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Welcome to the Show: Jackie Bradley Jr.’s introduction to Mariano Rivera

04.04.13 at 11:41 pm ET
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Jackie Bradley Jr. had an opportunity to face Yankees veterans Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera. (AP)

NEW YORK — It was a phenomenal moment.

Jackie Bradley Jr., whose debut has been so captivating, stood in the batter’s box against Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning, two outs, game on the line. Bradley, a symbol of precocious youth, represented the game-tying run, while Rivera — making his first appearance since last April 30, his entrance to “Enter, Sandman” electrifying a Yankee Stadium crowd eager to see him pitch for the first time in a year — stood as the unflappable symbol of veteran sagacity and self-assurance.

It seems safe to say that Bradley has never seen a pitch like Rivera’s cutter, because no one else in the world throws a cutter like Rivera’s. It is the pitch that had earned him 608 saves entering Thursday, but in the series finale of the three-game set between the Yankees and Red Sox, it was a pitch that lacked its typical dominance on a night when Rivera was summoned for the ninth inning with his team leading, 4-1.

Dustin Pedroia had worked a seven-pitch walk to start the inning, and a one-out double by Jonny Gomes moved runners to second and third before Will Middlebrooks‘ ground out plated Pedroia, moved Gomes to third and brought Bradley to the plate with two outs and a chance to tie the game.

Bradley was born in 1990, the same year in which Rivera signed with the Yankees out of Panama. It would have been natural for the 22-year-old to experience some awe at the mere opportunity to face the greatest closer in big league history.

But the outfielder didn’t seem overwhelmed by the circumstance. After all, just two innings earlier, he cracked an RBI double to the base of the fence in right-center against 40-year-old Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte. His thought process when stepping to the plate against Rivera?

“Just trying to see a pitch at least, and try to work the count a little bit. Definitely a tough guy. He knows what he’s doing,” said Bradley.

Interestingly, it was the veteran who acknowledged his own anxiety in the moment. Given the duration of his layoff, the opportunity to run to the mound from the Yankee Stadium bullpen jolted him.

“I was waiting for 11 months,” Rivera told reporters. “There were a lot of emotions tonight, but you have to control that. You have to finish the game.”

The confrontation unfolded swiftly. Bradley took a first-pitch strike, then fouled a cutter that was in on his hands and off the plate — one of the few times he’s gone outside of the strike zone with a swing.

After jamming Bradley up and in, Rivera then went backdoor, clipping the corner on a pitch low and away with a pitch that was called strike three by home plate ump Mike DiMuro.

Bradley was asked after the fact if he thought the pitch was indeed a strike.

“Too close to take,” he sighed. “Too close to take.”

Bradley was hardly the first hitter to suffer such a fate. He became the 565th player to strike out against the great closer, who has accumulated a total of 1,120 total punchouts.

Did the experience of facing Rivera match his anticipation of The Cutter?

“I really haven’t, I guess, imagined facing it. You know, it does move,” Bradley acknowledged. “He really knows what he’s doing. He’s known for shutting things down.”

And now, Rivera has done so at the expense of the Sox’ young rookie en route to yet another save, this one to close out a 4-2 Yankees victory. Bradley can now claim an unwanted kinship with hundreds of other players who recorded the last out of a game against the closer, a different kind of first to conclude his eventful initial exposure to the big leagues in Yankee Stadium.

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