Rivera confident of rebound

February 15, 2009 1:21:21 PM PST
The way Mariano Rivera sees it, the New York Yankees won't be looking for a closer for quite a while. Now 39, Rivera is coming off one of his statistically superior seasons: 39 saves in 40 chances and a 1.40 ERA, his lowest since 2005.

It wasn't evident when he pitched, but his shoulder hurt. He had surgery Oct. 7 during which New York Mets medical director Dr. David Altchek shaved down calcification of the A.C. joint on the top of Rivera's right shoulder.

"It was painful when I pitched three days consecutive, four days, pitching more than an inning," he said Saturday following the Yankees' first workout of the year. "I was taking all kinds of medicine to take the pain away. It did work. But it's too much. I didn't want to go through that again. We were fighting for a playoff spot. I couldn't sit and wait for my shoulder to recover."

With spring training extended to 7½ weeks this year, the Yankees and Rivera aren't rushing. Usually, he only throws eight-to-10 innings during the exhibition season.

For now, there is no schedule for the nine-time All-Star to begin mound sessions.

"It's going to be a little slower," he said. "My shoulder feels great, but I haven't thrown. Just tossing, playing catch, going gradually to 70, 90, 100 feet."

Rivera has two more seasons remaining on a contract that pays him $15 million annually. He doesn't worry about his body forcing him to retire.

"It's never crossed my mind. I won't be throwing 97-98, but if I throw 94-95 and hit my spots, I'm fine with that," he said.

"Oh, the end is coming. Sooner or later it's going to come. That's why I don't worry about those things."

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has a similar attitude.

"I don't necessarily think we have to go out and find a closer to replace Mo now, in a sense, for three years, four years, five years down the road," he said.

--- THE JOBA FACTOR: Joba Chamberlain is slated to be in the starting rotation, but there is a small possibility he could be shifted back to the bullpen if Phil Hughes or Ian Kennedy has a dominant spring training.

Girardi understands the debate over whether Chamberlain should start or relieve.

"I think his success as a reliever was probably more hyped because of the games that he came into, but he was really good as a starter, as well," Girardi said. "And I understand the debate. I mean, now that we don't have presidential debates, it's probably the biggest debate going on."

--- BETTING MEN: Hideki Matsui made a wager at the start of spring training last year with former teammate Bobby Abreu and Derek Jeter about who would get married first, knowing he was in late March.

Abreu had six months to get married to win the bet, while Jeter was given a year. "Abreu left without paying," Matsui said with a smile. "Jeter has one more month." The amount of wager was not disclosed.

---

SABATHIA AND BURNETT: CC Sabathia had been in the Yankees clubhouse for just a few hours, and already Joba Chamberlain had given him a nickname: "Big Slim."

"Large in charge," constant energy Chamberlain said Saturday morning.

Sabathia and A.J. Burnett - no full first names necessary - had their initial workouts for the New York Yankees on Saturday at the renamed George M. Steinbrenner Field, and several hundred fans showed up.

"Looking good CC!" one woman yelled as the 300-pound-plus left-hander ambled through pitcher's fielding practice on a back field, picking up speed as he headed to first, somewhat in the manner of a train slowly accelerating as it leaves the station.

Sabathia dresses in a corner of the Yankees' spring training locker room, in the stall Mike Mussina used to occupy, and the fake window Mussina taped up to the dull wall has been replaced by an oversized Yankees logo.

Chamberlain is on Sabathia's other side, followed by Ian Kennedy, Kei Igawa and Phil Hughes. Then comes Burnett, Andy Pettitte and, after a break for a television, Chien-Ming Wang.

New York's projected rotation of Sabathia, Burnett, Wang, Pettitte and Chamberlain figures to be its strongest since 2003 - when the Yankees made their last World Series appearance.

"There is no back end," Burnett said. "You've got five starters that can win, you know, 15-plus, I mean, you know, should."

Really?

It's happened just twice in baseball history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 1998 Atlanta Braves accomplished the feat with Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Kevin Millwood, Denny Neagle and John Smoltz, and Jack Chesbro led a 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates rotation that also included Ed Doheny, Sam "Schoolmaster" Leever, Deacon Phillippe and Jesse Tannehill.

New York's starters underwhelmed with 59 victories last year, the Yankees' lowest total in a non-strike season since 1992. In recent years, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano were just a few of the pitchers who failed to meet the lofty expectations that come along with the large salaries paid by the Yankees.

Players do know what's required.

"I think you'd probably have to have your head in the sand if you didn't know what the expectations were," manager Joe Girardi said.

New York gave Sabathia a $161 million, seven-year contract, the largest deal for a pitcher. That same week, Burnett received an $82.5 million, five-year agreement. And the following month, New York swooped up Mark Teixeira as if he were a dessert, giving the first baseman an eight-year contract worth $180 million.

While the Yankees celebrated, the rest of baseball complained the beast was back and whined. Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio called for a renewed push for a salary cap.

"I'm definitely excited," Sabathia said, "to be playing on this big stage."

And he's happy he's not the only newcomer in the act.

"I'm definitely glad I got a guy like A.J. that we can kind of - you know, we're walking in this together, we can kind of lean on each other," Sabathia said.

They're starkly different. Sabathia is gregarious, treated in New York as baseball's Big Man, Clarence Clemons toting a glove instead of a sax. He doesn't look like a baseball player.

If he didn't know better, Girardi would think Sabathia belonged on a gridiron rather than a diamond.

"He's quite a big man. And I think that's probably one of the reasons he's able to throw 250 innings because there's so much strength there," Girardi said. "When you see big gentlemen like that, you don't realize how strong they are."

Burnett is guarded and has a wilder rock 'n' roll image. His body is painted with tattoos, and he used to wear nipple rings.

Asked whether his personality will be comfortable with the amoeba-under-the-microscope scrutiny the Yankees exist in, Burnett responded: "You're going to have to ask me that in about a week, OK?"

"I think I'll be all right," he said. "And I don't point fingers, so if something goes wrong out there, it's my fault."

Sabathia got to throw to No. 1 catcher Jorge Posada in his bullpen session, and he stuck with fastballs and changeups. His cutter and 2-seamer will follow in further sessions.

"A heavy ball," Posada said. "I like the hesitation that he's got now. I think that helped him a little bit."

Burnett is a power pitcher, much like Chamberlain. Girardi wants to split those two in the rotation and also split Sabathia and Pettitte, the two left-handers.

Much can go wrong. While Sabathia is 28, his 494 innings in the previous two seasons were 22 2-3 more than any other pitcher. He made four consecutive starts on three days' rest last September and October - the first major league pitcher to do that since Cincinnati's Danny Graves in July 2003, according to Elias.

"I had to turn my phone off, block my calls from agent, because he was freaking out," Sabathia said. "I felt fine and, you know, I wanted to win. I think anybody healthy enough in that situation would have done the same thing."

Burnett, 32, has been on the disabled list 10 times in a 10-year major league career. Pitching in Toronto, he learned how to be more effective from Roy Halladay, and how to keep in better shape.

"He helped me a lot to figure out movement and then working both sides of the plate and then pitching," Burnett said. "I can get guys out and succeed at 94-95, opposed to having to go balls to the wall every pitch and try to, you know, hit triple digits and show up the (radar) gun. It's not about the gun. It's about me staying healthy and winning games for this club."

Girardi smiled a lot. After days of questions dwelling on off-the-field turmoil, he was talking about a bullpen session, the first of many.

"It's nice to see them playing catch today," he said, "and just listen to the sound of the ball hit the glove."

NOTES: The Yankees have dropped Adidas as their supplier of clubhouse gear. Clubhouse attendants are now using Nike clothing and footwear. Chief operating officer Lonn Trost said the deal with Nike was done in coordination with MLB's Nike deal for licensed merchandise, and that it was a relatively small agreement and did not include provisions for signage. The Yankees shook up baseball when they struck a $95 million, 10-year marketing deal with Adidas America in March 1997. ... Matsui took on-field batting practice for the first time since left knee surgery on Sept. 22. "It's been a while since the last time, but it feels pretty good," Matsui said. During one stretch Matsui hit three consecutive homers. He expects to start doing sprints at 100 percent in the next week or two. Girardi says he will be ready for opening day, but probably as a DH and not as a LF. ... Catcher Jorge Posada said his shoulder is pain free following surgery July 30. He made 140 throws Friday and 90 Saturday.


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