Jason Kubel vs. Mariano Rivera

Perhaps Jason Kubel's finest big league moment: a game-winning grand slam off of Mariano Rivera last May.

Given all the wonderful things to talk about from last night's game, it sure feels strange to be writing about a single at-bat that turned out to have zero impact on the game's outcome.

In the ninth inning of last night's glorious victory over the Yankees, with the Twins having just tied the game during a dramatic eighth inning rally, Jason Kubel stepped in against Mariano Rivera and delivered a lead-off single. As I said, the hit turned out to have no impact on the outcome of the game - Danny Valencia, Justin Morneau, and Matt Tolbert were quickly retired after Kubel's single - but it was a pretty significant hit in terms of win expectancy, shifting the odds of a Twins' victory from a coin flip to a 60% favorite.

While it didn't impact the outcome of the game, that at-bat did give us a chance to see another chapter in what has been, for my money, one of the more oddly fascinating hitter-pitcher match-ups in baseball. While they've only squared off 12 times since the Twins outfielder entered the league in 2004, Kubel and Rivera's relationship has been filled with a remarkable amount of drama.

Continued after the jump.

For Kubel, Mariano Rivera has been on the mound for what were, arguably, both his best and his most embarrassing moments at the plate.

The best is obvious: it came during last year's version of the impossible-to-believe, early-season, late-inning, come-from-behind Twins victory over the hated Yankees. During a mid-May game at Yankee Stadium, Kubel delivered a two-out, eighth-inning grand slam off of Rivera to end the Twins 12-game losing streak against the Evil Empire. As Kubel said at the time, "This might be the biggest hit I ever got."

Kubel's lowest moment came six years earlier. While Jason was just 22, he put together an impressive 67 plate appearances during a September call-up, and earned himself a spot on the Twins playoff roster. The Twins won Game One, and mounted an impressive comeback late in Game Two. The Twins tied the game in the top of the eighth, and had runners on second and third with just one out. A single could have given the Twins a two-run lead, and, perhaps, a two games to none lead over the Yankees.

Kubel was due up, and the 22-year old dug in against the greatest postseason reliever in the history of the game. The result was, perhaps, predictable. But it was still excruciating to watch. Rivera threw three pitches, moving up the ladder each time. The third pitch, as I recall, was at or above eye level. Kubel swung wildly, clearly (and understandably) overmatched by Rivera. The sequence lasted just seconds, but the memory of Kubel flailing wildly at Rivera's cutters stuck in Twins fans' memories for years.

After Kubel's strikeout, Christian Guzman tapped back to Rivera, and the rally was over. The Twins lost the game in the twelfth, and went on to drop games three and four, losing the series three games to one. In fact, the Twins haven't won a postseason game since that night.

Kubel being overmatched by Rivera in the postseason certainly wasn't limited to 2004. Kubel has faced Mo three times in the postseason, and has struck out in all three at-bats.

But don't let that fool you. Believe it or not, Jason Kubel has been one of Mariano Rivera's toughest outs in his Hall of Fame career. The following chart shows the hitters with the highest OPS against Rivera (minimum 10 plate appearances):

PA

AB

H

2B

3B

HR

BB

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

Edgar Martinez

23

19

11

3

0

2

3

0.579

0.652

1.053

1.705

Sandy Alomar

13

13

6

2

0

1

0

0.462

0.462

0.846

1.308

Aubrey Huff

21

20

8

2

0

2

1

0.400

0.429

0.800

1.229

Jason Kubel

12

11

5

0

0

1

1

0.455

0.500

0.727

1.227

Magglio Ordonez

15

14

7

2

0

0

1

0.500

0.533

0.643

1.176

Paul Sorrento

13

9

4

1

0

0

4

0.444

0.615

0.556

1.171

Jose Guillen

11

10

3

0

1

1

0

0.300

0.364

0.800

1.164

Mo Vaughn

13

12

5

0

0

1

1

0.417

0.462

0.667

1.128

Damion Easley

11

9

3

0

0

1

1

0.333

0.455

0.667

1.121

Paul Konerko

14

12

5

0

0

1

1

0.417

0.429

0.667

1.095

That's right: over Mariano Rivera's 17-year career, he's faced 171 batters at least 10 times. Only three of those hitters have posted a higher OPS against him than Kubel. And, yes, these numbers do include Kubel's three postseason strikeouts against Rivera. His regular season line against Mo, in nine PAs, is .625/.667/1.000.

If I was a better storyteller, I'd write something here about Kubel taking out his revenge on Rivera for the embarrassment he suffered during that fateful at-bat in the 2004 ALDS. Instead, I'm content to reflect on the numbers, and the compelling storyline that has developed between an all-time great and an ultimately forgettable corner outfielder. A storyline that was continued last night, though overshadowed by a much more important Twins victory.

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