• Sal Maiorana

The night that changed the course of Mariano Rivera's career

KANSAS CITY (April 22, 1996) – Three weeks into his first season as Yankees manager, Joe Torre didn’t know what to make of Mariano Rivera.

Herb Raybourn, the Yankees’ head of Latin American scouting, wasn’t sure either when he watched Rivera throw in a private workout in his native Panama in February 1990.

The fastball wasn’t overpowering, but Raybourn was impressed with the ease and fluidity of the 20-year-old’s motion, so he took a flier – a pretty cheap one, a meager $2,000 signing bonus – and sent Rivera to the Yankees’ rookie league team in Sarasota, Florida.

Through most of his five-plus years winding through the Yankees’ system, the team believed Rivera was best-suited to be a starter and roughly two-thirds of his appearances had been in that role.

That was still the case when Rivera finally made his major-league debut in 1995 at the age of 25, but in 50 innings spread across 10 starts he’d been knocked around to the tune of a 5.94 ERA and an unseemly 1.680 WHIP.

In September, Buck Showalter had seen enough. After watching Rivera struggle through 4 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium against Seattle, giving up five runs on seven hits and three walks in a 6-5 loss, he made the decision to relegate Rivera to the bullpen.

Just like that, it was like he was a new pitcher as he made six appearances before the regular season ended, giving up three runs on three hits in six innings. And when the Yankees took on the Mariners in the best-of-five divisional series, Rivera continued to excel in a late-inning role, most notably his 3 1/3 innings in Game 2, the game that went 15 innings before Jim Leyritz ended it with a dramatic two-run homer.

Now Showalter was gone and Torre was at the helm, and the first five times he’d called on Rivera the results had been middling – a 3.52 ERA with seven walks and nine strikeouts.

On April 19 in Minnesota, Dwight Gooden was knocked out of the box early for the third start in a row, and with the Yankees down 4-1 in the fourth inning Torre summoned Rivera with two men on and nobody out. The lanky right-hander recorded two quick outs, but then he walked Matt Lawton to load the bases before Paul Molitor hit a ground-rule double that increased New York’s deficit to 6-1.

Here is where the story changed for Rivera. He got out of the inning without further damage, struck out the side in the fifth, and worked around a Chuck Knoblauch single in the six. The line showed three innings, no runs (though he allowed the two he inherited from Gooden to score), three hits, a walk, and five strikeouts. He’d also generated 10 swings and misses on 63 pitches.

It was as if a light went off for Torre. Why not use Rivera as a set-up man, perhaps as early as the sixth or seventh inning, as a way to get the ball to closer John Wetteland? It was clear the kid had great stuff, and if he could just fine-tune his command he could possibly be a viable weapon at the end of games the Yankees were winning.

From that night on, Rivera never entered a game before the sixth inning the rest of his Hall of Fame career.

Three days after that epiphany in Minnesota, Torre put the idea to the test against Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium. David Cone needed 96 pitches to negotiate five innings and he was fortunate that he allowed only two runs after giving up four hits and five walks.

With the Yankees ahead 5-2, Torre hooked him at the start of the sixth and gave the ball to Rivera. The result was nine up, nine down, a perfect three-inning stint that included two strikeouts as the Yankees went on to a 6-2 victory, their third straight, to get to 9-7.

“He was finishing (his delivery),” Torre said. “He didn’t cut it off and recoil. He came at hitters and his slider was really good. He has closer velocity, but he has to be confident throwing something other than the fastball. To be a starter, he has to develop a changeup. You can’t come in and throw the same speed when you’re starting a game.”

At this point, Torre may still have been thinking that Rivera could eventually be resuscitated as a starter, but when Rivera went on to extend the hitless innings streak he began on this night in Kansas City to 14 2/3, that seemed to end any talk about moving him out of the bullpen.

During Rivera’s hitless streak the Yankees won all six games he pitched in and by the time it ended when he gave up a single against the White Sox on May 5, the Yankees were 17-11 and in first place by two games in the AL East.

“He’s a very important guy for us,” Torre said. “He’s given us a huge lift.”

NEXT post on April 10: Two big wins in Baltimore put the Yanks in first for good.