Joe Girardi called on Mariano Rivera to get a four-out save with runners on 2nd and 3rd in the 8th inning of last night's game. He was facing Denard Span, who had singled earlier in the game. If Mo gives up the kind of bloop single he is sometimes prone to, the game is tied. What followed was a clinic in why he's the greatest postseason pitcher of all time.
Throughout most of last night's broadcast TBS's pitch tracker was an irritating eye sore on the right hand of my screen, but it proved insightful when Rivera began pitching. He started Span with a cutter, up and in. This is how Mo always pitches lefties. The pitch was probably designed to get Span to swing, and was called a ball. If Rivera missed he spot, he didn't miss by much. Jorge Posada called for the exact same pitch on the 1-0 count, and got the exact same result. Rivera hit his location. Span didn't swing. The umpire called the pitch a ball.
It was at that point that the pitch tracker became useful, because it showed that Rivera had challenged Span with the exact same pitch, a cutter, too high and tight to be hit hard, but also near enough to the strike zone to become a problem in a close count. Sure enough, Rivera threw the exact same pitch on the 2-0 count. He didn't get the call, but he had shown no intention of changing his game plan either. With first base open, and Rivera demonstrating excellent command, there was no reason to give Span anything to hit. One glance at the right hand side of the screen reinforced Rivera's command. Sure, the count was 3-0, but TBS's graphic revealed that Rivera had put all three pitches within a couple of inches of each other.
Mariano didn't waver. He put the 4th pitch of the at-bat pretty much in the same place he'd put the other three. Span kept his bat on his shoulder. This time the Umpire called a strike. That more or less check-mated Span, and perhaps the Twins. According to the pitch tracker Rivera had thrown two strikes and two balls. The Umpire had missed one of the strikes, but on the 4th pitch he established that he wasn't sure if Rivera was entirely hitting or missing the zone, and was prepared to give him the call on a close pitch. This meant Denard Span would have to swing.
Rivera threw Span two more pitches, in the exact same location as the other four. He ended the at-bat with a weak ground out to Derek Jeter. The beauty of the sequence was Rivera's command and consistency. He essentially threw Span the exact same pitch, six times -- a cutter, up and in, at about 92 mph. At first the umpire wasn't giving Rivera the call, but he remained close enough to the zone that the ump was forced to give him at least one of the calls. This, in turn, undermined Span's approach. With the game on the line he couldn't go down looking, even if it meant swinging at a pitch he could do nothing with. He swung through the 5th pitch of the at-bat, and connected weakly on the 6th. Threat over.
For his part, Mariano Rivera showed why he's such a great pitcher. The pitch tracker demonstrated the slight variations in where each of his six pitches wound up, but had it not been there to my untrained eye it would have looked like Rivera had thrown the exact same pitch, each time, in precisely the same location. That required two things: Excellent command, and confidence that the command would eventually seduce the umpire into giving him a call or two. That is precisely what happened. Rivera -- and Posada -- never hesitated, even when the first few calls didn't go their way. They had a game plan to buzz Span high and tight. They stuck with it, never missed a beat, and eliminated a genuine threat to the Yankee lead.