Write off any comeback with Yanks' indelible 'pen

October 26, 1999|By John Eisenberg

Of all the indignities the Braves suffered in losing the first two games of the World Series at Turner Field, the worst, in a way, was their two-run rally in the ninth inning of their 7-2 loss in Game 2.

That might sound strange -- scoring a couple of runs wasn't nearly as embarrassing as the Braves' poor fielding, poor hitting and poor pitching -- but they'd needed those late-inning runs in Game 1 the night before, and as usual, the Yankees' bullpen had refused to budge.

Scoring the runs when they didn't need them, in the garbage time of a blowout loss, was the ultimate tease.

You know the Braves aren't going to have the same kind of luck in the late innings of a close game, not against the Yankees' bullpen.

Of the many reasons the Yankees are 20-3 in the playoffs during the past two seasons and zeroing in on a second straight Series sweep, their impregnable bullpen is the biggest.

"That's how we win," outfielder Paul O'Neill said. "We get a lead and give it to them."

Any lead will do.

Only once in those 23 playoff games has the bullpen faltered even slightly when needed -- in Game 2 of the 1998 American League Championship Series, when the Indi ans scored three runs in the 12th inning to win. But even that was more the result of a brain lock by second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, who let key runs score while holding the ball and arguing with the umpire.

Otherwise, closer Mariano Rivera and the rest of the Yankees' 'pen has come through every time, either protecting a lead or holding the opponent scoreless until Yankees bats delivered the decisive runs.

By contrast, those opponents have repeatedly let leads slip away in the late innings, as the Braves did in the eighth inning of Game 1, when the Yankees overcame a one-run deficit with a four-run rally.

"There's just no substitute for having a bullpen like ours," said Yankees pitcher David Cone. "Most playoff games are close, and knowing we're going to a strength in that situation breeds a lot of confidence."

Calling it "a strength" actually is an understatement in Rivera's case. The slender native of Panama has allowed only two earned runs in 44 career playoff innings, giving him the lowest lifetime ERA in playoff history among pitchers who have thrown at least 30 innings.

Relying mostly on a fastball with uncommon velocity and motion, as well as the perfect closer's personality -- imperturbable -- Rivera has emerged as the game's top closer since giving up a game-losing home run to Sandy Alomar in Game 4 of the Yankees' 1997 Division Series loss to the Indians.

He has since saved 88 regular-season wins and four of the Yankees' six World Series wins, including Game 1 against the Braves on Saturday night.

"He's come a long way since that Game 4 [pitch to Alomar]," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "We talked to him a lot that off-season, and he came back stronger. His mental makeup is so perfect for the role. He understands what being a short reliever is all about."

Raised in rural poverty, Rivera underwent elbow surgery two years into his professional career, putting his future in jeopardy. But now, at the age of 29, he is the Yankees' ultimate weapon, a pitcher who all but forces opponents to take the lead before the late innings -- or else.

"Knowing he's back there puts so much pressure on the other team," Cone said. "I'm just glad we have him."

The rest of the Yankees' bullpen isn't quite as formidable as it was in 1998, when Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton were all but perfect setting up Rivera. Lloyd was traded to Toronto, Nelson was hampered by injuries during the season and Stanton hasn't been as effective.

But like the rest of the Yankees, they still come through when really needed, as in Game 2 of the Championship Series this year, when Ramiro Mendoza escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam to give the Yankees a one-run win over the Red Sox.

Overall, the bullpen has allowed only two earned runs in 16 1/3 innings in the Yankees' nine playoff wins this year -- and those two runs came in the meaningless ninth inning Sunday night.

Granted, the bullpen wasn't the difference in the first two games against the Braves. The difference was the starting pitching of Cone and Orlando Hernandez, who combined to allow only two hits in 14 innings.

But the bullpen looms as the biggest reason the Braves won't be able to repeat what the Yankees did against them in 1996 and come back from losing the first two games at home to win the Series.

Given the Braves' limited offense, they have to win the close, well-pitched games to have a chance in any series. That's how they made it this far.

But winning close games is all but impossible against the Yankees, thanks to the bullpen and Rivera in particular.

The closer hasn't allowed a run since late July, and it's hard to envision him getting beaten even once, let alone three or four times.

"We're aware of what happened in '96 and how we came back on them," Torre said, implying that a repeat was possible this year.

Don't bet even a nickel on it.

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