Watch: Mariano Rivera reclaims rightful title of best set-up man in baseball
The answer: Sept. 21, 2002. The Yankees beat the Tigers 3-2 that Saturday afternoon in Comerica Park. For the month leading up to that game, Steve Karsay had been New York’s closer while Rivera nursed a sore shoulder on the disabled list, his third time on the DL that season. Rivera was activated that day and Joe Torre broke him back in easy in the eighth inning, a test which Rivera aced with a perfect frame against the last-place Tigers.
Rivera also had a hold on July 20, 2002. He entered that game in the eighth inning with men on the corners and no outs to face Manny Ramirez with the Yankees clinging to a three-run lead. Rivera struck out Ramirez, but gave up a single to Jason Varitek, then hurt his shoulder working to the next batter, Shea Hillenbrand, and left the game, landing on the DL for the second time that season. Because he got an out and the Yankees were still leading when he left the mound, he was credited with a hold, but Ramiro Mendoza subsequently allowed Varitek to score in the process of blowing the lead.
Rivera, of course, led the majors in holds in 1996 with 27, when he finished third in the Cy Young voting as John Wetteland’s set-up man, but it would be a stretch to suggest that his All-Star hold brought his career full circle. If that was the case, he would have started, which is what he did in his first eight major league games, including one against the White Sox in which he allowed just two hits in eight scoreless innings while striking out 11. Then again, he pitched the eight in that game as well.