Rivera switch offers Yanks little relief

April 17, 1997|By Jack Curry | Jack Curry,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MILWAUKEE -- John Wetteland is usually so wired after pitching the ninth inning that he cannot even eat a cracker for hours. He is usually so intense that he continues to sweat even as he does post-game interviews. He is usually so hazardous that he dances with danger before escaping.

Mariano Rivera is usually so calm after pitching the ninth that he can eat a plate of food. He is usually so reserved that it is hard to determine whether he even sweated during the game. He did not usually create dangerous spots, so there was no need for a fancy escape.

Two different closers, two different seasons, but very similar expectations.

The rituals performed by Wetteland and Rivera do not prove one is better when the pivotal ninth inning arrives. But the portraits of both pitchers combined with the ragged results Rivera has attained this year and the stellar statistics Wetteland fashioned last year do suggest disparate qualities.

Mariano Rivera, we have seen John Wetteland. You are not John Wetteland. Not yet. Maybe never. That's not a serious criticism. Wetteland's 179 saves over the past five years are second in the major leagues to Randy Myers' 181.

So far this season, Rivera has three botched saves in six opportunities. As difficult as this is for the new closer to digest, it might be the best thing that has happened to the Yankees through the first 13 games.

Sound strange? The Yankees have now seen in living color that this is definitely a new season and that they will need a revised formula to repeat their 1996 success. They should be thankful for the early warning. Better to get shocked in April than in August.

The cost-conscious Yankees (insert laugh track here) did not want to lavish $6 million a year for Wetteland, even though one might wonder where that $95 million from adidas is headed. The Yankees, fans and reporters made Rivera's rise to Wetteland's spot an afterthought. If he was a super setup man, he should be a super closer. But getting those three outs has been arduous, and teams are actually batting .359 off Rivera.

Hitters have refrained from chasing Rivera's high fastball in the ninth and eighth, which they regularly did in the sixth and seventh last season.

Rivera has already made a shocking admission by saying he must treat the ninth as if it were the sixth to relax himself, and he has slightly adjusted his repertory by adding the occasional slider, which is the pitch Jim Leyritz whacked to left-center for a two-out, two-run double that vaulted the Anaheim Angels to a 6-5 victory Tuesday night. No matter how cool Rivera acts, he is shocked by his failures.

"It's kind of hard, but I have to keep going," he said Tuesday, his eyes giving off another glassy stare. "I have to keep going."

So the Yankees, who were 86-1 when they led after eight innings last season, will not come close to matching that total, since they are already 5-3 in those situations in 1997.

Told these revealing statistics, Rivera said: "That was last year. Guess we can't do that again."

But it is important that the Yankees understand that now. Maybe this knowledge will boost them. Without an ironclad safety net like Wetteland, who saved 43 of 47 games, or a setup man who can dominate like Rivera, the Yankees must be different. A different team might have rescued Rivera on Tuesday. The Yankees must realize games do not end by the sixth or seventh anymore.

So on Tuesday, David Wells might have been more efficient with his pitches and lasted longer than 6 2/3 innings. Mike Stanton might have been more aggressive and not allowed a run in the eighth to make it 5-4. Cecil Fielder might not have flied out on a 3-1 pitch that would have been ball four to cram the bases in the first. Bernie Williams might not have stranded five teammates in his first two at-bats to contribute to New York's being 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. Rivera's mistakes only happen in the ninth. More mistakes impair the Yankees before then.

"The whole team is struggling, not only Mariano," manager Joe Torre said. "We do this thing together. We sink or swing as a team. We're a long way from sinking."

Interestingly, when Torre was asked if he might switch Rivera out of the closer spot, he did not instantly bark "no" the way NBC would if someone suggested it change Seinfield's 9 p.m. time slot on Thursday. Instead, Torre said: "I don't think so. I played. When you go 0-for-10 or 0-for-12, you want to go out and get it right."

The talented Rivera will get it right. But the growing pains, which are good pains for now, might still exist. The Yankees have been notified. They should check the closer, check the calendar and be happy the season is only two weeks old.

"It will change, it will change," Rivera promised. "I think sooner or later, hopefully sooner, I will be out of this thing and be OK."

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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