Joe Girardi is in a select group of 24 players who have caught at least one pitch by Mariano Rivera. Other than Jorge Posada, nobody in that group has as much experience as the Yankee manager.
Girardi has caught 137 of Rivera’s 1,113 appearances, spanning 181 innings and 717 appearances. Those were done during the early days of Rivera’s legendary career when he transformed from a starting pitcher to a setup man for John Wetteland and finally to the role of the greatest closer of all time.
Legend has it that Rivera discovered his famous cut fastball while throwing in the outfield in June 1997 at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium. But Girardi recalled Rivera always having the cutter, though there are some subtle differences with the nearly 44-year-old Rivera.
“I don’t remember him not having a cutter,” Girardi said Sunday morning. “The biggest difference I see in Mo now and when I caught him is two-fold. He didn’t have the sinker when I caught him, so that was something he developed along the way as he decided he had to keep right-handed hitters more honest. That was something that’s been very effective for him.
“The other thing he did a lot more when I caught him is because of his power is he elevated in the zone and that’s not something he does as much anymore because he doesn’t have the 96 [mph], 97 [mph] that he used to.”
Regardless of when Girardi caught his first cutter from Rivera, he had little difficulty processing the idea he was seeing the best pitcher he ever caught.
“It was a real treat to catch him,” Girardi said. “I’ve said over and over, he was the greatest pitcher I ever caught and he was the easiest I ever caught.”
Besides putting his glove out to catch those pitches, Girardi would also see the mental process hitters go through against Rivera.
Only Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek and Edgar Martinez have at least 10 hits against Rivera. They are part of a group of 31 hitters with more than five hits against Rivera and that includes current teammates Ichiro Suzuki and Vernon Wells.
One thing for certain is that while a difficult at-bat would likely take place, Girardi didn’t believe many hitters went up thinking they did not have a chance against Rivera.
“I don’t think [they] necessarily already [thought they were] out but you knew that they were in for a very difficult at-bat,” Girardi said. “When players [would talk to me], they said the cutter it’s late and it’s hard to pick it up and you think you’re on it, you’re not on it. The bat shatters in half.
“But I don’t think a player would ever let on that he was out before [an at-bat]. You don’t get in this point of your career with the competitive nature that you have and some guys probably even took it upon themselves as a bigger challenge.”
Long-time catcher Jorge Posada, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch, also didn’t necessarily think hitters had that mentality at the plate but over the years he noticed subtle things such as switch-hitters batting right-handed, hitters taking smaller bats and standing further from the plate.
By the way, there was a game
It was not necessarily lost on the Yankees — given their situation in the standings — but regardless of the outcome, Rivera’s ceremony and Andy Pettitte’s last game at Yankee Stadium were going to be primary topics.
Instead of a fitting day of Rivera saving Pettitte’s win, the Yankees fell four games behind the Indians for the second wild-card spot with a 2-1 loss to the Giants.
The Yankees lost for the 10th time in 17 games following an 18-8 stretch that got them back in contention.
The ultimate storybook finish would have been Pettitte pitching a no-hitter. It seemed possible for awhile. Pettitte retired the first 14 hitters and took a no-hitter into the sixth before allowing a home run by rookie Ehrie Adrianza.
Pettitte was not necessarily thinking about making history, especially given the state of his body.
“At this point, at this stage, I don’t know if my body would allow me to pitch nine innings.”
He came out for the eighth inning but was done after Pablo Sandoval led off with a double. Normally Pettitte would sprint to the dugout upset at allowing that hit, but instead he walked slowly to the dugout and tipped his cap before coming back out for a curtain call.
“It was great, it really was,” Pettitte said. “It was amazing. It ended with me giving up a double and I told you all [the media] the other day that I sprint off the mound because I’m so mad I’m getting pulled out of the game and I go in the dugout. That was a situation right there where you’re just thinking, ‘My goodness,’ the pitch you just made and the mistake you made and Joe’s got to come and get you.
“It was a great moment for me. I really enjoyed it. I was glad I got the opportunity to do that.”
Still, even over the course of an 11-minute press conference, Pettitte was beating himself up for allowing the hit.
“I made a terrible mistake there in the eighth inning, giving up that double and it ended up being the ballgame.”
Rivera wound up getting five outs and would have pitched the 10th had the Yankees been able to tie it. They wound up stranding two in the seventh, had two thrown out at the plate in the eighth and went down in order in the ninth against Sergio Romo.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.