Tigers are first to honor to Rivera

DETROIT – What do you give a pitcher who has tormented you for nearly two decades on his last scheduled visit to your stadium?
An autographed bat with a hole the size of the ball drilled into the sweet spot?
Perhaps a videotape of the only two postseason series he played against Detroit? No, that would be in poor taste, since the Tigers beat the New York Yankees convincingly in both 2006 and 2011, and Mariano Rivera never got a save in either one.

What the Tigers opted for was a framed going-away present about the size of your flat-screen television with vertical color photos of him pitching at both Tiger Stadium and Comerica Park. Bottles of pitching mound dirt from both stadiums were secured next to the photos.

The accompanying plaque had the date and stadium name on it and read: “On an illustrious 19-year career and standard of excellence.”

After pitching a scoreless ninth inning in Sunday’s 7-0 win over the Tigers, Rivera said, “That was pretty neat.”

Tigers manager Jim Leyland presented it to him on the field before the game, and Rivera doffed his cap as the crowd responded with a light applause.

“I was thrilled that Dave (Dombrowski) asked me to present it,” said Leyland, referring to the Tigers president and general manager. “I’m on record as saying he (Rivera) is the best of all-time.”

Rivera, 43, has converted 30 of his major-league record 609 saves against Detroit and almost completely dominated the Tigers since making his debut in 1995. Sunday’s appearance didn’t present a save situation, but Rivera hadn’t pitched all weekend and needed the work.

In case you were wondering, he hasn’t blown a save against the Tigers since Bobby Higginson hit a ninth-inning, bases-empty homer off him at Tiger Stadium on July 6, 1999. But even in that game, Rivera ended up being the winning pitcher.

He’s 5-1 with a 0.77 ERA in 58 2/3 innings pitched against Detroit, striking out 55 and walking eight. The Tigers have an overall .138 batting average against him, but that feeble number did go up on Sunday when Omar Infante and Ramon Santiago both flared hits to right field off him.

Detroit got a rare rally going against Rivera with two on and one out. And they would’ve actually scored their sixth and possibly seventh earned runs against him ever had center fielder Brett Gardner not made a sliding catch in the right-center gap to rob Austin Jackson.

Then Rivera ended the game by striking out Torii Hunter, who is batting .393 so far this season but .167 against Rivera during his career.

“He threw three two-seam fastballs to me,” said Hunter, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head.

Rivera is the master of the cut fastball, but went with the more conventional heater to put Hunter off-balance. And Rivera was crazy like a fox, throwing two-seam fastballs in succession when Hunter had to figure he would not see another.

That guile, as much as his signature pitch and having the guts of a cat burglar, have made Rivera money in the bank.

Hunter has faced him more than any Tigers player and is 3 for 18. Defending American League MVP and Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera is 0 for 5 against Rivera.

Detroit plays three road games against the Yankees in August and then, barring another postseason meeting, the Tigers will never face him again.

But before he left town, they finally figured out a way to get some dirt on him.