St. Petersburg, FL – What could be Mariano Rivera’s final Major League season began with an Opening Day blown save, as the Rays toppled the all-time saves leader to post a 7-6 victory on Friday at Tropicana Field.
After belting a grand slam in the first inning off Yankees starter CC Sabathia, Carlos Pena delivered the game-winning hit in the ninth off the 42-year-old Rivera, who has strongly hinted that 2012 will be his last go-round in the Majors.
“That’s bad — you don’t want to start the season this way,” said Rivera, who converted 44 of 49 save chances last year and owns a career total of 603. “But at the same time, thank God it’s only one game. We’ll come back tomorrow and play hard again.”
Desmond Jennings opened the ninth inning with a single up the middle on a 1-2 pitch that Rivera left over the plate, and Ben Zobrist quickly followed with a triple to the gap in right-center field, tying the game at 6.
Two intentional walks loaded the bases with no outs, and Rivera struck out Sean Rodriguez swinging with the Yankees employing a five-man infield. Pena cleared them all, connecting for a blast that struck the wall in left-center field.
“It’s early,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “It is the first day of the year. You don’t expect these guys to be perfect. He’s not going to be perfect the whole year, but I believe he’s going to be really, really, really good.”
The three-hour, 44-minute affair took on the feeling of a playoff game late, long after it was apparent to a paid crowd of 34,078 that a predicted pitchers’ duel between Sabathia and the Rays’ James Shields wouldn’t materialize.
“It’s definitely weird when you have two guys of that caliber going at it and there’s runs on the board,” said Raul Ibanez, who gave the Yankees a 6-4 lead with a three-run homer in the third inning, among his four RBIs. “It’s baseball. Things happen.”
New York needed Ibanez’s shot, his first hit in a Yankees uniform, to claw out of a four-run deficit created in the first inning when Girardi was scorched while playing the percentages.
With two outs, Girardi ordered Sabathia to issue an intentional walk to Rodriguez, a light-hitting shortstop, loading the bases in a trade for a left-on-left matchup with Pena.
Girardi noted that Pena (4-for-35 with 19 strikeouts) entered the game with little career success against Sabathia when compared to the right-handed-hitting Rodriguez, who was 6-for-21 with two doubles off the Yankees’ ace.
“It didn’t work,” Girardi said. “I felt good about CC getting him out, but it didn’t work. He got behind in the count.”
In his first at-bat since rejoining the Rays, Pena launched a full-count offering into the right-field seats, a blast on a belt-high fastball that was estimated at 428 feet.
“Joe made the move,” Sabathia said. “It was the right move. If I make the pitches, we have nothing to talk about.”
Luckily for the Yankees, Shields seemed off his game as well, lasting five innings as he turned in his fourth Opening Day start. The right-hander permitted six runs on nine hits, walking three and striking out three in a 104-pitch effort that included a wild pitch and a hit batsman.
“Obviously, the Ibanez home run wasn’t the one I wanted,” Shields said. “I thought I was making some pitches. I was getting behind in the count. I threw some quality pitches early in the count. It just wasn’t going my way today.”
The Yankees could have still used more. They left the bases loaded in the second, fourth and seventh innings.
“I don’t ever remember scoring that many runs off [Shields],” Mark Teixeira said. “He’s been really tough off us. We did get a lot of guys on base, but it’d be nice to get a couple more.”
Sabathia allowed five runs on eight hits in six innings, marking his ninth career Opening Day start and fourth with the Yankees. Sabathia walked three — one intentionally — and struck out seven.
Throwing 63 of 104 pitches for strikes, he grooved a 93-mph fastball that Evan Longoria hit deep into the left-field seats for a fourth-inning homer, pulling Tampa Bay back within a run.
“[The problem was] fastball command,” Sabathia said. “But it got better later, so I can take something from that and work in the bullpen and be ready to go four days from now.”
Yankees reliever David Robertson briefly held the slim margin in the eighth after a walk and a single put runners at the corners, as “Houdini” recorded three straight strikeouts to escape — including one on an attempted squeeze that Jose Molina fouled away.
Girardi acknowledged that permitting a victory to squirt away on Opening Day hurt a little more than many of the 161 scheduled games to follow.
“Probably a little bit,” Girardi said. “I think everybody looks forward to this day when you’re going through Spring Training and you’re going through the winter. It will be more business as usual tomorrow.”