Mariano Rivera stood by himself, in the centre of the diamond at Yankee Stadium.
For once, the great closer wasn't sure what to do next.
So he smiled, blew a kiss to the crowd, and then doffed his cap as cheers washed over him following the record 602nd save of his career.
"Oh, my God, for the first time in my career, I'm on the mound alone," Rivera said. "It was priceless. I didn't know it could be like that."
Ruvera pitched a perfect ninth inning, striking out Chris Parmelee on what appeared to be his signature cut fastball to end the New York Yankees' 6-4 win over the Minnesota Twins on Monday.
Fans from the smallest crowd in the Stadium's three-year history stood and shouted from Rivera's first pitch to his last as he retired Trevor Plouffe, Michael Cuddyer and Parmelee in order and broke Trevor Hoffman's mark.
They even roared in the bottom of the eighth when Nick Swisher grounded into an inning-ending double play — and drew a loud cheer from fans who wanted to see history made at the ballpark for the second time this summer. In July, Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit at home.
"These guys are into it,"' Rivera thought to himself.
It's a remarkable achievement, considering the slender right-hander throws mostly one pitch. Opposing hitters have seen it for years, but still haven't figured it out.
"It's amazing," Cuddyer said. "You've got a 99 per cent chance of knowing what's coming, and he still is able to go out there and dominate."
Kings of relief
Major League Baseball's top-10 career saves leaders since 1969, when saves became an official major league statistic:
|1. x-Mariano Rivera||602|
|2. Trevor Hoffman||601|
|3. Lee Smith||478|
|4. John Franco||424|
|5. Billy Wagner||422|
|6. Dennis Eckersley||390|
|7. Jeff Reardon||367|
|8. Troy Percival||358|
|9. Randy Myers||347|
|10. Rollie Fingers||341|
So good for so long, Rivera has built a Hall of Fame-caliber career and been a pillar of five World Series championship teams. The only person who might not acknowledge Rivera isn't the best closer of all time is Rivera himself.
"You know me, I'm not like that," Rivera said. "I like to be under the radar, do my job."
He nearly did it outside the country. The 41-year-old Rivera tied Hoffman with save No. 601 on Saturday in Toronto. The AL East leaders lost Sunday, putting Rivera in line to get the milestone in the Yankees' last homestand of the season.
On Monday, the crowd hollered as Rivera came in to his customary of "Enter Sandman." The fans grew louder with every strike, every out as Rivera closed in. He even broke a bat for good measure — sawing off Parmelee and sending the rookie back to the dugout for another piece of wood.
Parmelee lasted only one more pitch. Plate umpire John Hirschbeck rung him up, and catcher Russell Martin came out to the mound, gently placed the ball in Rivera's glove, and then gave the skinny Panamanian a big hug.
Rivera stayed and accepted congratulations — Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and finally Jeter came over to him before the bullpen and bench got there while the Twins watched from their dugout.
"I think it shows what he means to baseball, what he's done," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I also think it shows the class of the Minnesota Twins."
Eventually, the Twins went back to their lockers and the Yankees did, too. That meant Rivera was left on the mound. He tried to sneak off the field with them, but longtime teammate Jorge Posada pushed him, laughing, onto the mound, where fans cheered him once again.
And who would've thought it, at least back in 1995 when Rivera started out. He began his career as a starter, lasting only 3 1-3 innings and losing 10-0 to the Angels in his debut, before becoming a star in the bullpen.
Rivera's 602 saves have come in 674 chances. Hoffman got his 601 in 677 tries.
Hoffman earned most of his saves with San Diego and retired after pitching last year with Milwaukee.
"I want to congratulate Mariano Rivera on setting the all-time saves record," Hoffman said in a statement. "It's a great accomplishment and he is still going strong! I have tremendous respect for Mariano not just for his on-field accomplishments, but also for his service to the community."
Paid attendance was 40,045, less than the capacity crowd and attendant hullabaloo surrounding Jeter's historic hit. STATS LLC said Monday's makeup game drew the fewest fans since the new Yankee Stadium opened.
"Thank God it's over, too. Because I was getting a little uncomfortable," Rivera said.
New York now has another goal before heading to Tampa Bay to close the season: winning the division. The Yankees lead Boston by 5 1/2 games with 10 to play.
The Twins lost their ninth straight, tying a run in May as their worst of the season. The Yankees have been struggling, too -- this was just their fifth win in 12 games.
Rivera has finished their last three victories, though. He earned his 600th save in Seattle on Sept. 13.
Now that the milestone is behind him, Rivera can focus on getting ready for his 16th October in 17 seasons — that's when he really made his reputation. Those 602 saves don't count any of the 42 wins — in 47 chances — he locked down in theplayoffs.
A.J. Burnett didn't make it past the fifth inning, but Cory Wade (6-1), Boone Logan, Rafael Soriano and David Robertson kept the Twins at bay until Rivera came on in the ninth, and Curtis Granderson hit his 41st homer of the year.
Granderson's homer off Scott Diamond (1-5) came in the first after Jeter reached on an infield single and Robinson Cano hit an RBI triple in the third followed by Swisher's single to make it 5-0. Rodriguez hit a two-out RBI single in the sixth — right around the time Rivera was realizing he could be called on in the ninth.
As he has been since he got his first save on May 17, 1996, Mo was ready in the ninth. The only thing he wasn't quite set for was the spotlight.
"Don't get me wrong, it feels good," Rivera said. "The reception was wonderful. I could not ask for anything more than that."