PHOENIX - Seattle manager Lou Piniella tried hard during the American League Championship Series to dispel the notion that the New York Yankees had some special, intangible quality that made them all but unbeatable in the postseason.
He may have been right, even if his team did little to back him up.
The so-called "Yankees' mystique" might be a man instead of a myth. It just might be Mariano Rivera.
With all due respect to Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte and all the other stars of the current Yankees dynasty, only one player on the roster causes opposing managers to plan for his arrival seven innings early. Only one player causes opposing hitters to treat the middle innings like they might be the last roundup.
"I don't think there's any question that when you play this particular Yankees bullclub, you always have to keep an eye on that tail end of the bullpen," Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly said yesterday. " ... Knowing Rivera is capable of pitching the eighth and ninth inning, I think everybody that plays the Yankees has an eye for trying to score runs early in the ballgame."
It's only logical. Rivera enters the 97th World Series today with a record string of 22 converted save opportunities and an incredible 0.74 ERA in 48 postseason appearances since he settled into the Yankees' bullpen in 1995.
Maybe it's a stretch, but it's possible to make the case that everything that makes the Yankees such a clutch October team flows from there. The opposition presses because the game has been squeezed from nine to seven innings. The Yankees hitters are relaxed and confident because they know - in essence - that one key hit in the middle innings will probably be enough to win a tight game.
"It's no secret how dominant he's been in the past," Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez said. "I think, there are times where teams say, `if we can hold the pitch count up on some guy and get into their bullpen.' We are looking at it the other way around, trying to get to their starters early."
There have been some other good pitchers in that bullpen, of course. Left-hander Mike Stanton and right-hander Jeff Nelson formed an outstanding setup combination that helped the Yankees win the past three world titles. Right-hander Ramiro Mendoza stepped in capably when Nelson left to sign with Seattle.
But only Rivera has that aura of invincibility that keeps opposing managers awake at night.
"I know being on the other side of this thing a few times that it puts a little pressure on the opposition because you always want to beat a team before they get in position to use the guy," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Especially at home. If we're at home and we're facing the Anaheim Angels, we want to keep [Troy] Percival out of the game."
Percival is one of a handful of dominating relievers in the same class as Rivera, but none of the others has had the opportunity to play in the postseason every year since 1995. That tremendous amount of postseason experience is both a tribute to Rivera and one of the reasons why he has become so automatic in October.
There's no mystery to it. He throws the ball 95 mph and has a cut fastball that breaks so sharply that it is almost impossible for hitters to lay off. He also has great command and more confidence on the mound than anyone should be able to fit in such a slight 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame.
And yet Rivera, a major hero in his native Panama, remains a soft-spoken, unassuming guy who can't really explain why he is able to take his game to an amazing new level in the postseason.
"I tell you what, I don't do anything different," he said recently. "I keep doing the same thing. What I believe is that it's the postseason, and when you have a chance to be in the postseason, you want to do everything that you have in your own power to help your team. That's a blessing just being in the playoffs."
He also is overpowering in the regular season, of course. He had 50 saves this year and an impressive 2.34 ERA, but he wasn't automatic. He gave up five home runs and was saddled with six losses.
Rivera has not been on the wrong end of a save opportunity in the postseason since he gave up the decisive home run to Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar in the final game of the 1997 Division Series - a painful event that Torre claims made Rivera a more mature pitcher. The degree to which he has turned up his performance in the postseason, however, apparently is beyond logical explanation.
"I don't want to find out what it is," Rivera said. "I just thank the good Lord for it."
No doubt, a lot of his teammates are pretty thankful, too.
"I probably have the best seat in the house when I watch him from center field," said outfielder Bernie Williams. "It's great to see him out there, when he comes out, but puzzling to me, because he only really has that one, good quality pitch with that cut fastball. He isn't trying to trick anybody. Everybody knows what's coming and he still gets everybody out."
But is he the personification of the Yankees' mystique?
"I think that would be very unfair to Derek Jeter and Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, Roger Clemens and the other great players in that clubhouse," Brenly said. "Certainly, that's a nice safety net they have down there at the end of the ballgame, and he's been about as efficient as anybody could be filling that role. But I don't know that I would say that he is the mystique."
Piniella doesn't even believe there is a mystique, but he says Rivera is the reason why the Yankees have been successful enough to make people wonder about it.
"He's excellent," Piniella said. "You just don't want to get in a situation where you have to beat him in the eighth or ninth innings. I mean, the guy is dominant. There is no better closer in baseball. ... He's just a first-rate, bona fide closer at the major-league level and he's one of the major reasons that this club here has been able to do what they have been able to do the past four or five years."