Mighty Mo might be biggest difference between Yanks and the rest

Friday, October 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ He is one of the thinnest players on the field at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, and there's not a hint of the fearsome power in his arm.

That's not the real Mariano Rivera. That's only a part of it.

``He's got like three personalities,'' teammate Luis Sojo said with a laugh. ``There's the guy always playing jokes, having fun, not letting you sleep on a flight. There's the guy on the mound, he's so serious. And he's always talking about God to the Latin guys, telling us how important he is to our lives.''

Rivera is the best bet in baseball, the surest thing this side of the 1919 World Series, saving 22 postseason games in a row.

Yet when the New York Yankees' closer is asked how he does it, he responds that it's not his doing.

``My power,'' he said, ``comes from the Lord.''

The balding 31-year-old right-hander who turns white ash and black maple into so many splinters is the most important piece in this latest Yankees dynasty, the primary pinstriped player heading into the World Series that starts at Arizona on Saturday night.

``If you are going to look at the one guy we depend on, it's Mariano,'' Paul O'Neill said. ``The world championships and the things we've done ride on his shoulders.''

New York has won 11 straight postseason series, and Rivera has gotten the final out in 10 of them, shattering three of Ryan Klesko's bats in the last inning of 1999.

Rivera hasn't failed in a postseason game since Sandy Alomar's eighth-inning homer tied Game 4 of the 1997 division series, and he may have pitched his most spectacular inning ever in Game 4 against Seattle. He got the Mariners out with a three-pitch ninth that set up Alfonso Soriano's winning homer in the bottom half.

When manager Joe Torre brings Rivera in from the bullpen with a lead, New York starts adding a victory to its record.

``You get excited and you expect it to be over,'' Torre said. ``You're surprised when they get the best of him.''

After Alomar's homer, Yankees fans worried that Rivera would become another Mitch Williams, unable to shake off failure. Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre brought it up with Rivera the following spring.

Not to worry. Rivera's converted 167 of 188 regular-season save chances since then and is 22-for-22 in the postseason. First batters are hitting .176 (6-for-34 with a walk).

His dominance comes from a cut fastball, a 95-mph chainsaw that bores onto the fists of left handers, a pitch he didn't even throw until after he replaced John Wetteland as the Yankees' closer in 1997. Rivera was playing around on the side with teammate Ramiro Mendoza, experimenting. Suddenly, the ball started darting around like a bee.

What was that like?

``Ask Mendoza,'' Rivera said, cackling.

Mendoza said the ball became too unpredictable to catch, bouncing off his glove and body and leaving a collection of bruises.

``I don't want to play catch with him no more,'' Mendoza said in a friendly, forceful way. ``Too much hurting.''

Rivera remembered how Joe Girardi, then the Yankees' catcher, scolded him for throwing pitches that made him dive forward to grab. Rivera's face develops a mischievous look when he thinks about the task he creates for Jorge Posada, Girardi's replacement.

``I don't really worry. I just throw it,'' he said. ``He has a mask. He has a chest protector. He has shinguards. He has a mitt.''

Think about the poor hitters who face him with no protective gear, only a bat that rarely gets in the way of the ball.

There was little inkling of all this when Rivera came up to the Yankees.

He threw a pair of no-hitters in the minors and wasn't in the bullpen back in 1995. He made 10 starts that year, throwing eight shutout innings at Comiskey Park, before Yankees manager Buck Showalter made him a reliever late that season.

Chuck Knoblauch remembered July 16, 1995, as if it was yesterday. Knoblauch, then with Minnesota, hit against Rivera and sent a ball over Yankee Stadium's right-center field wall in the first inning, a drive that bounced off the front of the bleachers and back onto the field. But umpire Larry Young blew the call and Rivera escaped with only a double.

``I got him!'' Knoblauch said, his eyes brightening and his mouth widening into an impish grin. ``He knows it, too.''

Few get Rivera.

In his entire major league career, Rivera has given up just 31 homers in 533 regular-season innings. In the postseason, he's allowed only two.

So why can't anyone else throw a cutter like that?

``He throws three fastballs,'' teammate Mike Stanton said. ``He throws one straight, a cutter and a sinker.''

All three fastballs have the same release point. That's why right-handed batters are fooled so often, watching balls go by on the outside corners. Lefties are nearly helpless against the cutter.

For Rivera, it's due to something beyond him. Long ago, he said God spoke to him on the mound during a game against Atlanta on July 16, 1999. He paid for a church, Iglesia de Dios de la Profecia (Church of God of Prophecy) to be built in his hometown of La Chorrera, Panama, and has talked about becoming a minister.

``The Lord has to situate you where he wants you to be,'' Rivera said, ``and he wanted me here.''