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10/20/09 12:00 AM ET

Even at 39, Rivera has no equal

Game 3 magic act the latest landmark moment in elite career

ANAHEIM -- Is it that outrageous to think that Mariano Rivera, who will turn 40 on Nov. 29, has become a slightly less imposing weapon in October?

Actually, yes, it would be very bold to surmise such a thing, because it's just not true.

Somehow, someway, with that one pitch -- the nasty cutter -- Rivera is still a near impenetrable force, whether it is this time of year or any time of year.

Even in defeat -- such as Monday's 5-4 Yankees loss to the Angels in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series -- Rivera still finds a way to be a hero.

Consider the situation that unfolded in the bottom of the 10th inning. Jeff Mathis led off with a double against Phil Hughes with the game tied. While Yankees manager Joe Girardi's preference would have been to call on Rivera in a save situation, he felt he couldn't wait any longer.

On came Rivera, who started his outing in rocky fashion, fielding a sacrifice bunt by Erick Aybar and making an errant throw to third. Everybody was safe on what was ruled a fielder's choice instead of an error. The Angels had runners at the corners and nobody out. After a nice play by first baseman Mark Teixeira on a Chone Figgins groundout, Rivera intentionally walked Bobby Abreu, loading the bases with one out.

Yankees at a glance
2009 record: 103-59
2008 record: 89-73
AL champions
World Series matchup:
Phillies at Yankees
Postseason tix: Information

Girardi: Confident in moves
Vet quartet: On the verge
Damon: Got his groove back
Teixeira: D offsets slump
Rivera: Has no equal
Robertson: Invaluable
Jeter: Legend grows
Teixeira: Dependable
Girardi: Fresh cup o' Joe
Damon: What, me worry?
Rivera: Stoic and steady
Gardner: Finds his niche
Teixeira: Fully adjusted
Hughes: Difference-maker
Chamberlain: Happy in 'pen
Jeter: Ready to lead
Sabathia: Deserves Game 1
Swisher: A year wiser
A-Rod: Nothing to lose

The Angels could have won the game in any fashion -- a soft grounder, sacrifice fly, walk, hit or wild pitch, just to name a few scenarios. But Rivera escaped, getting two more stops from Teixeira.

"When I watch Mo, I feel like he's going to get out of anything, to tell you the truth," said Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte. "When he got that first out, I felt like he was going to get out of it. He's just money. You've got to feel good and feel like we're going to win the game."

This time, the Yankees didn't, perhaps in large part because of a quirky sequence of events in which Girardi pulled left fielder Johnny Damon mid-inning for the better arm of Jerry Hairston Jr. Because Hairston was the designated hitter at the time, Rivera was suddenly in the batting order. Girardi had to pinch-hit for him in the 11th, depriving the Yankees of a second inning from their elite closer. The Angels won the game against Alfredo Aceves in the bottom of the 11th.

"It was great," Rivera said of getting out of the jam. "It didn't matter. The point is we lost the game and we have to come back [Tuesday] strong."

Expect Rivera to play a role again in Game 4. He has already made a big mark on this series, having pitched in all three games and given up just one hit over 4 1/3 innings. In fact, he has pitched in all six games the Yankees have played in this postseason and has yet to give up a run.

In Saturday night's ALCS Game 2, Girardi did what a former Yankees manager named Joe might have done and rode Rivera for seven big outs in what wound up a 4-3 victory over the Angels in 13 innings.

It's doubtful the Yankees could have won that game without being able to go to Mo for so long. At this point, Rivera's teammates just shake their heads and marvel.

"You really can't compare Mo to anyone," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who has played his entire career with Rivera. "Because he's doing things that have never been done before. For him to come out in the postseason and be as successful as he's been year in and year out, you know -- I've been with him since I've been 19 years old, so it's really nothing new for me to see. He's definitely a weapon that not too many teams have had the luxury to have now, or at any point in the history of the game."

In his Game 2 performance, Rivera gave up one hit and struck out two, throwing 25 pitches. He had also fired a scoreless inning for the save the night before in Game 1.

"Definitely, it's special," said Rivera, who had a 1.76 ERA while notching 44 saves during the regular season. "Because to me, the game's on the line. And when you're there, you don't think about tomorrow. You just want to win that game. But I definitely love to be in the situation and try to do the best I can. If it takes for me to pitch two innings or two-plus innings, I mean, I'll be there."

Rivera had one day of rejuvenation on Sunday.

"I'm beat up right now, man," Rivera said during the off-day, only to start laughing after he said it.

Jeter, seated next to Rivera during a media conference call, chimed in.

Magnificent Mo
Career postseason ERA leaders
Rank Player ERA IP
1. Mariano Rivera 0.72 125 1/3
2. Harry Brecheen 0.83 32 2/3
3. Babe Ruth 0.87 31
4. Sherry Smith 0.89 30 1/3
5. Sandy Koufax 0.95 57
6. Christy Mathewson 0.97 101 2/3
7. Monte Pearson 1.01 35 2/3
8. Blue Moon Odom 1.13 39 2/3
9. Eddie Plank 1.32 54 2/3
10. Bill Hallahan 1.36 39 2/3

"He's old," Jeter said. "He's getting coffee today. Coffee on the streets."

In truth, Rivera is still spry at his advanced age, loving the taste of October and a chance to win another World Series as much as ever.

"Definitely, I see the different stage here in October," said Rivera. "I'm seeing it as, 'This is where everybody -- every player -- wants to be.' I'm just seeing it the way it is, taking it game by game and doing my best. You know, I thank God that everything that we've accomplished has been great. What I have to say is there is no tomorrow."

In truth, Rivera tends to cut into the tomorrows of his opponents with his late-inning stinginess.

Rivera's 36 saves in postseason play are the most in Major League history. The most remarkable aspect of those saves is that 12 of them have been two innings or more. Rivera's 0.72 postseason ERA -- spread over 82 appearances -- is also tops for anyone with at least 30 innings.

Girardi got three rings as a player, largely because of Rivera. Now, he hopes to ride his closer to another as manager.

"I think the Yankees have been very blessed to have Mo over this long run that he has had," Girardi said. "Obviously, if you blow a save during the regular season, you have a lot of time to make up for that. But if you blow a save during the postseason, in a short series, there's not quite so much time. He has meant so much to this organization and to the success of this organization in the playoffs."

Yet for all of his successes, Rivera has had two postseason mishaps that stick out. In Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, he couldn't protect a ninth-inning lead against the Diamondbacks, preventing the Yankees from winning a fourth consecutive championship. And he surrendered a 4-3 lead to the Red Sox in Game 4 of the 2004 AL Championship when a save would have given his club a sweep and put it in the World Series.

What makes a great closer is one who has a short memory, and perhaps nobody exemplifies that better than Rivera.

"You can't do anything about that but learn from the situation and move on," Rivera said. "I wish that we could have won the World Series [in '01 and '04], but we didn't. I did my best, and my best wasn't enough that day. So, like I said, that's behind us. And we have to move forward. Now, we're in the ALCS, and hopefully, we'll go all the way."

And if the Yankees do go all the way, it's fairly certain that Rivera will be the man to finish it off.

Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.