If called, Rivera will be ready to close
Yankees' closer top candidate for save in All-Star homecoming
NEW YORK -- Terry Francona may be attempting to guard the worst-kept secret in the All-Star Game. Should the American League take a lead into the ninth inning of Tuesday night's All-Star Game, Mariano Rivera fully expects to be warmed and ready to close out the contest at Yankee Stadium.
If that is indeed part of Francona's ultimate plan, the Red Sox manager is playing it close to the vest, saying that he doesn't feel the need to lay out his pitching sequence for National League skipper Clint Hurdle's absorption. Either way, hearing "Enter Sandman" in the late innings of the Midsummer Classic seems to be a sure bet.
"I would love to -- I definitely would love to," Rivera said on Monday. "I have a feeling, knowing Francona, that he will put me in there if we have the opportunity to close the game."
On a conference call leading up to the All-Star Game, Francona was caught somewhat off guard by a reporter's suggestion that Rivera could start for the AL. That idea was quickly downplayed, and Francona said on Monday that it made more sense for Rivera to serve as a closer, since that was the role in which his greatest impact upon the game has been made.
The 38-year-old Rivera is in the midst of a career campaign for the Yankees, having converted his first 23 save opportunities as he opens a new three-year contract. Even though Francona has a pretty solid option heading to the Bronx from his own club, the ultra-effective Jonathan Papelbon, Rivera seemed to believe the ball for the ninth inning would be all his.
"It's tough, but we're here in Yankee Stadium, and I think I should get a shot," Rivera said.
Hurdle seemed to agree with that thought. Should the NL be trailing in the ninth inning, Hurdle stuck his neck out and joked that his players probably should prepare to see a few cutters from the nine-time All-Star, the most dominant closer in postseason history.
"He likes to throw that ball in on the hands, and he'll back-door it," Hurdle said. "He's really good at what he does. We've actually seen him a little bit in the past. We've watched him on TV -- the Yankees are on TV a lot, and so are the Red Sox. We get to see the Yankees and the Red Sox, and we've done a lot advance scouting in our clubhouse.
"We're even aware of what Papelbon throws, and he's pretty good, too. We've got a little history with these guys. I think No. 1, you need to be aggressive in the count. More often than not with the elite pitchers, sometimes strike one is the best pitch to hit. The odds swing in their favor."
Rivera said that he had not considered what it might be like to jog to the mound in the ninth inning with World Series home-field advantage on the line.
"I haven't thought about that yet, but I know definitely it is going to be special," Rivera said. "I hope we have the opportunity to be ahead and have the chance to close the game and experience how it is going to be."
Rivera pondered, thoughtfully, a greater meaning to closing out the All-Star Game at the House that Ruth Built, constructed in 1923 and the site of so many great moments over the years. It will be the third and final such event before the Yankees box their belongings and head across the street into their new billion-dollar facility for the 2009 season.
"It's an honor to have the opportunity to close this game in Yankee Stadium, which is going to be the last All-Star Game in Yankee Stadium, period," Rivera said. "It's a privilege and a pleasure to do that.
"First of all, it's home. You're talking about the history of baseball, and when you're talking about Yankee Stadium, you have to talk about greatest players that have gone through it, and amazing fights and football games and all the events that took place in Yankee Stadium. But the most important things are all of those championships."
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said that he would not be surprised to see Rivera emerge from the bullpen gates as the evening grew closer toward midnight.
"It'd be fitting," Jeter said. "But I guess that's our job and everyone's in here -- to give him that opportunity. It'd definitely be fitting to see him come out for that ninth inning."
Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek, who gets the opportunity to see Papelbon sitting in his own bullpen 162 times a year, also left little question as to whom he believed would be coming out.
"I think everybody knows what closer is going to be out there in the ninth inning," Varitek said. "I think [Francona] knows. Health aside, as long as the big man feels good, I think that he'll be out there. I can't say that for sure, but I think he'll probably be out there."
Rivera said that the honor of being selected for the All-Star Game was especially important representing the Yankees. Rivera, Jeter and leading vote-getter Alex Rodriguez will all have the opportunity to wear pinstripes in the park on Tuesday.
"Definitely, that's our house, and it being the last year of Yankee Stadium is special for all three of us," Rivera said. "Hopefully, we do it right."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.