NEW YORK -- When Jeff Nelson signed with the Seattle Mariners in the offseason, many questioned whether Yankees would be able to find a suitable replacement. After all, New York rode the 1-2-3 punch of Nelson, Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera to three straight titles, so replacing one-third of that trio figured to be a major hole to fill.
|Mariano Rivera (right) and Jorge Posada celebrate after the Yankees beat the A's.
Monday night, with Ramiro Mendoza joining Stanton and Rivera, the Yankees used their 1-2-3 punch of 2001, and it did the job like a well-oiled machine in the Yankees' ALDS-clinching 5-3 victory.
"Our bullpen really pitched well," said Derek Jeter. "When you have a lead, you need guys that can come in and hold it, and they were able to do that."
When Roger Clemens left the game in the fifth inning, Manager Joe Torre turned to Stanton, his left-handed workhorse. Stanton, who came in with one out and runners on first and second in a 4-2 game, gave up a single to Jason Giambi, reducing New York's lead to one run. But that turned out to be the only mistake Stanton made all night, as he retired the next five A's batters he faced.
"The only mistake I made was to Giambi, but he's just a great hitter," Stanton said. "After that I made some quality pitches and got some guys to pop up."
Stanton told Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre that he could go back out to begin the seventh inning, but they opted to bring in Mendoza, who has stepped into Nelson's right-handed set-up role very smoothly.
"I told them I had more, but they wanted to go with Mendoza," Stanton said. "Mendoza has been absolutely incredible the whole second half. He has a great sinker and such confidence in himself, he's been rock solid."
If you had switched the channel to check the "Monday Night Football" you may have missed Mendoza's performance. He needed just 15 pitches to breeze through the inning, striking out Frank Menechino, getting Johnny Damon to pop out to Scott Brosius and Miguel Tejada to bounce one back to the mound, where Mendoza completed the easy inning with a toss to Tino Martinez at first base.
"That's how we want to do it; those guys are tremendous," said Rivera of his fellow relievers. "Our bullpen has been outstanding. We just want to be in the game, and we love to pitch."
With a 5-3 lead heading into the eighth, Rivera knew it was his turn. After collecting a two-inning save in Game 3, he didn't pitch in Game 4, leaving him fresh for an extended turn on Monday. He allowed a leadoff single to Giambi, who was 4-for-4 on the night, but retired the next six batters, striking out the final two to send New York to the ALCS for the fourth consecutive season.
"I like to win. If that means two or three innings, whatever it takes. I'll do anything," Rivera said. "When it comes to our bullpen, we give it everything we got. That's what we're doing. This bullpen is a good bunch of guys. They all do the little things."
"Mariano has a fastball, and he makes it do a number of things," Torre said. "It looked like he was throwing it 200 miles an hour in the ninth inning today. He just wasn't going to be denied. I don't think I could ever remember a guy as efficient as Mariano. Just efficient, with a big heart."
Many Yankee players have said that the most comforting feeling they have is to see Rivera take the ball with a lead. After watching him collect his 20th and 21st career postseason saves -- extending his own record -- that feeling is even stronger.
"Once we got to Mo in the eighth, it was over," said David Justice. "I've seen Mo give up one, but I can't remember the last time he gave up two, especially in a situation like this."
Stanton, who was credited with the victory, said that Rivera is like a security blanket for the Yankees.
"In the playoffs, that's been a good equation," Stanton said. "Get Mo in there as soon as you can."
As they head into the ALCS against the Seattle Mariners -- the same team that signed Nelson away from the three-time defending champions -- New York knows that its bullpen may be a deciding factor in the seven-game series. And that's just fine with them.
"They threw great," said Brosius. "Every arm that came out the whole series was terrific. When they throw zeroes up there like that and get the ball to Mo, once he has the ball it's lights out for the most part.
Mark Feinsand is the site reporter for Yankees.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.