David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TORONTO - Mariano Rivera won't admit he's tired. But seeing his right arm encased in a heating wrap from elbow to wrist before Thursday night's game was a telltale sign he's finally starting to feel the strain of an unusually heavy workload.
When that new accessory was mentioned to Rivera, who also spent an atypical amount of time in the trainer's room after Wednesday's four-out save, he laughed it off in playfully accusing reporters of overreacting to his mummified limb.
"You have to do whatever it takes to get ready," Rivera said. "And that's what that is. Simple as that."
For Rivera, it means a steady dose of therapeutic heat before games, followed by plenty of ice to halt any inflammation afterward. As Joe Girardi tries to prod and push the Yankees into the playoffs, he's riding Rivera hard toward the finish -- with no intention of letting up until this race is over.
Girardi has called on Rivera four times in the eighth inning since Sept. 4, a demanding two-week stretch that shows just how desperate Girardi has been. By comparison, it's more than Rivera had been used in the eighth inning over an entire season since 2009.
Rivera made only nine appearances last year and none after May 30 due to knee surgery. In 2011 and 2010, Girardi dialed him up in the eighth inning three times total during each of those seasons. Even in 2009, when Rivera was used eight times in those situations, the most Girardi taxed him was three times during a nine-day span, and that was earlier in the season, from July 26 to Aug. 4.
Rivera is 43, but in Girardi's eyes, he is ageless, and for all practical purposes, invincible, too. The manager didn't see much point in a question about Rivera's health because he figures his closer wouldn't answer honestly anyway if something was bothering him. "I don't know if he would tell me right now," Girardi said.
And the trainers? "I'm not sure he would tell them."
When reminded he has no reason to leave anything in the tank, Rivera nodded. "For what?" he said. "You have to do what you have to do. We're in a pennant race. We want to get there."
The Yankees' anemic offense has meant too many close games down the stretch, which in turn has forced Girardi to call on him more frequently and earlier than what might be considered ideal. That also stirs conflicting emotions in Girardi, who prides himself on protecting his players.
Complicating matters is the fact that the Yankees had played 17 straight days before getting a breather Monday and five of their last six wins were by one run. During that period, Girardi has developed a blind spot for Rivera, overlooking what normally would be described as overuse. He insists the overtime has not damaged Rivera.
"I haven't really seen anything that leads me to believe he can't do it for the rest of the year," Girardi said. "I've said all along, because very seldom does he get in real, real long innings, I think he's able to bounce back. His body's conditioned to bounce back."
Other than the heating wrap, Thursday was a fairly normal afternoon for Rivera. He threw long toss in rightfield with his teammates, then shagged fly balls during batting practice, even making a Willie Mays-type, over-the-shoulder grab at the warning track. Despite his age, Rivera remains a freakish athlete, and that's why, even now, he's still testing the boundaries.
"We'll manage," Rivera said. "You won't do something to jeopardize anything. I'm not stupid. I'm doing whatever it takes, but you have to take all the precautions to be ready."
After a 10-game road trip that featured a Mariano Rivera Day at Camden Yards, Fenway Park and Rogers Centre, the closer returns home for what will be the biggest Mo party of all Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Girardi refused to make any promises about pitching him that afternoon, regardless of the circumstances, winning or losing, but the workload obviously won't be a factor.
Said Rivera, "We only have a few more games."