Rivera slips, but Yanks closer says no mo’ worries

Posted Aug. 12, 2011, at 9:40 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 12, 2011, at 10:03 p.m.

NEW YORK — The neatly printed scouting report on every New York Yankees pitcher was posted in the opposing team’s dugout, right above the bat rack. It did not offer much encouragement for this AL club’s hitters, especially lefty swingers, against Mariano Rivera.

“CUTTER guy like in the past,” it read. “The cutter in will eat your hands up.”

That was much earlier this season. No telling what it might say now about the great closer.

Because suddenly, Rivera isn’t looking like himself.

Three straight shaky outings. The buzz-saw cut fastball that usually produces broken bats, weak popups and easy strikeouts has created far different results: a shot off the Green Monster, a winning drive into the bleachers, another blast beyond the right-field wall.

Heck, a caller to sports-talk radio station WFAN in New York even suggested the Yankees turn to Rafael Soriano rather than Rivera.

Rivera, true to his calm demeanor, says he isn’t worrying. These little mini-slumps are part of the game, he insists. Besides, as most everyone in the baseball world knows, he usually gets everything straightened out by October.

“I’m not concerned at all,” Rivera said. “It always happens. We always have this conversation for 16, 17 years.”

Over those years, Rivera has earned 589 saves, putting him 13 away from breaking Trevor Hoffman’s career record. At 41, the thin Panamanian seemed to be just fine going into last weekend.

And then, Rivera became downright hittable.

On Sunday night, Rivera blew a ninth-inning save chance at Boston. Marco Scutaro doubled off the left-field wall at Fenway Park, the Red Sox rallied to tie it, then won in the 10th to move ahead of the Yankees for the AL East lead.

On Tuesday night, Rivera relieved to begin the ninth in a tie game with the Los Angeles Angels at Yankee Stadium. With two outs, Bobby Abreu launched a two-run homer that won it. That marked the first homer Rivera had allowed to a former teammate since 1998, when Mike Stanley connected, the Yankees said in citing the Elias Sports Bureau.

On Thursday, Rivera entered during a ninth-inning jam against the Angels. Russell Branyan, a noted strikeout-prone slugger, hammered the first pitch into the seats for a three-run homer. Branyan was 0 for 5 with four Ks against Rivera before that at-bat.

“For a three-game stretch, I’ve never seen him get hit this way,” Branyan said. “I was just aggressive because he always come after me. … I’ve gotten that same pitch before and pulled it foul.”

At least Rivera was able to recover and get the last two outs for his 30th save in 35 chances. He’s 1-2 with a 2.40 ERA.

“Games like this get me upset because I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he said.

“It’s not that I’ve been missing and missing and missing and missing,” he said. “Just one pitch, you get on one of those streaks. It happens.”

Still not a scene the Yankees have seen very often: a Rivera cutter that fails to cut, a pitch that ordinarily bores into left-handed hitters mercilessly and tails away from righties.

Neither are a few other stats.

This year, left-handers are hitting .269 against Rivera. For his career, he’s held them to a .207 mark.

This year, teams are hitting .364 (12 for 33) against Rivera with runners in scoring position. For his career, clubs are only .214 (231 for 1,081) in those spots.

“He’s a guy that you say, ‘OK, let me get ready for a ground ball and 1-2-3, the game’s over,” Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano said. “But he’s going through a bad situation and that’s going to make him stronger.”

Rivera said he’s healthy and has no issues. The Yankees are clearly behind their right-handed reliever, the ace who has a record 42 saves and 0.71 ERA in 94 postseason games.

“I don’t think all of a sudden Mo’s forgotten how to pitch. He’s in a little blip on the radar screen, and he’ll get back on track,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

For sure, there will come a time when Rivera isn’t able to dominate anymore. Is it this year, or next year or when he turns 50? No one knows.

Among those watching Mo is the owner of Uncle Mo — the champion racehorse, that is. Uncle Mo was the Kentucky Derby favorite before illness scratched him. Owner Mike Repole roots for the other baseball team in New York — his stable colors are blue and orange, Mets colors.

“Eventually, Brett Favre retired. Eventually, John Elway retired. Eventually, Michael Jordan retired. Eventually, Mariano Rivera will retire,” Repole said Friday. “But as much as I’m a Mets fan, how can you not respect the greatest closer of all time?”

“He’s the guy you want out there with a one-run lead in the ninth inning,” he said. “This isn’t going to tarnish that.”

MLB NOTEBOOK: Outfielder Shin-Soo Choo is back in the Cleveland Indians’ lineup — in an new role. Choo was activated from the 15-day disabled list Friday and put in the leadoff spot as Cleveland started a three-game home series against the Minnesota Twins. “I’m ready, I think,” said Choo, adding he could not recall hitting leadoff since 2006 in the minors. Choo had been on the DL since June 25, one day after he was struck on the left thumb with a pitch from San Francisco’s Jonathan Sanchez. Choo, who underwent surgery on the thumb, hit .244 with five homers and 28 RBIs in 72 games before the injury. He played three games this week at Lake County (Class A) on a rehab assignment. “I want to get as many at bats as I can for him as quick as possible,” manager Manny Acta said. “He swung the bat well in batting practice.” Choo said the skin around his thumb is still tender, but that he feels no pain throwing or hitting. “I feel good, but I haven’t been jammed yet,” Choo said, referring to trying to hit an inside pitch. The outfielder is more concerned with his wife being near to delivering the couple’s third child — and their first girl. “I am more nervous this time,” Choo said. “With a boy, you have to worry about one girl. With a girl, you have to worry about all men.” Choo’s return relieves some of the concerns experienced by Acta, who has had to mix and match outfielders for months due to injuries. Grady Sizemore is not due back until September and now Michael Brantley is out with a sore right wrist. Acta does not believe Brantley will miss much time, but had Kosuke Fukudome move over to center from right field to make room for Choo, while shifting r ookie Ezequiel Carrera to left from center. “No DL,” Acta said flatly about Brantley’s status. “He’s taking batting practice today and we’ll see how he does.” Brantley skirted the issue when asked if he thought he could play. “I always want to play, but it is management’s call, the training staff’s call,” said Brantley, who could not pinpoint when he hurt the wrist. “I don’t know exactly what did it, can’t recall one incident,” Brantley said. “The trainers are taking good care of me and I look forward to participating in all drills and see how it goes.” To make room for Choo, the Indians designated veteran outfielder Austin Kearns for assignment. Kearns hit .200 (30 for 150) in 57 games for the Indians. He signed a one-year deal with Cleveland in December. “It’s always tough to make a move like that, especially with a guy who has been so good with the young players in the clubhouse,” Acta said.

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