David Robertson noticed something different about Mariano Rivera long before the ninth inning yesterday. It was his socks.
Rivera had hiked his pinstripe pant legs to just below his knee, exposing the dark Yankees blue socks, just the way Robertson prefers. That's when the lightbulb clicked on in the setup man's head.
"I kind of put two and two together," Robertson said.
Rivera's fashion statement was an effort to raise awareness for Robertson's All-Star candidacy, which now will be decided by an online ballot. It was a nice gesture of bullpen solidarity.
But as campaign strategies go, this one backfired worse than the Mets' bid to recruit "cougars" for David Wright.
The 40,218 fans expected the same old Rivera when "Enter Sandman" blared on another sweltering day in the Bronx. Instead, the new-look Mo clearly was not himself, and that's why his streak of consecutive saves at Yankee Stadium -- dating to Sept. 26, 2010 -- finally ended at 41.
On that late September day, it was the Red Sox who nicked the great Rivera on a weak RBI single by Bill Hall. And no, this time it had nothing to do with socks, of any kind. "I'm not superstitious at all," Rivera said. "I don't care about that. It doesn't do anything to me."
If not the socks, what then? How else does one make sense of the unexplainable?
Try a moody two-seam fastball that wasn't behaving the way it should. Rivera, at age 43, has used the pitch more often this season to try to keep opposing hitters off his trusty cutter. But the Orioles took some fierce rips at him Sunday, and not just Adam Jones, whose two-run homer handed Rivera his second blown save in 31 chances.
There were warning signs before then. After Manny Machado grounded out to open the ninth inning, Nick Markakis crushed an 0-and-1 cutter down the rightfield line that hooked just to the right of the foul pole.
Yankees fans exhaled. Disaster avoided, right? Not quite.
Markakis drilled the next pitch, this one a two-seamer, into centerfield for a single. Jones then took the first pitch for a strike before hammering a two-seam fastball to left-center. This one left little to the imagination.
It was only the second homer Rivera has allowed this year, with the Rays' Evan Longoria hitting the other one April 23. Rivera had not served up a homer in the Bronx since Russell Branyan hit one in August 2011.
"It's hard," Rivera said. "The way [Hiroki Kuroda] was pitching was outstanding. And to do that. I can't do that."
Of course he can. Every closer can. We're just not used to seeing it from Rivera, who during the course of his 19-year career has made us forget that he's only human. We got a reminder last year watching him crumple on the warning track at Kauffman Stadium with a torn-up knee. Sunday was another rarity, like witnessing an eclipse or a Yankees extra-base hit.
In three games this weekend, the Yankees came within three outs of sweeping the Orioles on the strength of 21 singles and a lonely pair of doubles. Even for Rivera, who's accustomed to working with a tight margin, these have been strange days. And as good as the Yankees' pitching has been, it's not perfect.
Neither is Rivera. Though it's difficult to imagine, he has 75 blown saves in his career, which is a tribute to his longevity more than anything else. It can happen, and for the Yankees, who were tantalizingly close to extending their winning streak to seven, this one seemed to sting a little bit more.
As for Robertson, the socks worked for him. He delivered a clean eighth inning and laughed when first asked about Rivera's gesture. "Oh, yeah," Robertson said, "now he can turn this around on me."
Rivera didn't. And knowing him, his socks will be high again until Robertson gets his All-Star invite. Odds are, the next time will turn out to be a much different ending than Sunday.