By Jack Etkin, for BucknellBison.com
Reliever Matt Daley capped an unexpected September with the New York Yankees by retiring the Houston Astros in order in the 12th and 13th innings Sunday in the final game of the regular season. And when the New York Yankees erupted for four runs in the 14th to win 5-1, Daley ended up savoring his first American League victory.
It was a thrill for Daley, whose one National League win came in 2009 with the Colorado Rockies, before shoulder problems led to shoulder surgery and a full season rehabilitating. But Sunday on the mound at Minute Maid Park was nothing like Thursday night at Yankee Stadium.
That's when Daley, who graduated from Bucknell in 2004, relieved legendary closer Mariano Rivera after an emotional visit on the mound from longtime teammates Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte to take Rivera out of what proved to be his final game.
“It's a nice way to end the season,” Daley said, “but compared to Mariano's last night and coming in to relieve him, it's not even close. That is something I will remember until the day I die. I'll be telling that story for a long, long time.”
Rather than go to the mound himself, manager Joe Girardi opted for something different, something dramatic. He sent Jeter and Pettitte to take out Rivera after he retired the first two Tampa Bay batters he faced in the ninth with the Rays leading 4-0.
“When I saw them coming out, I made sure I waited in the bullpen for Mariano to walk off the mound, because I knew it was going to be a little while,” Daley said. “I didn't want to be that guy who's running in while they were doing their thing on the mound and I'm kind of in the background waiting for them.
“I didn't want to be the guy who ruined the moment. So once I saw Mariano walk off, that's when I ran towards the mound. And I got out there, Jeter just shakes my hand, Pettitte hands me the ball. And all I could say to them was, 'This is a really cool moment right now.' ”
And their response?
“I don't even know,” Daley said. “I don't remember what they said. But that's all I could just think about as it was happening.
“I took my warmup pitches, but I kept looking over my shoulder back in the dugout, because the crowd's chanting, 'Mariano.' So I know he's getting the curtain call. Again, I don't want to be the guy who's taking his warmup pitches as he gets a curtain call.
“Each pitch, I'd look back over. And finally he came out. Then I stopped taking my warmup pitches and was clapping for him on the mound and just tried to enjoy the moment as much as I could, knowing that I still had a job to do.”
Somebody had to relieve Rivera. Daley, 31, was an unlikely somebody. He was not drafted out of Bucknell and signed with the Rockies as a free agent after his senior season. Daley, who was born in Queens, and grew up on Long Island in Garden City, made 231 appearances in the minors before making his major league debut at Coors Field on April 25, 2009, facing four batters in a scoreless inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Daley pitched in 57 games that year for the Rockies and went 1-1 with a 4.24 ERA. He made the Rockies' Opening Day roster in 2010 but spent three months on the disabled list beginning in mid-June with right shoulder inflammation and ended up 0-1 with a 4.24 ERA in 28 appearances for the Rockies.
Daley began the 2011 season at Triple-A Colorado Springs where after 17 games, he was recalled by the Rockies. The Rockies recalled him May 20 but after seven games, he ended up on the disabled list in early June with shoulder soreness. In August, he underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery that included the repair of a labrum tear and removal of a bone chip.
The Rockies took Daley off their 40-man roster after the 2011 season, and he signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent. Daley spent all of 2012 rehabilitating his shoulder.
“I'd be lying if I didn't think at times last year I was done,” he said. “My arm wasn't responding the way I wanted it to and thought it should. But talking to a lot of guys that had the surgery I did, they just told me that it really takes two years to feel good again and sometimes up to three years to feel like yourself again.”
Daley began the 2013 season in the Yankees' extended spring training. He then methodically worked his way through their farm system _ four games at high Class A, 10 at Double-A and 30 at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre where Daley went 2-3 with a 2.54 ERA in 30 games with six walks and 59 strikeouts in 39 innings.
When the Triple-A season ended, Daley went home to Hoboken, N.J. And that's where he was late in the afternoon on Sept. 6, when the Yankees called. He drove 25 minutes to Yankee Stadium and that night made his Yankees debut with a scoreless inning against the Boston Red Sox. In all, Daley made seven scoreless appearances for the Yankees in September, totaling six innings.
“I kept telling myself even throughout this month,” Daley said, “this isn't the end, this is the beginning of something else, because I'm happy that I'm back, but I don't want it to end this way. I want it to keep going.”
Daley didn't allow a hit in his final five games and finished with no walks and eight strikeouts. One of those strikeouts came when Daley took over for Rivera and threw three pitches ― fastball, curveball, fastball ― to Ben Zobrist of the Rays and struck him out swinging to end the ninth.
“The only game where I have had that feeling was my debut,” said Daley, who then went into the dugout and saw Rivera sitting there.
“He was taking it all in, I could kind of tell,” Daley said. “So I went up to him, and I just said, 'I know you've had a lot of amazing experiences on the baseball field, but I just want you to know that for me, this is the most amazing experience I've ever had being a part of baseball. So I just wanted to thank you for allowing me to be part of it.'
“He just had a big smile on his face and told me, 'Good job.' I just wanted to make sure he knew how important it was to me, because it was just a special, special moment.”