NEW YORK — Mariano Rivera started this season the same way he ended the last one — by blowing big saves against the Boston Red Sox.
He said he’s fine, and the Yankees don’t sound concerned. But Mr. Automatic heard a healthy dose of boos in the Bronx on Wednesday and those fickle New York fans are wondering: What’s the matter with Mo?
“He’s been so good in the past that when something like this happens, it’s a shock,” Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said.
That’s true, because for the last nine years Rivera has been dominant out of the bullpen.
He has 336 saves, eighth on the career list, plus a record 32 in the postseason — 17 more than Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, who ranks second.
The soft-spoken closer has always been at his best under the most intense pressure, too. He converted 23 consecutive postseason save chances from 1998-01 and earned MVP honors in the 1999 World Series and 2003 American League championship series.
Yet there’s no denying some chinks in the armor have begun to show. He blew three saves in the playoffs last year — two in Boston when he had chances to clinch the pennant.
His glaring failures against the rival Red Sox are beginning to raise questions about whether the Yankees can still count on him the way they used to.
“As far as having his number, I don’t know what that means. He’s still our No. 1 guy,” New York manager Joe Torre said.
Rivera has blown his last four save chances against Boston, including the 2004 playoffs, and six opportunities in all against the Red Sox since the beginning of last year.
Dating to the start of the 2001 season, he has 12 blown saves against Boston and 16 against all other teams combined.
So have the Red Sox finally figured him out? Are they in his head?
“Let them think that if they want to, but I don’t think that,” Rivera said.
Stottlemyre has a more plausible explanation.
“I think maybe at times he tries a little too hard against them and his mechanics suffer,” he said. “He reads the papers. I think that’s a normal reaction.”
But Rivera was always so poised, so confident. What happened to the iceman? He’s 35, is he starting to wear down?
Stottlemyre doesn’t think so. He said he’s seen no signs of that.
No, the best explanation is this: The Red Sox might not be in Rivera’s head — but he’s not in theirs, either.
After nearly a decade of dominance, all his accolades, some opponents are clearly intimidated by Rivera — even scared of him.
Against some teams, the game is over the minute the bullpen door swings open and Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” begins blaring to the raucous cheers of 55,000 at Yankee Stadium.
Not the Red Sox.
They have a savvy lineup, pesky hitters who know how to grind out at-bats and never give in.
Furthermore, and just as important, they face him all the time. The Red Sox and Yankees have played 55 times since the start of the 2003 season, and the games are often close.
Rivera said he thought the recent boos came from Red Sox rooters.
“New York fans are not like that,” he said.