Tom Verducci has an excellent read out on Mariano Rivera and the pitch that made him famous in next week’s issue of Sports Illustrated. Here’s a bit of text from the article, which you can read online.
Just three months into his new role as the closer for a budding Yankees dynasty, Rivera was suddenly unable to throw his signature four-seam fastball straight, not even during his daily toss with pitcher Ramiro Mendoza. Every catch a struggle, Mendoza told Rivera to knock it off, to quit making the ball dip and dart. Rivera assured his friend that he wasn’t doing it intentionally. He was gripping the ball the same way he always had, releasing it the same way he always had. The wicked movement just … happened.
And continued to happen while Rivera warmed up one late-June night in the bullpen at Tiger Stadium. The baseball, as if defaced, would not fly straight. New York bullpen catcher Mike Borzello had never seen Rivera throw like this before, and it made him nervous. “In the old Detroit stadium the bullpen was on the field,” says Borzello, now the Dodgers’ bullpen catcher. “So if you missed the ball, they would have to stop the game. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than that. He started throwing these cutters. Immediately I checked the ball. Is the ball scuffed? What is going on here?
“When a guy is throwing 95 and the ball is cutting the last few feet before it gets to you, believe me, you never forget something like that. I was like, What are you doing?”
Rivera didn’t have an explanation, and though he says he “didn’t have any idea where the ball was going,” his results did not suffer. He got the save in that game, then in the next three. Still, for a month, he worked with Borzello and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre to eliminate the cutting action. “We were trying to make the pitch stay straighter, [as it had] in ’95 and ’96,” Rivera says, referring to his first two seasons in the big leagues, “but it didn’t work. Then I said, ‘I’m tired of working at this. Let’s let it happen.’ And since that day we didn’t try to straighten it out anymore.”
He smiles. “And the rest is history.”
Whether Mariano Rivera’s cutter is, as he calls it, a gift from God, or a beautiful mistake, the pitch remains one of the most feared in baseball. In August, Sports Illustrated held a players’ poll which featured 380 Major Leaguers, and asked, “Which closer would you least like to face with the tying run on third and fewer than 2 outs?” Mariano came in first place with 36% (second place went to K-Rod, with 12%). The players are right to be weary of Mo and his cutter—a pitch that is 18 runs above average in 2009 (the best in the league, of course).
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