Cubs

How Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer ever

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How Mariano Rivera became the greatest closer ever

Mike Borzello understands how Mariano Rivera is wired. Borzello knows that the money and the fame and the pressure never changed the bulletproof closer for the New York Yankees.

Borzello was there before Metallicas Enter Sandman became an anthem at Yankee Stadium. The Cubs staff assistant worked there for 12 seasons, primarily as a bullpen catcher, from 1996 through 2007, and took part in four World Series celebrations.

So Borzello had to be philosophical after hearing last week that Rivera collapsed onto the warning track at Kauffman Stadium and tore an ACL in his right knee.

Its difficult to think thats the way hes going to go out, Borzello said. But being with Mo for all those years, one thing he always did was shag in center field. It was the same every day and he used it as his conditioning. It was just an unfortunate thing that happened.

But we always used to joke that he was our best defensive center fielder.

The Cubs will have bullpen questions when they open a three-game series against the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday at Miller Park. Carlos Marmol has a 20 million contract, but no defined role other than be ready to pitch.

Kerry Wood was frustrated enough the other night to throw his glove and hat into the Wrigley Field seats. James Russell and Rafael Dolis appear to be taking over the endgame.

But its like that for just about every team in the majors. Relievers are notoriously difficult to project from one year to the next. Thats what made Rivera such an outlier as he piled up 608 career saves, plus 42 more in the postseason, where he has a 0.70 ERA.

Without the 42-year-old Rivera who just found out that he also has a blood clot in his right calf the Yankees wont be able to play an eight-inning game anymore. Like everyone else, they will have to deal with the uncertainty.

Answers can come out of nowhere. Borzello was there at Tiger Stadium in 1997 when that magical cutter revealed itself out of thin air. Rivera, a religious man, has compared it to divine intervention.

It just appeared, Borzello recalled. The first two years (of his career) he was just a four-seam fastballslider guy. (One) day he started warming up in Detroit (and) the first couple fastballs were cutting.

Hes throwing at the time back then 95 to 98 mph and the last few feet its cutting. And Im like: Whats going on? And then Im checking the ball and he doesnt know whats going on either.

So he switches balls and then finally hes just kind of worried, like: What is going on? I cant throw the ball straight.

Rivera wound up saving that game, but had no idea how it happened. He had been a long man and a setup guy for the Yankees as he broke into the big leagues. No one could have been thinking Hall of Fame at that point.

The man who would become the all-time saves leader was just trying to gain traction as a closer.

We came back the next day and its the same thing, Borzello said. Now hes really worried because he couldnt command it. Hes like: I dont know where its going. I can throw it at the plate, but I cant put it where I want.

It just kind of went from there. The rest is history, I guess. He learned how to basically locate it to both sides of the plate. He would elevate it. He could go at your hands if youre left-handed.

It just became this weapon that weve never seen before, and probably wont see again.

If that was a physical gift, Rivera was also blessed with the emotional intelligence to handle closing in New York.

When Wood was traded from the Cleveland Indians to the Yankees at the 2010 deadline, one of the things that struck him was the sense of calm in the bullpen.

(Rivera) knows how to slow the game down, Borzello said. Hes never going to rush. The games going to wait for him. Hes not going to change his routine to accommodate the game.

A lot of guys are like: Oh my God, I got to get ready, get down and theyre firing, firing. It just turns into chaos and it sometimes carries out into the game. It was never that way with him.

That mental toughness is essential. Rivera blew the save that allowed the Boston Red Sox to begin their epic comeback in 2004 and make Theo Epstein a legend throughout New England.

Rivera also shook off a Game 7 loss to Bob Brenlys Arizona Diamondbacks in an emotional World Series after 911.

It generated almost universal respect. Last summer at Wrigley Field, Marmol approached Rivera and asked him to autograph a jersey he wanted to frame and hang in his home in the Dominican Republic.

From Day 1 that I was ever with Mariano Rivera, from spring training in 96 until the last day I was with (the Yankees), he was the exact same, Borzello said. Youll see guys get nervous as the innings get later and its closer to their time. The phone rings and you see the nervousness or you see this antsy-ness about most guys.

Mariano was always just the most relaxed (guy), confident in what he knew he was capable of doing. He was that way from Day 1. It didnt take a lot of success, and then he became more comfortable. He was comfortable from Day 1. And it was fascinating to watch.

So Borzello has this sequence in his mind. It could have been bases loaded at Fenway Park, but it didnt really matter where the Yankees were playing.

Rivera would get up from his seat, grab his glove and lift a weighted ball. Rivera liked throwing three balls with Borzello standing up, and then would have the bullpen catcher crouch down to finish warming up his arm.

That sense of routine had the greatest closer of all-time running around during batting practice in Kansas City, just before the fall.

You cant tell people to stop being baseball players, Borzello said. If anyones going to come back from that, even at his age, it would be him. Hes in great shape and hell do whatever it takes. If he wants to continue playing, I dont doubt him at all.

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

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USA TODAY

With Cubs reeling, Jon Lester comes up big and plays stopper

The last three games have been more than forgettable for the Cubs.

From Wednesday’s 11-1 drubbing at the hands of the Phillies to back-to-back walk-off losses on Thursday and Friday, the Cubs’ current road trip has looked much like those that preceded it. At various times, the offense has scuffled, the rotation has pitched a clunker and the bullpen has cracked.

The solution to the latest road trip woes? Give the ball to Jon Lester and get the hell out of the way.

Lester —  who pitched a clunker himself Aug. 6 against the A’s — did what the Cubs have become so accustomed to see him do over the past four seasons. The 35-year-old tossed 6+ shutout innings, allowing just four hits, leading the Cubs to a 2-0 win.

Lester had no room for error on Saturday, as the Cubs offense went hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings. While the Cubs bats were asleep, the Pirates threatened to break the game on open multiple times, loading the bases with one out (first inning), no outs (fifth) and getting runners on first and second with no outs in the sixth.

The latter two of those instances were assisted by errors by third baseman Kris Bryant, but that’s neither here nor there. Point being, with how the Cubs looked offensively, any Pirates runs could have proved critical on Saturday. Instead, Lester worked out of every jam, stymying the Pirates bats to an 0-for-12 line with RISP.

Winning Saturday’s game was obviously important for the Cubs, as it puts them a game ahead of the Cardinals in the win column (pending the outcome of St. Louis's game against the Reds later Saturday). But it was equally important for Lester, who called himself the “weakest link” in the Cubs starting rotation after that tough outing against the A’s.

The beautiful thing about baseball is that the regular season is 162 games long. Each day presents teams with a new slate, a chance to forget about what happened in the previous game and move forward.  If Saturday’s start shows anything, it’s that Lester and the Cubs are more than capable of putting a tough game in the rearview mirror and keep moving forward.

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13 Days to Kickoff: Phillips

13 Days to Kickoff: Phillips

NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting Aug. 5, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 30.

School: Phillips

Head coach: Troy McAllister

How they fared in 2018: 9-3 (5-0 CPL Illini Land of Lincoln Conference). Phillips made the Class 6A state playoff field and defeated Lake Forest and Prairie Ridge. They advanced for the quarterfinal round and lost to Cary-Grove.

2019 regular season schedule:

Aug. 31 @ Cass Tech (MI)
Sept. 7 vs St. Mary (MO) at East St. Louis
Sept. 13 vs Taft
Sept. 20 vs Raby
Sept. 27 @ Morgan Park (Gately Stadium)
Oct. 5 @ Simeon (Gately Stadium)
Oct. 11 vs Lane Tech
Oct. 19 @ Westinghouse
Oct. 25 @ Lincoln Park (at Lane Tech)

Biggest storyline: Phillips has gone from a Public League also-ran to a program with annual state title aspirations. Can the two-time state champion Wildcats get back into the 6A playoff field and make a deeper run this November?

Names to watch this season: S Robert Pledger (Sr., Western Michigan) OL/DL Demerick Morris (Sr., Temple)

Biggest holes to fill: The Wildcats will bring back an experienced team this season after playing a ton of underclassmen in 2018. The biggest hole is more from a leadership standpoint with the graduation losses of WR/DB Fabian McCray (NIU) and DB Joseph Thompson (Illinois), both of whom were long time varsity starters. 

EDGY's Early Take: Phillips (4A-sized enrollment) and head coach Troy McAllister volunteered to "move up" to Class 6A level last season and also this season. The Wildcats will bring back big group of returning starters who saw significant playing time last season.

While they came up short last season with a 6A quarterfinals loss to Cary-Grove, look for the Wildcats to again challenge everyone who comes their way in the Chicago Public League. They’ll have to be road warriors the first two weeks, as they take on marquee competition from out of state. The Oct. 5 date vs. Simeon is a must-see. The 6A playoff field will have to be wary of Phillips.