are set to play the Yankees next month. So unless he’s traded, he’ll get his chance.
“It would be nice, yeah,” Rios said, smiling, when asked if he’d like to get one hit off Rivera before he retires. “It would be nice.”
In the meantime, Rios is somewhat philosophical about his 0-fer: If he’s going to have one, it might as well be against the best relief pitcher in history.
“I’m glad that I faced him, just so that I could say I faced him,” Rios said. “Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten a hit. But just facing him is something you should be happy for.
“His accomplishments in the game are unbelievable. He’s the greatest. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to have a conversation with him and get to know him better, but from what I’ve heard he’s a great man. A very humble guy. I really admire him being humble like he is. A lot of people appreciate how he goes about his business. He could be the flashiest guy. He’s not. He goes about his business the right way. He does his job right. People appreciate that. I appreciate that.”
If Rios happens to get a hit off Rivera next month — or later in the year, if he’s traded — he’s already made up his mind that he would follow protocol normally associated with a player’s first big league hit.
He wants the ball.
“I’ll get it,” Rios said with a grin. “I will get it.”
After his Seattle Mariners lost at Yankee Stadium one night earlier this season, Ibanez was asked about the way Rivera had broken the bat of his teammate, Kendrys Morales, with a routinely vicious cut fastball.
“I’ve been that guy — many times,” Ibanez allowed. “Mo’s broken a lot of my bats. He’s broken a lot of everyone’s bats. He keeps the bat companies in business.”
Then Ibanez, a 41-year-old hitting sage, explained the simple brilliance of Rivera’s effectiveness: “The approach, I think, has to be to hit the ball on the barrel. He’s obviously missed a lot of barrels in his career. I don’t know how many people have figured him out. I don’t think many people have figured him out at all.”
Ibanez, 4 for 21 in his career against Rivera, came to know him on a more personal level last season during Ibanez’s one-year stint with the Yankees.
“Not just is he the greatest closer ever, but he’s one of the greatest human beings I’ve had the privilege of knowing,” Ibanez said. “He’s humble. He’s a fierce competitor. He’s the kind of man I would want my own son to grow up and be like, and that’s the highest compliment I can give a person.”
Ibanez’s quintessential Rivera story took place in spring training a few years ago, when Ibanez, then with the Philadelphia Phillies, had just finished playing a game against the Yankees in Tampa. Ibanez’s son, R.J., was there and asked if he could meet Rivera, but Mo was already in his car and headed away by the time Ibanez located him.
“I said, ‘Mariano, can you say hello to my son?’ ” Ibanez recalled. “Mo got out of the car and called my son out of my car. My son shook his hand, and Mo said, ‘Where’s the camera? Who has the camera?’ My wife scrambled to grab her camera phone. She took a picture that my son still has and is very proud of.
“That’s just a great gesture from a superstar — a guy you’re competing against — to do that. It made a huge impact on my son and my own life. My son still has the picture. He cherishes it. He’s posted it on Instagram. He’s very proud of it.”
Like DeRosa, Hunter has a vivid recollection of his first hit against Rivera — a single to center at Yankee Stadium while he was with the Minnesota Twins.
Hunter’s had only two since, lone base hits in 2008 and 2009 while with the Angels. He’s 0 for 8 with a walk in his last nine plate appearances against Rivera, including a game-ending punchout this year. Hunter said Rivera started throwing him two-seamers — not cutters — in the 2009 postseason, when the Angels and Yankees met in the ALCS.
“He blew my bat up (with a two-seamer), and I said to myself, ‘He’s not going to do that again,’ ” Hunter said. “But I faced him again — and he blew me up again.”
Hunter and Rivera will be teammates at the All-Star Game this week, and Hunter remembers fondly the time they spent together during a charity event at the last All-Star Game in New York five years ago.
“That was the longest conversation I had with him away from the field,” Hunter said. “He’s just a good dude. He talked about his family. His wife was there. He just loves the right stuff. You’ve got to love a guy like that. Once you get to know Mariano, you respect him as a person more than as a player.
“He’s such a competitor, and such a good player, you’d think he’d have an attitude. But he’s so down to earth. He shook everyone’s hand. He had a conversation with everybody. He wasn’t standoffish. That opened my eyes that this is a great man. He treats all people the same. He didn’t have a bodyguard. He’s genuine. This isn’t fake. This is who he is.”
Hunter has developed a subtle custom during his 15 full seasons in the major leagues. When he digs into the batter’s box against a former teammate who has been a close friend — Johan Santana, for example — he touches the brim of his helmet to acknowledge the mutual respect between them.
Of all the pitchers in baseball, Hunter said, he tips his helmet to only one man who’s never been his teammate: Mariano Rivera.