Yankees likely still need lots of Rivera in Series

He is the greatest luxury item for the well-heeled Yankees, a more valuable commodity in October than even Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez or CC Sabathia.

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When the Yankees have a narrow lead at the end of a postseason game, manager Joe Girardi can summon Mariano Rivera to get the final six outs. If a starter can cover seven innings, there is no need to involve a middleman. The ball goes straight to the greatest closer in history.

It unfolded that way in Game 2 of the World Series on Thursday. A.J. Burnett delivered in the biggest start of his life, allowing one earned run in seven innings. Rivera took it from there and preserved a 3-1, series-tying win over Philadelphia.

Girardi needed the victory, and he got it. But at what cost to his Hall of Fame-bound closer?

Rivera will turn 40 next month. Even though he looks a decade younger than he actually is, I can’t help but wonder when the bill for all those October innings, all those pressure pitches, will come due.

When he fanned Matt Stairs for the final out Thursday, Rivera became the oldest pitcher to record a World Series save since Baltimore’s Dick Hall in 1971, according to Dave Smith of Retrosheet.org.

The effort required 39 pitches. It was his longest labor ever in a World Series game — and the most pitches he’d expended in an outing since May 6, 2005.

It’s just a number

A list of the oldest pitchers to record a save in World Series history, according to Dave Smith of Retrosheet.org:

Pitcher

Team

Date

Age

Dick Hall

BAL

10/11/1971

41

Dick Hall

BAL

10/11/1970

40

Mariano Rivera

NYY

10/29/2009

39

Todd Jones

DET

10/22/2006

38

Ron Reed

PHI

10/15/1980

37

Tug McGraw

PHI

10/21/1980

36

Tug McGraw

PHI

10/14/1980

36

Dennis Eckersley

OAK

10/28/1989

35

Tom Henke

TOR

10/21/1992

34

Tom Henke

TOR

10/18/1992

34

Mariano Rivera

NYY

10/21/2003

33

Think about that: Since the save rule came about, only one other closer has pitched in the World Series at Rivera’s age. And yet the Yankees, with an inexperienced bullpen and starters potentially going on short rest, seem more reliant on him than ever.

I realize Mo is Mo. He has the most postseason saves in history. He has the most World Series saves in history. But he’s an older pitcher who has had outings of 34 and 39 pitches within the last week.

Shouldn’t this concern the Yankees?

“If he’s well-rested and it’s a two-inning save, we’re not going to hesitate to put him in there,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said Friday. “But we’re not going to push the envelope with him if he hasn’t had the proper amount of rest.”

The Yankees would love to point to Rivera’s workload in recent postseasons and say with certainty that his arm will stay sharp through what could be a draining World Series. But they can’t. Those reassuring numbers don’t exist.

Rivera had not thrown 30-plus pitches in multiple outings during a single postseason since at least 1999, according to research through Baseball-Reference.com. He already has two such outings in 2009.

This is pitching’s version of an all-nighter. You might be fine that day. You might be fine the next day. But there will come a time when the fourth cup of coffee has no effect and you spend an afternoon staring at a computer monitor and not accomplishing much.

Beginning this weekend in Philadelphia, the Yankees may have no choice but to lighten Rivera’s workload. At least a little.

Girardi said Friday he is “not sure” whether Rivera would be available for a six-out save in Game 3. And since Saturday starter Andy Pettitte has averaged 6 1/3 innings per start in this postseason, there’s a very good chance the Yankees will need Joba Chamberlain in the seventh inning.

If Phil Hughes were pitching better now, there wouldn’t be as much pressure on Rivera. But Hughes, who has a 9.64 ERA in the postseason, talked Friday about needing to tweak his mental approach and become more aggressive on the mound.

Chamberlain said Friday he’s capable of pitching two or three innings at a time. And if he can be effective, then Chamberlain may become one of the biggest keys to this series.

The reason for that is simple: The upcoming schedule won’t provide Rivera with the same number of days off he enjoyed during the American League playoffs. The Yankees and Phillies are scheduled to play Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

It doesn’t look like Rivera will have more than one six-out save over the next three games. When asked whether Rivera could pitch two innings in Game 3, one inning in Game 4, then two innings in Game 5, Eiland replied: “That might be a little bit of a stretch.”

Then Eiland continued: “But game’s on the line, series on the line, he’s going to come to us and say (he’s ready). Then it’s our job to make sure we don’t push too far.

“This time of year, it’s his time. He’s going to come to you and say he’s ready, no matter what. It’s our job to recognize body language, arm speed, things like that.

“He would take the ball every day, for two innings, if we let him. But we’re not going to let that happen.”

It’s worth noting Rivera didn’t exactly overwhelm the Phillies on Thursday, although catcher Jorge Posada said his cutter was just as lively at the end of the ninth as it had been at the start of the eighth. Eiland agreed, saying Rivera’s second inning is often better than his first; and that was the case in Game 2.

Philadelphia had two on and one out in the eighth when Chase Utley’s hard-hit ground ball became an inning-ending double play.

“We can hit Rivera,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said after Game 2. “We can hit any closer. We’ve proved that.

“He’s good. He’s one of the best closers in baseball, if not the best. He’s very good. But I’ve seen our team handle good pitching, and, you know, we’re definitely capable of scoring runs late in the game.”

The Yankees seem to have a simple, semi-old-fashioned pitching philosophy in this World Series. They apparently trust four pitchers more than the others: Rivera and starters CC Sabathia, Burnett and Pettitte. And the objective is for that group to spend as much time on the mound as possible.

On Friday, as Rivera recovered from his latest outing, Girardi acknowledged the possibility that Sabathia and Burnett could pitch on short rest in games 4 and 5.

The Phillies are taking a different approach. Not necessarily better, but different. Cliff Lee won’t pitch on short rest, so Joe Blanton is the Game 4 starter. Their closer, Brad Lidge, has thrown only four innings in the postseason. Of course, Lidge hasn’t been as consistent in his career as has Rivera.

At this time of year, really, no one is better than No. 42. He has been doing it since 1995. That is part of his appeal, part of why the Yankees can feel so at ease when he has the ball. But at some point, his arm will tire and the cutter won’t cut.

The Yankees hope that day won’t arrive in the next week.