RIVERA: Pitching. Not every day. Not really. Sometimes.
REPORTER: Did it hurt?
RIVERA: No, not today.
REPORTER: So, Mo, you’re okay to go today?
RIVERA: Oh, yeah.
And so on.
Whatever. Rivera ended up missing almost a month.
On an Al Gore–hot September Saturday morning, Pedro Martinez was about to take the Shea mound for a simulated game when the stadium’s speakers were overrun with an opera singer’s overwrought interpretation of “O Sole Mio.” “No, that won’t do,” muttered Martinez. Actually, the music was appropriate for a workout with operatic implications. After his own monthlong layoff tending to his ailing calf, Martinez was trying to determine if he was healthy. The Mets trotted out three sacrificial batters for Pedro to face and even incorporated between-innings pauses for a real-game effect. The session went well, with the exception of a foul ball off Lastings Milledge’s bat that nearly decapitated Larry King and his 40th wife.
Flash-forward to Friday, September 15, when Martinez pitched his first real game back, in Pittsburgh. In three innings, Pedro never looked comfortable, giving up four runs and lasting only 68 pitches. The performance wasn’t surprising, really—pitchers are often rusty after a layoff—but Martinez’s reaction was. After being removed from the game, Pedro walked to a corner of the dugout, where his eyes welled with tears. Only a well-timed hug from Randolph prevented full-on waterworks. He followed that outing by pitching four tantalizing hitless innings against the Marlins last Thursday—before getting shelled in the fifth. Mets fans were left wringing their hands over their ace’s delicate calf—and psyche.
Let’s assume Pedro and Mo are healthy. So who’s gonna win? Sure, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves—both teams will have to advance through two rounds to get to a Subway Series. But that shouldn’t be too difficult. In the American League, the Tigers are punchless, the Twins too young, and the A’s always lose in October. For the Mets, the path seems even clearer. The Padres, Cards, Dodgers, and Phillies are all dolled-up .500 teams that would probably lose 90 games if they were transferred to the American League.
The Yankees have multiple-personality disorder. Is this Torre and Jeter’s band of steely professionals? Damon’s neo-Idiots? Or A-Rod’s thin-skinned malcontents?
So it’s October 21, Game 1 of Subway Series II, and the Yankees are opening at home. (Not because of a better record but because Commish Bud Selig grants home-field advantage based on which league wins the All-Star Game, an asinine rule that has no place in a democratic society.) Selig’s folly gives the Yanks an advantage because it allows Torre to open with Wang, whose home 2.88 ERA is almost two runs less than his road mark. Perhaps the most striking thing about this Series is that not one starter on either team can be counted on for a dominant start. Johnson could get ejected for arguing balls and strikes, or just get crushed; Mike Mussina’s old groin injury could flare up; Pedro’s mental or physical health could waver, Glavine’s hand could go numb again, and El Duque might finally realize he’s actually 48. All five have tons of playoff wins and experience but have reached an age where each start could be a final gem or a hide-the-kids shelling. That leaves Wang as the difference-maker. If he pitches three times, the Yankees have a slight edge.
The Yankees’ advantage grows in the bullpen. Both teams have solid if unspectacular setup men, but the gap at closer is gargantuan. Mets fans, look away. It’s hideous: Billy Wagner’s playoff record is 1-0 with a 9.64 ERA and no saves, and Rivera is 8-1 with a 0.81 ERA and 34 saves. And Wagner’s nationally televised May 20 implosion against the Yankees, one of the Mets’ few meaningful games, didn’t bode well for his ability to handle New York playoff pressure.
Of course, the joker in the deck is whether the Yankees are going to get classic Mo or a nearly 37-year-old Rivera plagued by the mysterious arm malady and finally hunted down by the 111 innings of playoff ball, more than a whole extra season, he’s pitched over the past decade. Like Cubans girding themselves for the death of the seemingly immortal Castro, Yankees fans must recognize that some time soon Rivera is going to implode before their eyes. It might be next month. If so, the Yankees can fold their tent. Kyle Farnsworth, Rivera’s erstwhile replacement, has saved 26 games in his entire major-league career. It gets scarier. Farnsworth has also blown 25 saves in his career.
On offense, Johnny Damon is right. With Matsui and Sheffield back, the 2006 Yankees’ one-through-nine lineup kicks the ass of Murderers’ Row. A-Rod? Never mind his reputation as a playoff choker. Forget that he may be a lousy teammate. His career postseason average is .305, exactly the same as his regular-season average, and his .534 playoff slugging percentage is almost the same as someone named Mickey Mantle. Sure, as he said himself, A-Rod played like a dog against the Angels in last year’s American League Division Series, but even Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson, had his postseason struggles. Although Reggie dominated the second half of October, he hit a feeble .227 in eleven American League Championship Series.