NEW YORK – Most players will tell you that pregame pomp exits their craniums once the game starts. They don’t think about speeches or soaring montages or wet eyes.
But when Sergio Romo began to warm up in the eighth inning, all he could think about was Mariano Rivera.
“There is no other Mariano,” Romo said. “I was joking to myself warming up, `I’m going to get a chance to pitch in Yankee Stadium.’ I didn’t get a chance to see Babe Ruth or Gehrig or Joe DiMaggio. But to be able to compete on the same mound against Mariano … I mean, he got to toe the rubber before I did. That’s pretty sweet.”
When you think about it, tossing out extra-inning games, how often does that happen? How many times has a visiting reliever taken the mound and smoothed out Rivera’s spike marks?
His entrance is precursor to a sealed bulkhead, to a latch and a thud, to Sinatra and happy crowds buzzing onto 161st St.
When Mariano pitches, everyone else is finished.
But the Yankees did not have a save situation for Rivera on his day. So they hoped he could get two outs in the eighth inning, when they trailed 2-1, and maybe the Bombers could rally their way to make a winner of him.
Romo made sure that didn’t happen. He retired all three batters he faced in the ninth, with some help from third baseman Nick Noonan, to record his 36th save in 41 chances.
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He has 53 saves in his career. Just 599 away from Rivera’s all-time record.
“A long way,” Romo said, laughing. “I’ll never forget the All-Star Game and I’ll never forget this. I’ll tell my kids and grandkids. In his speech, he even thanked us. I’m like, `He just thanked us.’ For real.”
If he had nothing else, Rivera would be respected for his longevity, his conversion rate and his tremendous success in the postseason. But he has done so much more than that. He took the most pressurized job on the most scrutinized team on the planet, he handled it with perfect grace, and he did it all for so long without one undignified word or deed.
“It’s `never let them see you sweat,’” Giants left-hander Javier Lopez said. “he could be getting an inning of work with a five-run lead or coming in with the tying run on base. You see the same expression. The ability to just repeat his delivery, that’s something so many pitchers strive to do. And he does it so effortlessly.”
Lopez had his own perspiration to wipe away in the eighth.
He inherited two of Yusmeiro Petit’s runners and had to face a right-handed hitter, Vernon Wells, after the Yankees burned lefty bat Lyle Overbay. Lopez admitted to “mild panic” after a passed ball moved the two runners into scoring position. So he was hellbent on using the open base, and getting Wells to chase. He did. Then Ichiro Suzuki struck out, too.
Lopez has stranded all but six of the 57 runners he has inherited this year.
Santiago Casilla also let the Rivera celebration inspire him, if his 97 mph fastball was any indication in a wild eighth inning. And the throw of the night belonged to Juan Perez in left field, when he eliminated Robinson Cano at the plate.
In the end, the Giants got to appreciate Rivera and beat his team, without a stumble of their own in relief. And that’s exactly what they wanted.
“It’s something they’ll always remember,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said. “These guys had a chance to see the greatest closer of all time.”