TAMPA, Fla. – Mariano Rivera never throws on the first day of workouts for pitchers and catchers, a fact that he mentioned with a sly smile. But Rivera threw on Wednesday, smoothly navigating through a 25-pitch bullpen session. It was the most scrutinized session in the state with about 40 reporters watching every pitch that Rivera uncorked.
When it was over, Rivera exhaled. So did the Yankees. It was the first step in a process that the Yankees hope will end with Rivera returning to his dominant form as a closer. Rivera, who wore a light-weight brace on his right knee, said that it felt "wonderful to be out there again." For the Yankees, the feeling was mutual.
It was only one bullpen session, only 25 pitches to Minor League catcher J.R. Murphy, but seeing a healthy Rivera on the mound brought some peace to the Yankees. Manager Joe Girardi praised Rivera as a pitcher, but also cited how crucial Rivera's presence is to his teammates. Andy Pettitte spoke about the value of Rivera's enthusiastic personality and called Rivera "a difference-maker" for the Yankees.
"You got to have him," Pettitte said.
Now the Yankees do. They have Rivera, their ninth-inning security blanket, back. Rivera still has to complete Spring Training and prove that his surgically-repaired knee, which he injured while shagging fly balls in Kansas City last May 3, is sound. But Rivera estimated that the strength in his knee was a nine on a scale of 1 to 10, saying that he needs to complete running and agility drills to push that number to a resounding 10.
"I'm definitely expecting good things," Rivera said. "That's what I demand of myself. I'm looking for that or else I wouldn't be here."
Since Rivera is 43 years old and hasn't pitched in a game in nine months, even Girardi is eager to be told that he doesn't need to be concerned about Rivera's knee anymore. I wouldn't doubt Rivera. I think Rivera, who is as impressive and dedicated as any athlete as I've ever covered, will return and be as good as he was in 2011 (1.91 earned run average with 44 saves in 49 chances) and in his truncated 2012 (2.16 ERA with five saves in six tries). And, even if Rivera is 90 percent of what he was, he will still be one of the best closers in baseball. Rivera said he may wear a knee brace all season as a precaution.
How long Rivera will continue pitching remained an unanswered question, although Rivera promised that he would give the answer soon. Rivera said he would reveal his plans for the future at "the right moment" and added that it wouldn't hurt reporters to wait another day or another week for the information. Later, Rivera said he will disclose if he is retiring after the season before Opening Day.
"I will give you that," Rivera said.
Rivera's injury occurred while shagging fly balls in batting practice, a routine he doesn't expect to change. That pregame ritual was Rivera's way of strengthening his legs and staying in shape. While Rivera said he would be careful, he stressed that he wants to do "whatever it takes to be myself again." The Yankees want the same thing this season, the same, dominant Rivera. Especially since this sounds like it could be his final season.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES