He was friend, mentor and ... The Boss

NEW YORK -- New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera said the past few days following George Steinbrenner's death have been difficult. The Yankees ace closer said he's been "missing" the only Boss he's known in his 20 years of pro ball.

So it was more than fitting that Rivera went out on Friday night and paid tribute to Steinbrenner in a way that would mean the most to the longtime Yankees owner -- he pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the win in the Bombers' walk-off 5-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

"The Boss would've been proud," Rivera said after getting through an eventful ninth to lower his ERA to 1.02.

About three hours before he took the mound, Rivera placed two roses wrapped in white and blue ribbon on home plate during a stirring pregame ceremony to honor Steinbrenner and longtime Yankee PA announcer Bob Sheppard, who died Sunday.

Rivera said he was emotional during the pregame ceremony. But in the ninth inning, he found it easy to focus on baseball. After all, it's what Steinbrenner would've wanted him to do.

"He would say that," said Rivera, who was pitching for the first time in eight days. "We had a job to do so let's go get it done."

Rivera entered a 4-4 tie game in the ninth. He surprisingly picked off B.J. Upton at first after the Rays' leadoff hitter reached on an infield single. The pickoff was Rivera's first since 2003 and the fifth of his career.

Rivera thought Upton never should have reached base, but Alex Rodriguez couldn't make a play on a sharp liner by Upton because he was trying to avoid the barrell of Upton's bat, which was flying toward his head. Rivera (3-1) then got Carl Crawford to fly out and struck out Evan Longoria on a 2-2 cutter to end the ninth.

Rivera, 40, was one of the first Yankees to jump out of the dugout to celebrate Nick Swisher's walkoff single that scored Curtis Granderson in the bottom of the inning.

"In a sense, Mo opened it up and he closed it out," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

Before the game, Rivera shared his most-cherished Steinbrenner memory, which dates back to the 2000 World Series against the New York Mets.

Rivera said he made a bet with The Boss before the Subway Series: If the Yankees beat the Mets, Steinbrenner would fly Rivera on his private plane to the destination of the reliever's choice. If the Yankees lost, Rivera would take Steinbrenner out to dinner at the restaurant of the owner's choice.

"And we won, thank God," Rivera said. "The second day after we won, he called and made sure that I was ready for my trip with my family."

Rivera also recalled Steinbrenner -- who died on Tuesday morning after suffering a heart attack at his home in Tampa, Fla. -- as a mentor and motivator.

"The character that he has and the willing heart that he has, that always made him special," Rivera said. "[I'm] definitely missing him. ... For the first time, you know for sure he ain't gonna be here, period."

Rivera said he was away on vacation Tuesday morning when he first saw television news reports that Steinbrenner had died.

He said he "didn't want to believe it" at first, so he called Yankees traveling secretary Ben Tuliebitz to see if it was true.

After Tuliebitz confirmed the news, Rivera was shaken and somber.

"He sounded like a member of his family passed away," Tuliebitz recalled on Friday.

Rivera said the days following Steinbrenner's death were "hard"and added that he had "a lot of things going though my mind" prior to the game.

But Rivera cleared his head in the ninth inning on Friday and found the perfect way to pay tribute to Steinbrenner on Friday night -- with a win.