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Not Half as Fun as Shark Week

Mariano Rivera's recent struggles have the pitcher and everyone who follows him looking for answers. (AP)

A few quick morning links for a Friday:

• I was in the Yankee Stadium press box for Thursday's game, which for the most part was a fairly pleasant afternoon highlighted by home runs from Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano (the latter a game-breaking grand slam following a two-out error) to back a solid effort by Bartolo Colon. Alas, Mariano Rivera's ninth-inning hiccup — a three-run pinch-homer allowed to Russell Branyan — changed the texture of the game considerably, for it was the third outing in a row in which he'd allowed a run, and the second in which he'd been taken deep. From my writeup:

Since assuming the closer duties in 1997, Rivera has had just seven stretches in which he's allowed a run in three straight games, roughly one every two seasons. However, three of those stretches have come since the middle of last May; he also yielded runs in back-to-back appearances in late April, something that on average he's done less than twice per year during his reign over the ninth inning. Prior to this, he had allowed homers in back-to-back games only two other times, first in August 2003 and then in April 2009.

The two home runs have tripled Rivera's season total in a matter of days, but even now, he has allowed only 0.6 homers per nine, a click higher than his career mark of 0.5 per nine. The rest of his numbers still suggest he's more than a little dominant. While his strikeout rate (7.8 per nine) isn't what it used to be, it's a full K higher than last season's mark, and not appreciably different from the 8.4 per nine he averaged from 2002-2010. Meanwhile, he's walking exactly one hitter per nine—that's half his already microscopic career rate—and his strikeout-to-unintentional-walk ratio of 9.8 (39 to 4) is the best among any pitcher with 40 innings this season, not to mention his best since 2008. As for his five blown saves, he averaged more than six a year from 1997 through 2003, and still managed to help the Yankees win five pennants and three world championships. When the money's on the table, he's still the man you want.

No matter how short the slump or how rare his meltdowns may be, Rivera's every hiccup tends to set off a panic as well as a frenzy of overanalysis: This must be the beginning of the end. He's 41 years old, a surefire Hall of Famer, the greatest closer and perhaps even the greatest post-season performer of all time, but in a role where three bad outings in a row often costs a less heralded pitcher a job, his run has to end sometime, right? His velocity is down. He's struggling against lefties. He's fatter and balder than he was 10 years ago, with more surgical scars. He's a mere mortal; if his cutter doesn't cut, he bleeds. It's WWWMW (What's Wrong With Mariano Week) again, practically a rite of summer.

...At the beginning of July after blowing his fourth save of the season, Rivera missed five games due to soreness in his triceps, but he says that right now he feels healthy and isn't worried about his velocity readings. "I don't go by velocity," he explained. "I'm a pitcher that puts the ball basically where I want to, and if I don't get there, I won't get the result that I wanted to get."

For a moment, he sounded more than a little bit like a teammate who's spent far more time at this end of the frustration spectrum, A.J. Burnett. "It's not that I've been missing and missing and missing and missing. It's just one pitch. It happens. We always have this conversation."

Because his greatness is so routine, his saves often so nondescript, I haven't had many opportunities to cover Rivera during my short time with access to the inside of the Yankee clubhouse, though I did get to ask him a question about closing out the game in which Derek Jeter collected his 3,000th hit. There was more than a little frustration in his voice as he described his recent woes, something that most Yankee fans — or even reporters — aren't used to hearing. The man says he feels healthy, however, and that he's struggling with nothing more than the occasional lapse in location, and his manager agrees. The numbers suggest this is an isolated occurrence, not a harbinger of doom. Let's hope that's the case.

Elsewhere in the piece, I've got stuff about Colon's effort, a bit more info on the rotation quandary — which has boiled down to a choice between Burnett and Phil Hughes, a topic I'm sure we'll cover in more depth in the coming days — and a summary of what I had to say about Granderson here yesterday.

• I spent a fair bit of time talking about the Burnett situation, the generalities of covering the Yankees from the perspective of a BBWAA Johnny-Come-Lately, and the burning issues of the day at the Baseball Prospectus Up and In Podcast, which went up yesterday afternoon at BP and at iTunes as well. Normally hosted by prospect hounds Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks, the podcast ranks among the most popular sports yaks on the web, and it's built quite a following. I've guested on the show a few times, so when Parks' unavailability due to injury opened up a spot, I took a shot at Wally Pipping him. It was a whole lot of fun.

• While there's plenty to celebrate about the aforementioned Granderson's playing, his off-field actions are worth celebrating as well. This past week the cerebral center fielder spent time talking to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal about the connections between the way the game is promoted and his desire to reverse the trend of low participation among African-Americans:

I think the advertisement of the game — whether it’s action, excitement, flash, whatever it is — can help with the 'cool’ factor of the game, and the presentation of the game among kids," Granderson said.

"You have a lot of kids say that it’s not a cool sport. Even me, growing up, a number of kids would come to me and say, ‘Why are you playing this sport so much and not as much basketball and football?’ Those are the cool ones.

"I like what basketball is doing, what football is doing," Granderson continued. "Why can’t we do as much, since we’re America’s pastime? The end result would be promotion of the game itself, which in turn could lead to an increase in more kids and African-American kids playing the game."

Granderson is a fine ambassador for the entire sport, not just the Yankees. Baseball is lucky to have him.