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.

Ben Zobrist channels 'Zorilla,' leads Cubs over Nationals

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Ben Zobrist channels 'Zorilla,' leads Cubs over Nationals

The Cubs were due for a close game and they almost got it Thursday evening. 

After steamrolling the second-place Pirates over the three-game series in Pittsburgh, the Cubs looked ticketed for a nail-biting victory over the Washington Nationals in the series opener at Wrigley Field.

Instead, Ben Zobrist channeled his "Zorilla" alter-ego and smashed a two-run homer into the left-field bleachers with two outs in the bottom of the eighth en route to a 5-2 Cubs victory in front of 37,564 fans.

The Cubs were leading 5-0 with two outs in the ninth before Travis Wood served up a two-run shot to Jayson Werth.

Zobrist drove in the first four runs in the game - he also had a two-run single through the right side in the fourth inning to plate Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant) - and is now second on the Cubs with 20 RBI on the season.

Two batters after Zobrist's blast, Addison Russell drove home Ryan Kalish with a double to left field, pushing the Cubs' run differential to a ridiculous +96 on the season.

"We're off to a good start," Cubs catcher David Ross said, "but we don't sit on the bench and talk about run differential or on-base percentage. We try to have good at-bats. 

"Guys are going up there and doing their thing pitching. Everybody's out to do their best on a daily basis and I think that's the sign of a good team."

Despite the Nationals' late comeback attempt, Zobrist still provided all the offense Kyle Hendricks and the Cubs bullpen needed.

Hendricks spun six shutout innings, allowing just two hits and a pair of walks, striking out four.

Clayton Richard, Justin Grimm, Pedro Strop combined for two shutout innings and Hector Rondon recorded the final out as the Cubs kicked off this crucial four-game series by flying the "W" flag at Wrigley.

The Cubs now lead the majors with 21 victories, but because they've been winning by such lopsided scores, they only have four saves.

Cubs vs. Nationals: Max Scherzer sets $200 million baseline for Jake Arrieta

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Cubs vs. Nationals: Max Scherzer sets $200 million baseline for Jake Arrieta

Roughly 48 hours before the no-hitter and the onesie press conference that introduced his client to a national audience, Scott Boras sat in his Dodger Stadium luxury suite explaining the pitching odometer and equating Jake Arrieta to Max Scherzer.

By Aug. 28 last year, Arrieta still hadn’t completed a start-to-finish season in the big leagues, much less won a Cy Young Award. The Cubs had only won six consecutive Arrieta starts, a streak that has now reached 19 in a row, including a second no-hitter for the hottest pitcher on the planet.

That’s why the Cubs have to be looking at this as a two-year window to win a World Series with their ace, because Arrieta can become a free agent after the 2017 season. That’s when Jon Lester will be in his mid-30s, John Lackey will probably be retired and maybe the farm system will have produced an actual big-league pitcher by then.

Boras Corp. almost always pushes its talent onto the open market. And as the super-agent likes to say: “Every Cy Young Award winner I know got a seven-year contract.” Like Scherzer, who reportedly turned down a six-year, $144 million offer to stay with the Detroit Tigers and later scored a $210 million guarantee from the Washington Nationals in January 2015.

“All the free-agent stuff, that just takes care of itself,” Scherzer said Thursday, sitting at his locker inside Wrigley Field’s cramped visiting clubhouse. “If you just play to win the game – and go out there with that mindset – everything takes care of itself.

“It’s a beautiful thing, because everybody’s attention is on your free-agent stuff, but the only thing you care about is winning. And when you win, everything falls right into place.”

Scherzer, who will attack a dangerous Cubs lineup on Friday afternoon in Wrigleyville, went 18-5 with a 3.15 ERA in his walk year, helping Detroit win its fourth consecutive division title in 2014.

At that point, the mileage on Scherzer’s right arm had almost reached 1,240 innings in the big leagues. By comparison, Lester had thrown 1,596 innings by the time he signed a six-year, $155 million megadeal, weeks before Scherzer finalized his contract in Washington.

Arrieta is now only at 838-plus innings after an up-and-down beginning to his career with the Baltimore Orioles. He’s 22-1 with a 0.85 ERA in his last 26 regular-season starts, making $10.7 million this year and setting himself up for another huge payday through the arbitration system.

But Arrieta will also be 32 years old on Opening Day 2018. As much as the Cubs respect his work ethic and fanatical approach to fitness and nutrition, Theo Epstein’s front office will also have to account for the aging curve, all the unknowns and how much risk to stomach.

“I had the (information) in front of me,” said Scherzer, who took out an insurance policy that would have covered him in the event of a serious injury. “The injury risk factors – where I was at in my career – appeared low.

“As a pitcher, you understand that the nature of this business is that you can get injured from pitching with your elbow or shoulder. But I made sure I took certain precautions to minimize that risk factor.

“Once I had that peace of mind, I just went out there and pitched and competed and tried to win. That’s all that mattered to me.”

If the idea of moving on from a place where you’re comfortable and successful sounds difficult, well, “the business side of the game can get ugly at times,” Scherzer said. “That’s how it is.”

So Cubs fans should enjoy this ride with Arrieta, wherever it leads and however long it lasts, appreciating the chance to see history every time he takes the mound.

“He’s fun to watch,” Scherzer said. “He goes out there and competes and he does it with an assortment of pitches as well. That’s what makes him one of the best in the game right now. He really seems to be locked in.

“When you can find the mechanical thing where you can keep your delivery, I know for myself that’s when I feel my best. I’m sure that’s probably how he feels, too. He just feels locked in, that if every time I do this, I can locate the ball exactly where I want to.”

Cubs: Jason Heyward ready to put wrist issue behind him

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Cubs: Jason Heyward ready to put wrist issue behind him

Jason Heyward's name wasn't in the starting lineup Thursday, but he said he was preparing for the game as if he were playing, testing his injured right wrist with batting practice and cage work.

Apparently batting practice went well.

Heyward entered Thursday's game before the fourth inning, taking over in center field after Dexter Fowler was thrown out of the game for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza.

Joe Maddon said the Cubs' plan was to see how batting practice went and evaluate from there, but all parties were planning on a return to the lineup in Friday's game before extenuating circumstances precipated a change Thursday evening.

Heyward missed the entire three-game series in Pittsburgh, but watched his teammates dominate the second-place Pirates without their Opening Day right fielder, left fielder (Kyle Schwarber) and catcher (Miguel Montero).

"When we lose guys, having other people come up and still do that, that's awesome," Heyward said. "I feel like those are building blocks for what can make a very special season — when people go down and other guys get reps when they're not expecting to get reps. They don't take 'em for granted. Getting everybody involved is a good thing."

Heyward said he initially hurt his wrist while doing tee work in spring training and had just been dealing with it since then.

The 26-year-old outfielder entered play Thursday hitting just .211 with a .573 OPS, but refused to use his wrist as an excuse.

"I don't like to not play," Heyward said. "It just got to a point where I was like, 'Hey, I should say something and get some extra help.' Now it's good because I can come in and get treated for it."

Heyward is playing under the biggest contract in Cubs history (eight years, $184 million) and undoubtedly wanted to prove himself to a new team and new city.

He missed just 21 games across the last two seasons, hitting .281 with a .766 OPS in the process.

Heyward had been hitting better of late, going 10-for-20 with two doubles and five RBI in the last five games of the Cubs' road trip in late April. 

But then he went hitless in the rain-shortened homestand against the Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves, going 0-for-17 with two walks. However, he did have a bunch of hard-hit balls, just right at defenders.

Still, he and the Cubs deemed it time to get some rest.

"It's tough [to know when to take a couple days off]," Heyward admitted. "But I know it's not a ligament [issue]. You know your body. The way I did it — it wasn't running into a wall or anything like that. It was just working hard in the cage.

"I want to play. I know I needed to play, especially at that time — it was so early. I know it's still early, but at that time, we weren't 20-6.

"It was just a matter of — is it going to help the team? Is it going to help me to get it calmed down sooner? I think it was a good time to do so."