Rivera had been close, converting a career-high 36 save opportunities, the longest active stretch in the Major Leagues. Jogging out of the bullpen with three outs to go, Rivera had permitted just one earned run over 33 appearances, compiling a downright robotic 0.27 ERA.
"That's why I'm there. I've been there before," Rivera said. "You know that those games are going to happen. You move on. It's done already and you can't change it. You just have to come back."
The owner of 522 saves, most in American League history, Rivera appeared well on the way to another when he struck out Seattle's Mike Carp swinging for the second out of the ninth inning, looking at empty bases and pinch-hitter Mike Sweeney limbering in the on-deck circle.
But Sweeney connected on a cutter that caught too much of the plate, launching a booming double that one-hopped the fence out of the reach of racing center fielder Brett Gardner, putting the tying run 180 feet away.
With first base open, Girardi elected to pitch to Ichiro, and Rivera tried to get a pitch inside. It wasn't in far enough for Ichiro, who clipped his fourth hit of the evening into the right-field seats for his 10th home run of the season and his second walk-off hit in as many games.
"It's difficult with Ichiro," Rivera said. "He can do a lot of things. Definitely, if you make mistakes, he's going to hurt you."
The Yankees headed to the ninth feeling good about their chances after A.J. Burnett had given them seven strong innings of one-run ball, with Phil Hughes hurling a perfect eighth to gently place the ball into Rivera's hands.
When Rivera blew his last save opportunity on a game-winning home run, it happened in far more devastating fashion -- on the afternoon of April 15, 2007, when Marco Scutaro launched a dinger inside the left-field foul pole at the Oakland Coliseum to crush the Yankees.
But with a healthy advantage in the American League East, the Yankees could afford to look at the bigger picture. Their magic number to clinch the division remained at 10, but with the Rangers' loss to the Angels in Arlington, the Yankees' magic number to secure a postseason berth fell to just three.
Besides, perhaps the most encouraging signs came on behalf of Burnett. The right-hander's previous starts had been marred by an inability to avoid the big inning, faring 1-5 with a 6.14 ERA in his past nine outings.
Burnett spent part of his time between starts watching videotape of his best games from the 2008 season with the Blue Jays, the career year that earned him an $82.5 million deal from the Yankees, examining mechanics and making mental notes.
The time proved well spent. While Burnett said he wouldn't get too excited about the outcome of Friday's start, he found better command of his pitches and kept Seattle in check, holding the Mariners to one run on seven hits with three walks and six strikeouts.
"I pretty much put the ball where I wanted to tonight, and I felt good in my delivery," Burnett said. "I'm going to remember what that felt like and try to repeat it."
"A.J. has such great stuff," Johnny Damon said. "I think right now he just needs to work on that pinpoint accuracy that we saw earlier in the season. He's been a little shaky here and there lately, but A.J. is a great pitcher that is going to be great for us during the postseason."
With Burnett ready to go his deepest into a start since an Aug. 17 complete game at Oakland, the Yankees provided an early lead against Felix Hernandez, the late winner as he pitched his second complete game of the year.
Derek Jeter opened the game with a single, moved up on Damon's ground-rule double to right and scored on an Alex Rodriguez sacrifice fly.
New York took the lead in the sixth on an unearned run. Damon opened the frame with his second double of the contest, racing to third on a passed ball charged to catcher Rob Johnson and scoring on Mark Teixeira's sacrifice fly.
Seattle broke through against Burnett in the third inning, as Franklin Gutierrez stroked a one-out double and scored on Jose Lopez's bloop single, an inning that opened with Ichiro being picked off first base.
And though he called it luck, Burnett also caught Ichiro leaning in the seventh inning while representing the tying run to squelch a potential rally.
"Focus is the bottom line, not letting things bother me," Burnett said. "I just worried about the next pitch instead of worrying about what might happen. I took it on myself to get out of jams."
It was a promising sign that the Yankees would see something they hadn't in a while, a Burnett victory. But Rivera's surprise ending gave them something more unexpected altogether.
"It doesn't happen too often, and hopefully he gets this one off his chest pretty quickly," Damon said. "Hopefully this means he's going to be perfect for us throughout the playoffs. We know Mo is going to bounce back."