For the overwhelming majority of Mariano Rivera’s career, he was the last man on the mound.
He began his career as a starter, moved to middle relief. However, by his second full season, he was the closer, a role he wouldn’t relinquish.
And yet, in the final game of Rivera’s career, he was not the last man on the mound. Instead, the person who got the final out for the Yankees on Sept. 26, 2013 was Matt Daley, an undrafted free agent hailing from Long Island.
The veteran right-hander was an unlikely candidate to relieve Rivera, not that anyone was qualified for that spot. This is, after all, the future unanimous Hall of Famer, the greatest of all-time.
Daley, meanwhile, had a 0.00 ERA on the season but had faced just 14 batters. He had missed the entire 2012 season with shoulder surgery and was a September call-up after playing in Scranton and Trenton for five months.
It had been a long, winding road to the mound on that September day. A standout at Bucknell, he had Tommy John surgery and went undrafted in 2004, settling for Minor League deal with the Rockies. He sepnt 2006 in the South Atlantic League, then went through High-A and into Double-A in 2006. Still, it took him until 2008 to reach Triple-A and until nearly his 27th birthday to make the Major Leagues.
But Daley became a useful reliever in Colorado. He put up a 4.24 ERA in consecutive years in 2009 and 2010 over 74 1/3 innings while striking out 73 batters.
Then came his shoulder surgery in 2011 and the Rockies let him go. The Yankees scooped him up on an MiLB deal and waited a year for him to return to the mound.
At 31, Daley had developed into a quirky reliever with a motion that took him close to the ground and finished with a sidearm flourish. It’s not pretty, but it works.
Back to Sept. 26, Daley was told to prepare to take over for Rivera and came in, taking the ball from Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte and the crowd poured adoration on Rivera.
Imagine this: The right-hander had to warm up while the crowd cheering at Game 7 of the World Series levels, though not for him. Daley told reporters that he had to keep looking into the dugout, knowing Mo was going to come out for a curtain call.
“I kept looking back over my shoulder to see because I knew he was going to get a curtain call, obviously,” Daley told Newsday. “I wanted to make sure I stopped taking my warmup pitches when he came back out. I would throw a pitch, look back over, throw a pitch, look back over.”
Daley faced Ben Zobrist in an otherwise unremarkable 4-0 Rays win and struck out the switch-hitter. There’s no video of this play on the internet, no easily accessible archive or tribute video. All you can see is fleeting clips of Daley walking to the mound and warming up in the top video as Rivera takes in the crowd. Instead of a standing ovation, Daley simply went back to the dugout where he’d have a brief moment with the man he relieved.
“Once I struck out Zobrist, I came into the dugout,” he told Newsday. “I saw Mo just sitting there, taking it all in. I just went up to him and I said, ‘I know you’ve had a lot of amazing experiences on the baseball field. But I just want you to know, for me, this is the coolest experience I’ve ever had on a baseball field. So thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.’
Rivera told him, ‘Nice job’ while basking in the moment, something Daley will share in as the ultimate trivia answer.
In 2014, Daley returned to the Yankees had had a 5.02 ERA over 14.1 MLB innings while going between New York and Scranton. No more legends to relieve, no more big moments in front of a standing-room-only crowd.
It’d be the end for him as a pro, though he would stay in the Yankees organization. Daley still works for the team as a scout. In 2017, Brian Cashman credited some of the Yankees success in the ALCS against the Astros to the former pitcher, who’d spent a month as the advance scout on Houston.