Matthew Taylor: Developing an appreciation for Rivera’s talents

For an Orioles fan, deciding on your favorite Yankees player is like deciding on your favorite dental procedure. Nevertheless, I’ve come to acknowledge, appreciate, and admire - notice I never said like - the talents of Yankees closer Mariano Rivera during the 17 seasons he’s been cutting up major league hitters. Rather than breeding contempt, familiarity with one of the game’s greatest closers has produced respect.

No team is more familiar with Rivera than the Orioles, and Buck Showalter is at least partially to blame. More on that later. The O’s have faced Rivera most often (116 games) and have homered off him most often (11 times). Hitting home runs is no small accomplishment against Rivera - he is far and away the active leader for fewest home runs allowed per nine innings pitched - but the Orioles have found ways to do it. Whereas Rivera has allowed home runs at a rate of roughly one per every 16 career games he’s pitched, he’s allowed a home run once per every 11 games against the Orioles.

With Tuesday’s Orioles-Yankees games postponed, I spent some time looking back at the 62 home runs against Rivera during his esteemed career, of course, keeping an eye out for Baltimore players. You can probably guess some of the names on the list, but there are a few surprises on there as well.

Here are the Orioles players to have homered off Rivera listed in descending order based on their career home run totals (in parentheses): Rafael Palmeiro (569), Bobby Bonilla (287), Aubrey Huff (229), Jeff Conine (214), Luke Scott (103), Jack Cust (102), Luis Matos (30), Geronimo Gil (19), and Nolan Reimold (18). Palmeiro and Huff are two of only three players to have homered off Rivera twice; former Mariners designated hitter Edgar Martinez is the third.

Now back to Buck. Showalter gave Rivera his first relief appearance while managing the Yankees in 1995. Rivera, a rookie at the time, had a bumpy start to his big league career, posting a 5.40 ERA in eight starts through July. Showalter replaced him in the starting rotation with Sterling Hitchcock and called Rivera from the ‘pen for the first time Aug. 1. The experiment didn’t begin well.

Rivera entered the game in the sixth inning in relief of Andy Pettitte, issued two walks, and allowed a run-scoring double. Things got worse in the seventh when light-hitting Brewers outfielder David Hulse, the pride of Schreiner University, turned a line drive down the left-field line into a two-run, inside-the-park homer. It is the only inside-the-park home run Rivera has allowed. Hulse, meanwhile, totaled five home runs in 423 career games.

Said Rivera afterward: “I know I can pitch out of there. I don’t know what happened today.”

Obviously, Rivera got things straightened out. He became a full-time reliever in 1996 and finished third in the Cy Young voting. He has since made 11 All Star Game appearances.

But for Orioles fans, watching him all these years has been about as much fun as having your wisdom teeth pulled.

Matthew Taylor blogs about the Orioles at Roar from 34. Read his ruminations about the Birds this week as continues a season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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