TAMPA, Fla. -- Told earlier in the week that Mariano Rivera's 2012 spring training debut would be Sunday, a veteran scout shook his head.

"I was at last year's," he said. "What did he need, nine pitches? Guy's unbelievable."

Actually, Rivera needed 12 pitches to strike out the side against the Twins in his debut last March, and he fell short of that gold standard Sunday.

This time, he threw 14 pitches in setting down the Phillies in order in the Yankees' 3-0 victory at Steinbrenner Field in a split-squad game.

"He looked sharp today," Russell Martin said before pausing. "When does he not look sharp?"

Of Rivera's cutter, Martin said: "Great command, same life. Same guy as last year. Same guy as the last 20 years."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

It hasn't been quite that long -- Rivera made his MLB debut in 1995 -- but it was a reminder of what has been the dominant topic of this camp: Is this it for the 42-year-old closer?

The backdrop to his appearance Sunday -- and every subsequent appearance until he makes an official announcement -- is the possibility of it being the "last" of something. He has hinted strongly that this will be his final season, and the day he reported to camp, he said he already had made up his mind and won't change it. He wouldn't reveal the decision, only that he'd disclose it at some point this season.

Rivera, with a record 603 saves, entered Sunday's game in the fourth inning accompanied by familiar sounds: a roaring crowd on its feet and "Enter Sandman" playing on the loudspeakers.

Rivera was asked if he appreciates that kind of ovation more so this year. "What are you trying to say?" he said playfully. "You guys, man, you guys . . . I always appreciate it. No matter the situation, I always appreciate it."

Ty Wigginton led off the inning against Rivera and, after taking a ball, lofted a fly ball to short right for the first out. Luis Montañez battled for 10 pitches before lining a ball to center that Chris Dickerson chased down, and Hector Luna's slow groundout to third ended the inning.

Rivera's cutter reached as high as 91 mph on the radar gun but was mostly in the range of 87 to 89. Scouts had Rivera at 90 to 92 in his first outing in 2011 and 86 to 88 in his first game in 2010.

Of course, it's been some time since Rivera's cutter reached the mid-90s, but his effectiveness hasn't diminished with lower velocity.

He's recorded 39, 44, 33 and 44 saves the last four seasons with corresponding ERAs of 1.40, 1.76, 1.80 and 1.91.

As another scout put it, "He could get people out throwing 82."

That, Martin said, is because of command unlike anyone else he's seen in the game, except perhaps for Greg Maddux.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Bench coach Tony Peña, a baseball lifer who managed against the Phillies in place of Joe Girardi, who was in Fort Myers to watch the other split-squad game against the Twins, thought the Maddux comparison was appropriate.

"That's a good way to put it," Peña said. "Everything's nice and easy and they throw the ball right wherever they want to."

Rivera said he isn't in midseason form yet, but "we'll be there."

Asked if he thought the fans gave him such an ovation because they think they won't have too many more opportunities, Rivera smiled again.

"Guys, I gotta go."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The Yankees and their fans hope that isn't the closer's message at season's end.