Most days, Mariano Rivera entered the game, retired the side and order, shook hands with Jorge Posada, and that was it. Rivera rarely blew save opportunities, and his record career save percentage of 89.28% (608/681) was only recently passed by Joe Nathan. Thus, the days when Rivera actually did blow a save caught fans off guard. In his regular season career, it's unlikely that any blown save was more shocking than his game against the Cleveland Indians on July 14, 2002.
Mo's '02 season was, until 2012, his most injury-plagued campaign. He suffered a groin strain and was on the DL for awhile, causing him to appear in just 45 games, his lowest total since his rookie '95 season. Even when Rivera did pitch, he did not seem like the Rivera of old. His 2.74 ERA and 2.88 FIP were unusually high for him. Regardless, an off-year by Rivera was still better than most relievers' normal years, and he only blew four saves on the season. Nothing could have prepared Yankees fans for Rivera's encounter with a 32-year-old utilityman named Bill Selby.
The 2002 Yankees were a very offense-driven team, but their primary starting pitching staff of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, and David Wells rarely let them down. Therefore, when the Yankees jumped out to a 7-0 lead, fans had every right to feel very comfortable about the rest of the game, considering the team's opponent. The Indians had won six of the previous seven AL Central titles, but many of their offensive stalwarts had left the team and the 2002 group lost 88 games. This performance had already caused manager Charlie Manuel to be dismissed prior to the July 14th game against the Yankees. Joel Skinner was the interim manager, and they didn't play any better under him (35-41).
The Tribe sent veteran southpaw Chuck Finley to the mound against Mike Mussina, and Finley did not get out of the 4th inning. He pitched only 3.1 innings surrendering seven runs, seven hits, and five walks, a rally that oddly featured only one extra-base hit by the powerful Yankees. The RBI singles came from an assortment of different players who had varying legacies with the Yankees: two each by Bernie Williams (Yankee legend) and Rondell White (Bad free agent signing), and one each by Robin Ventura (Decent season and a half in the Bronx), and Chris Widger (One of Jorge Posada's many backups). Lefty Jason Giambi also knocked an RBI double against Finley in the second, showing that the lefty starter didn't have it that day.
Mike Mussina shut out the Indians threw five innings, but surrendered three in the sixth on a three-run bomb by Jim Thome, who slugged 52 that year in his final Indians campaign until 2011. Ramiro Mendoza came on for Mussina in the seventh and gave up another run on an RBI double by shortstop Omar Vizquel. The longtime defensive ace was having one of his best career offensive seasons and had pretty much forced All-Star manager Joe Torre to take five shortstops with him to Milwaukee (Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Miguel Tejada, and Vizquel). The Yankees' pen held the 7-4 lead through the ninth inning though, when the man some called "Super Mario" entered the game.
The situation was about as ideal as possible for a save--the Yankees had a safe three-run lead, and Mo would be facing the bottom of the Indians' batting order to lead off the inning. However, the attack of the scrubs began with back-to-back singles by infielder John McDonald and catcher Eddie Perez. Both singles were line drives to right field, so it was not as though they were hitting bloops against the great Rivera. McDonald scored on a groundout to the cut the lead to two, and then Vizquel singled to put the tying run on base and the winning run at the plate in the form of slugger Ellis Burks. Burks would club 32 homers in '02, and he lined a double to left-center to make the score 7-6 and give the Indians a real chance to win the game. A single would likely win the game, but it was still conceivable for Rivera to escape the jam. The tying run had not yet scored, and Mo could often get strikeouts when he needed them.
After an obvious intentional walk to Thome, Rivera did get Travis Fryman to strike out. The strikeout was huge, as even a fly ball would have tied the game, and Rivera now had a very good chance to save the win. Up to the plate came utilityman Bill Selby. Selby did not last long in the big leagues and perhaps is best known for bestowing Indians DH Travis Hafner with the nickname "Pronk" (Project Donkey). In his five-year career, Selby hit a paltry .223/.279/.360 with 11 homers and a poor 59 wRC+. Due to injuries, he played more in '02 than any other year (65 games, 179 plate appearances), but still only hit .214/.278/.396. A Hall of Fame pitcher like Rivera could face a scrub like Selby 100 times and Selby might get a hit twice. Selby stunned everyone by hitting a long line drive in the air down the right field line that was nearing the foul pole. It went foul by less than a foot. Improbable ending narrowly avoided, right? Nonetheless, one strike away from victory on a 2-2 pitch, Mo threw a pitch that Selby slugged over the right field wall for a walk-off grand slam.
Nobody understood how Rivera gave up six runs and five hits in just two-thirds of an inning. Vizquel admitted, "This one came out of nowhere." Mussina mused, "To have this happen to anyone's closer would be tough to believe. To have it happen to ours is even more tough to believe." In typical Rivera fashion, he put the horrible game behind him: "There is nothing I can do, it is over. This was a tough one. I just try to make pitches and sometimes it doesn't work that well. The pitch was where I wanted it. He hit my best pitch." It was Rivera's career-worst relief appearance. The Indians won 10-7.
Bill Selby. How? I still don't know. I don't think Selby even knows.