Steven Goldman's special installment of The Pinstriped Bible has some excellent analysis regarding these Yankees in the ALDS. He points out how fickle the media has been, questioning their questioning of this Yankee club's shortcomings: "Here we are in October, and some still don't know the team they have been watching since February."
Goldman dispels a couple of myths about this Yankee team: that they're not patient at the plate (they led the majors in walks by a wide margin, and drew more than all of Torre's other Yankee teams save the '99 model), and that they're a bottom-feeding team (any team that wins 100 is). He also explores the Yanks' frighteningly bad defense:
The Torre/Cashman Yankees take a lot of chances with their defense to improve their offense...T he only problem with this formulation is that if you're going to be matched up against a team that is not running a walks and power offense... but puts the ball in play, you're going to have unusual pressure put on the defense. All of the shortcomings, additionally magnified by the pressure of the postseason, come oozing out. This is what killed the Yankees in the 2002 playoffs and it is hurting them now. The key is to out-hit the mistakes, and the Yankees have not.
Spot on. Goldman goes on to point out that in the long run, the exposure of the Yanks' defensive woes is a good thing: "The question that this ALDS is forcing the Yankees to evaluate is where they have crossed the line from good hit/some field to good hit/no field. This is a good thing, especially if it means they will spend the offseason confronting the 2004 disposition of Bernie Williams." Good stuff.
Also on the Yankee tip, but from a different angle, is Replacement Level Yankee Weblog's Larry Mahnken, who's feeling a bit jaded these days. Comparing the hopes of this Yankee team to seeing his first World Series champ in '96:
Now, it's not the same. It's hardly even fun. Sure, if they win the World Series, I'll be happy, I'll float for weeks. But if they lose... they're not supposed to lose, just like they weren't supposed to win in 1996. Thursday night's game, as good a game as has been pitched by any Yankee in this postseason run, was not an exhilirating experience for me--not until the bottom of the seventh. I sat there watching, expecting the worst, waiting for the defense to blow the game. The win was relief, not joy.
After a while, winning does get boring. Oh, poor Yankees fan, you're thinking to yourself sarcastically--and rightfully so. I've experienced more joy in the past decade than the fan of any other baseball team has, because my team has been more successful in the postseason for past decade than any other baseball team. I'm lucky. But after awhile, the joy of winning lessens, because you start to expect it.
I cannot relate to a Cubs fan. Ninety-five years. This isn't the Red Sox, failures in the World Series for eighty-five years--this is the Cubbies, who haven't won a postseason series of any kind since 1908. And if a 19-year old kid had thought to touch second base, they might not have won that series either.
They're one game away from ending that streak. One game away from advancing to a higher postseason round for the first time ever. And for Cubs fans, that would be pure joy. Even if they lost the NLCS, even if they were swept, Cubs fans would finally have something to celebrate. It wouldn't be their fondest hope, but for this year, it would be good enough.
About the Cubs and their fans, I agree with Larry and wish them nothing but the best -- who wouldn't love to see Dusty Baker stick it to the organization which let him go? I mean, besides Barry Bonds.
But about getting bored of winning... um, no. I'm lucky enough to have been blessed with a couple of World Champion Dodger teams in my youth (my first champs were actually the 1978-79 Seattle Supersonics of DJ, Gus, and Downtown Freddie Brown). Having grown up rooting against the Bronx Zoo, I didn't come around to the Yanks until '96 when I had been in the city for a year and a half, and Torre's eminently decent bunch won me over. If that makes me a bandwagoneer unworthy of your time, hey, I've heard it all before.
But the '98 team was like no other, and their championship was something special between me and my friends; it was the first year we took up our partial season ticket package, spent a good chunk of summer at the ballpark together, and attended our first World Series game. In '99 I was actually at Yankee Stadium for the clincher, singing Frank Sinatra with 56,000 fans, and that's the Top of the Heap; I wish that every baseball fan (except the ones from Boston -- tee hee hee) got to experience its equivalent once.
The 2000 Subway Series brings back some unpleasant personal memories -- a breakup, a lovers' triangle in the midst of my friends -- to the point that I recall the Yanks' loss in 2001 with a bit more fondness. After all, that team was all about healing the heart, and even though those Yanks came up short, they did more for this city than even the previous three winners did.
The sensation of winning isn't quite as heightened when it's repeated, but anytime your team wins after a drought, it all feels new again, and it doesn't matter if that drought's two years or twenty-five. So while I won't throw myself under the 4 train if the Yanks don't win, I say this to the Sox fans and the A's fans and the Twins fans pining for a breakthrough in the AL, and to those fans of the four long-suffering NL teams as well: with all due respect, I hope my team crushes yours.
As I relearned last year, even if my team falls by the wayside, I love the tension of October baseball. Butterlies in the stomach, cold sweat in the commercial breaks, living and dying with every pitch, waiting with anticipation for the next game, soaking up every victory like it's the world's best pasta sauce. Some things never get old.
For six and a half innings, this was a tight ballgame, Pettitte and Minnesota's Brad Radke matching each other with virutally mistake-free pitching. Taking advantage of the stinging cold, Pettitte pitched inside and broke a heap of bats, with Torii Hunter's fifth-inning homer being the only hard-hit ball. Radke gave up a run in the first as the Yanks loaded the bases with none out, but limiting them to that solitary score was a moral victory which he seemed to build upon. From the second and through the sixth inning, he allowed only three baserunners, and it was only when he hit 0-for-22 Nick Johnson in the butt to start the seventh that the tide began to turn. Juan Rivera's successful sac bunt chased Radke, and then hell broke loose on reliever Latroy Hawkins' watch: an RBI single by Soriano, a throwing error on Derek Jeter's chopper, and then a two-run single by the slumping Jason Giambi to open up a 4-1 lead. In no mood to mess with the likes of Jeff Nelson, Torre summoned Mariano Rivera for a two-inning save, and the Yankee closer was perfect in nailing down the win.
Andra and I watched the game at home, my once-constant group of fellow Yankee diehards having dispersed to the point where we can't even be bothered to unite for a must-win first-round game. But my gal was a great companion. Throughout the ballgame, she remained more optimistic than I did, and we tried to find something to improve the Yankee mojo. During the seventh inning stretch, we went for the kill. Andra proclaimed that a batch of Rally Popcorn was in order, and so we paused the TiVo while she popped a batch on the stove in about three minutes flat. Waiting in anticipation, I turned my Yankees cap inside out (as was the style at the time), just before watching Johnson get drilled.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire blamed Radke's hitting Johnson on the lengthy festivities during the seventh-inning stretch, when Irish tenor Ronan Tynan sang "God Bless America." From the Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
"I know there are very good reasons they are singing this in New York," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But they make a full production out of it... and, meantime, my pitcher is over there trying to stay loose."
"It's ridiculous that my starting pitcher has to wait six, seven minutes before he pitches in the seventh, and their guy gets the normal break," Gardenhire said. "What happens? He's throwing great, and he goes out there and the first hitter... he plunks him right in the rear end.
What was that about "no crying in baseball"? I'm no fan of the post-9/11 bombastic display of patriotism at our sporting events, but Gardenhire's complaints ring hollow. In the end, the stretch festivities at Yankee Stadium are just one element of a home-field advantage which the Twins, back in their decibel-heavy Metrodome, look forward to countering.
Radke, to his credit, didn't use the delay as an excuse and instead graciously praised Johnson for turning the other cheek: "Do anything to get on toward the end of the game. Tip your hat to him, took one for the team."
One of the other interesting side stories to the game was Giambi. Playing at considerably less than 100% (Baseball Prospectus' Will Carroll has been saying patellar tendinitis for months), Giambi's unable to drive off of his back leg, and the Twins' pitchers have been able to blow the ball by him. Booed for a wretched first game, Giambi struggled in the second one as well, striking out with two men on to end the fifth inning.But all of that changed in the seventh.According to ESPN's Buster Olney, Giambi's long-awaited redemption had an, um, interesting inspiration:
Giambi, the designated hitter, retreated to the clubhouse, where David Wells -- another member of the old guard -- approached him with a handful of magazines featuring clothing-free women, just trying to take the edge of Giambi. In the seventh inning, Giambi's two-run single capped a three-run rally. "I guess it works," Giambi said of the magazine treatment, "to help me relax."
Different strokes for different folks? Let's not go there...
So the series heads to Minnesota with both teams able to hold their chins up. By taking Game One, the Twins got the 0-13 and Mike Mussina monkeys off their back, showing themselves and everybody else that they belong on the same field as the Yanks. By taking Game Two, the Yanks siezed the momentum and can look forward to sending one of the all-time-greats, Roger Clemens, to the hill against the much less famous Kyle Lohse. They also broke a four-game postseason losing skid dating back to last year's inglorious loss to the Anaheim Angels, and looked as though they finally remembered just what the hell they're doing here -- and not a moment too soon.
Consider yourself warned. The Gang of Four weren't singing about short postseason series when they wrote "History's Bunk," but they may as well have been. As I pointed out prior to the opening of the Yankees-Twins series on Tuesday, the Yanks had beaten the Twins in 13 straight games over the past two seasons, and Game One starter Mike Mussina owned a 20-2 record against them in his career, all of which meant very little. The Minnesota Twins apparently paid close attention, because they survived the early departure of starter Johan Santana to beat the sloppy Yanks 3-1, getting on the good foot in a series in which they arrived as heavy underdogs.
That special October aura was lacking from Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, in part because it was still September and in part because the sun was shining. Major League Baseball and the Fox network deemed the Chicago Cubs' trip to the postseason more worthy of prime-time coverage on the postseason's opening day than the been-there-done-that Yanks. So it was with some amount of grumbling that many of the Yankee faithful filed into the Stadium. Mothers cradled infants or escorted schoolchildren while their fathers remained in their offices, hostages in neckties.
I'd been to eight postseason games at Yankee Stadium, but never one in the daytime. Hell, the only weekday afternoon game involving the Yanks that I could recall was the Chuck Knoblauch vaporlock incident. Shudder. Still, I decided that complaining about having tickets to a daytime postseason game was like complaining about the color of the plate my filet mignon was sitting upon. Shut up and deal.
As the game started, Mussina got into trouble immediately, allowing a leadoff double to sparkplug Shannon Stewart. It was Stewart's arrival from Toronto which keyed the Twins' 46-23 second-half run, and here he was, making trouble from the outset. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire (the 2002 Futility Infielder of the Year) elected to play for the early run, as Luis Rivas sacrificed Stewart to third. But the Moose got loose, inducing an easy comebacker from Doug Mientkiewicz, and a groundout from Matt LeCroy, ending the threat.
Mussina rolled through the second, but found more trouble in the third. With one out, Cristian Guzman singled to right, and then on a hit-and-run, Stewart singled to left, with Guzman challenging Yankee leftfielder Hideki Matsui's weak arm by heading for third. From my seat (third row of the upper deck, between third base and home), it looked as though Matsui's throw was high and wide of third baseman Aaron Boone, delaying the tag. In a cell phone conversation, a friend said that Guzman still looked to be out, but I haven't seen a replay as I write this (the New York Timesconfirmed my perception). Anyway, Guzman then scored on a sac fly by Rivas for the game's first run.
Meanwhile, Santana kept the Yanks in check, giving up only a pair of inconsequential two-out singles in the first two innings. But the young Twin began bouncing a number of curveballs in the third, walking Nick Johnson and Derek Jeter back-to-back with two outs. He recovered to strike out Jason Giambi, but the 27-pitch inning clearly showed that he was vulnerable.
The Yanks squandered their best chance against Santana in the fourth. With one out, Bernie Williams drove one to deep right centerfield, but he slipped while rounding first, falling flat on the basepath before recovering to retreat. A 390-foot singe. Had Williams not fallen, the Yanks would have had a 106-RBI hitter holding an .892 OPS with runners in scoring positon coming to the plate in Matsui. But with Bernie only on first, the grounder-happy Matsui's weakness came to the forefront, and it was no surprise when he bounced into a 4-6-3 double play. A frustrating inning for the Yanks.
But the Yanks fortunes looked as though they might turn. Santana had thrown only 59 pitches, and had yet to give up a run, so it was quite a surprise to see the Twins summon journeyman Rick Reed from the bullpen, a man with an ERA exactly two runs higher than the man he replaced (5.07 to 3.07). No explanation was immediately given, though my cellular lifeline informed me that the TV announcers had given leg cramps as the cause.
Reed fell behind the Yanks' #8 and #9 hitters, Aaron Boone and Juan Rivera, but got them both on grounders to shortstop. He fell behind 3-1 to Alfonso Soriano, who lashed a double to right center. Ron Gardenhire then called upon J.C. Romero, who stayed in form by falling behind Nick Johnson. On the 3-0 pitch, Soriano stole third. But Johnson, in the midst of an 0-for-18 slide, grounded out weakly to Mientkiewicz, wasting another opportunity.
The sixth inning was the Yanks' real undoing, and again Bernie Williams was at the center of it. With one out and a man on first, Torii Hunter poked one into the right-center gap. Williams looked to cut it off, but missed badly and ended up chasing the ball to the wall. He relayed to Soriano, who airmailed the ball over Boone's head as Hunter slid. Torii quickly popped up from his slide and scored to run it to 3-0. In Little League they'd have called it a home run, but the official scorer called it a triple and an error, and that was still extremely generous.
The Yanks continued to waste opportunities. A Jeter leadofff single went uncapitalized in the sixth, while the Yanks put the first two runners on in the seventh. Matsui walked, chasing Romero, and Boone greeted smoke-throwin' Latroy Hawkins with a single up the middle. Pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra hit into a fielder's choice, with Matsui taking third. But Hawkins blew some high-90s heat past both Soriano and Johnson to escape the jam. Hawkins struck out two more in the eighth for good measure.
With Mussina done for the day affter seven laborious innings, the Twins threatened again in the eighth. Jeff Nelson came in and couldn't find the plate, walking Matt LeCroy, an act for which he was roundly booed. Felix Heredia came on and got Jacque Jones to ground out, advancing LeCroy. The Yanks elected to intentionally walk Hunter, and a Koskie single loaded the bases. Heredia fell behind Pierzynski, but the Twins catcher grounded back to the pitcher, who started a 1-2-3 double play.
Having exhausted just about every manner of not scoring in the previous eight innings, the Yanks ran out of excuses in the ninth. Facing closer Everyday Eddie Guardado, Williams led off with a single, and then Matsui hit a deep drive down the leftfield line that looked as though it might carry out. But Stewart made a leaping grab as he ran into the wall, just out of reach of several Jeffery Maier wannabes, robbing Godzilla of a homer. Given where I was sitting, I couldn't see the catch; it was only later when I saw the replay how close Matsui came to cutting the lead to 3-2, and how fine a play the Twins leftfielder made. Damn.
But it wasn't over yet. Boone doubled down the leftfield line, with Williams taking third and bringing the tying run to the plate in the form of Ruben Sierrea. Alas, Sierra popped out to short rightfield, taking the Yanks down to their last out. Soriano laced a 3-1 pitch to right, scoring Williams to finally put the Yanks on the board. But it was too little, too late, as Johnson fell to 0-for-21 by grounding to third. Ballgame to the Twins, thanks to Stewart, their bullpen, and a sloppy game by the Yanks: ten men left on base -- five of those in scoring position, three at third base -- one baserunning gaffe, and one error that should have been two. Ugh.
The Yanks now find themselves in an unexpected hole, and with the odds against them. Since the advent of the Wild Card in 1995, the team that's won the first game has won 22 out of 32 division series. The Yanks have bucked the trend in each of the past three years, losing to Anaheim last year after taking the first game, and taking two series from Oakland after dropping the first. But history's bunk. That's why they play the games.
• • •
Pressed for time, I'll now offer up an abbreviated version of my postseason predictions. If you're taking these to Vegas, I'll advise you that slot machines and crack cocaine are safer investments than my prognostications. But in the interest of adding some value, I'll give you some links to other blogs which can offer more insight into the respective series.
NLDS: Giants over Marlins in 4. The always-dependable Giants-themed Only Baseball Matters has been on the DL, but Waiting for Boof picks up some of the slack, as does The Southpaw. For the Marlins, Fish or Cut Bait got off to a good start but seems to have fallen by the wayside. If there's another Marlins blog out there, I'm all ears.
That's not to say there aren't other great blogs out there, just that these are the guys who will be living and dying with their teams and posting about it on a daily basis. Check 'em out, and have fun this October.
And if you want more half-assed predictions...
ALCS: A's over Yanks in 6. This pinstriped bandwagon ain't rolling too far.
NLCS: Giants over Braves in 6. World Series: Another Bay Area special? I'm less than thrilled, but right now, I'm picking one of the two teams I loathe with every fiber of my being. I wouldn't have picked them outright, but if I follow my results, I'm left with no other conclusion: Giants in 6.
Thirty minutes of tributes prior to the game featured former Met superstar Tom Seaver, current Mets Al Leiter and John Franco, colleagues Ralph Kiner and Gary Cohen, and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg (who was booed lustily), and though the crowd was sparse (25,081 officially, but likely less), they cheered loudly. Not being much of a Mets fan myself or having listened extensively to Murphy, I'll admit that I felt a bit out of place at this affair. It was like being at a birthday party for a friend's relative I didn't know so well (which, come to think of it, actually happened last weekend in Maine). But I can respect a man who put 42 years into his job and was so well-loved by Mets fans that he earned the name "The Voice of Summer," so I smiled and clapped along with the faithful as they warmly paid tribute to the Murph.
Cohen was eloquent as he MCed the ceremony: "A love affair began in 1962. The Mets may have subscribed to Murphy's Law that year but it was Murphy's voice to which the fans tuned in. Whether it was tension-filled pennant drives or as the muffled voice from transistor radios beneath our pillows, each syllable spelled elation or devastation." Leiter and Franco presented Murphy with a Mets jersey bearing the number 42 which they said had been signed by the team (one hopes it was a team of better vintage than the current squad).
Between innings of the ballgame, fellow Frickians from around the league, such as Vin Scully, Harry Kalas, Marty Brennaman, Chuck Thompson, Curt Gowdy, Bob Uecker and Jon Miller (who hasn't actually received the award yet, just like Mike Piazza hasn't made the Hall of Fame) paid tribute via video clips on the Jumbotron.
The game itself was something of an afterthought, with the Mets losing 3-1, preventing Murphy from signing off with one more of his signature Happy Recaps. Most notable for the Mets was literally "Who's On First?" To accompany starter Tom Glavine, his younger brother Mike was the starting first baseman, batting eighth. Promoted in September as an obvious favor to his brother, the younger Glavine is a 30-year-old journeyman who hasn't made much impact beyond AA except in the independent Atlantic League. Argably a less able hitter than his brother, the younger Glavine went 0-for-2 while the elder walked in his only plate appearance before being pinch-hit for by Tony Clark. Manager Art Howe killed two birds with one stone by pulling the double-switch, leaving Clark to play first.
With the Mets trailing 3-1, my girlfriend and I left prior to the ninth inning to catch the LIRR back to Manhattan. But we heard a couple of huge cheers go up as we exited the stadium, figuring the Mets had started a rally. As it turns out, the ovations were for Mike Piazza, who -- after months of handwringing from the catcher, the organization, the player, the manager, the media, and every potential WFAN caller in the entire tri-state area -- took the field at first base for the first time as a Met and promptly snared a line drive. Yippee.
• • •
Friday night's drama was considerably less contrived. The Yanks had already played the Orioles at the front end of a doubleheader (the makeup game for that ridiculous Hurricane Isabel affair which culminated in an abbreviated tie) and won 11-2, and so Joe Torre chose the nightcap to spotlight his September callups. The Columbus Clipper connection included starting pitcher Jorge DePaula, catcher Michel Hernandez, first baseman Fernando Seguignol (the 2003 International League MVP), shortstop Erick Almonte and third baseman/quarterback-to-be Drew Henson. Playing second base and making his 2003 debut as a Yankee was Luis Sojo, possibly the first player to participate in a team's Old-Timer's Day game and an official game in the same season. Hell, Sojo had actually managed DePaula and Almone at Norwich last season. Only DH Jason Giambi and rightfielder Ruben Sierra represented the Yankee regulars.
Due to a scheduling mixup, we arrived late at the ballgame, finding that Sierra had put the Yanks up 2-0 with a first-inning home run. But that quickly became a sidelight to what we were about to witness. As I scrambled to catch up on my scorecard, I realized that with seventh batter Deivi Cruz leading off the third and a zero in the hits column, DePaula had been perfect through two innings. When he put the O's down 1-2-3 in the third, my butterflies kicked in.
I have been to a handful short of a hundred professional ballgames in my lifetime, from A ball in Walla Walla to the deciding game of a World Series at Yankee Stadium, and I have never seen a no-hitter in person (TV is anotherstory). Three sorta-close calls stand out. A few months after he pitched his perfect game in '98, I saw David Wells take another perfect line into the seventh against the Oakland A'. It was broken up by a blooper to right by Jason Giambi, to whom Boomer gestured thanks immediately afterwards. Once in a season was enough excitement for a man of his carriage, apparently. Two years later, Bartolo Colon, pitching for the Cleveland Indians, a took a no-no into the eighth against the Yanks. I'd just about reached the tipping point in my day's rooting allegiance -- I'd have given it up for Colon in the ninth, but Luis Polonia beat me to the punch with a one-out single. At a Brooklyn Cyclones game a couple of summers ago, I watched two A-ball teams slash away in hopes of getting an official game played before a torrential rainstorm hit. Cyclones starter Jason Scobie took a no-hitter into the seventh before it was broken up, and shortly after that an ominous-looking black sky broke open, washing the rest of the game away.
That's as close as I've gotten in person, unless one counts showing up at a ballpark fifteen hours after one's been thrown. But anytime I see three no-hit innings on the board, I begin taking inventory: oxygen mask, check; defibrillator, check.
With the tantalizing possibility of a no-hitter growing ever more apparent to the crowd of 45,000+, the next three innings breezed by, with neither team getting a hit. The Yanks kept popping up on the first or second pitch against Rodrigio Lopez, who got through the third inning in five pitches, the fourth in ten, the fifth in six. Meanwhile, DePaula continued slicing through the Baltimore lineup like a hot knife through butter. The O's were hacking; every batter seemed to be hitting out of an 0-2 hole. It wasn't as though Baltimore had matched the Yanks by fielding AAA ballplayers -- most of their frontliners, with the exception of injured Melvin Mora, were in the lineup. The kid DePaula was looking mighty impressive in his first major-league start.
The tension continued to build. With two outs in the fifth, DePaula fell behind 3-0 to B.J. Surhoff. He came back to 3-2 before Surhoff hit a long fly ball to rightfield that looked like trouble. But a hustling Sierra caught the ball while backing into the wall. The crowd erupted, but except for one loudmouth, nobody within earshot used the words "perfect" or "no-hitter." Andra (my gal) needed no explanation as to what was going on; she was as cool as a little Fonzie when it came to the superstitions surrounding such affairs.
With one out in the sixth, pudgy DH Jack Cust worked a walk off of DePaula as the crowd groaned, its shot at perfection gone. But the young Yankee hurler recovered, striking out catcher Geronimo Gil looking and then retiring Jerry Hairston Jr. on a fly ball. Still no hits.
Luis Matos struck out to start the seventh, DePaula's sixth K on the night. He came within a strike of victim number seven, Larry Bigbie. But the Oriole leftfielder instead lashed a ball up the middle that glanced off of DePaula's glove and eluded second baseman Sojo, ending the no-hit bid. Joe Torre was instantly out of the dugout and on the mound, calling to the bullpen. Torre later explained that he wouldn't have let DePaula complete the game given how long the rookie had been idle. But that wasn't known at the time -- all the crowd knew was that despite the makeshift lineup, this kid had given them a thrill, and so they gave one back in the form of a raucous standing ovation.
After things calmed down, lefty Gabe White got the Yanks out of trouble with two ground balls to end the seventh seemed to cruise as he retired the first two batters in the eighth. But Cust, the pest, singled, and Jeff Nelson came on in relief to face pinch-hitter Pedro Swann. As has been all too common, Nelson couldn't find the plate too well, and he walked Swann on a 3-2 pitch. He fell behind Hairston, who hit one to deep right-center, where "centerfielder" Karim Garcia took forever to get to the ball, apparently stopping to ask directions from an usher. By the time Garcia relayed the ball to Seguignol, both runs had scored and Hairston had rounded third, trying for an inside-the-park home run. Seguignol's relay to Hernandez had Hairston by 10 feet, and when the little punk tried to run through the Buddha-bellied catcher, he was flicked away like an insect. Still, Nelson had surrendered the tying run, depriving DePaula of a victory.
Hernandez got his own milestone in the bottom of the eighth, strokign a single to right for his first major-league hit, then yielding to pinch-runner Alfonso Soriano. Almonte sacrificed him to second, but the Yanks couldn't convert. They threatened again in the ninth, with pinch-hitter Bernie Williams pounding a leadoff double. Seguignol, the next hitter, tapped one back to pitcher B.J. Ryan, whose throw to first was bobbled by Surhoff. First base ump Ed Montague called Seguignol out, blowing the call as the crowd howled. But after a visit from Torre, home plate ump Brian Gorman overruled Montague, and Seguignol took first. One out and a new pitcher later, a Juan Rivera grounder confused shortstop Deivi Cruz, as Williams staying put long enough to prevent Cruz from turning two, then advanced to third. Nick Johnson pinch-hit for Henson, but flew out to end the inning.
Facing Chris Hammond, Surhoff led off the tenth with a grounder that Almonte couldn't stop and reached on the error -- but at a price. Surhoff apparently pulled a groin muscle in the process and he was escorted off by the Oriole trainer, yielding to pinch-runner Jose Morban. After a sacrifice, Tim Raines Jr. walked, and then catcher Robert Machado slapped a grounder to left, scoring the go-ahead run.
The Yanks threatened again in the tenth. John Flaherty led off with a single and one out later, took third on an Enrique Wilson single. But Oriole closer Jorge Julio struck out both Sierra and Williams to preserve the 3-2 victory. Still, given that the division had already been clinched and that the crowd had been treated to a special performance, this was one loss that hardly hurt at all.
• • •
The weekend's Yankee games continued the goosebump theme. Saturday was Roger Clemens' final regular-season start, and possibly his final start in Yankee Stadium, and the Rocket was up to the task. He didn't dominate, but he didn't give the Orioles too much ground either, allowing only three hits and two runs over six innings. Juan Rivera backed the Rocket's cause with two homers and a 4-for-4 day, continuing his torrid run (a 1215 OPS September).
But the payoff came in the seventh inning. Torre sent Clemens out to do his warmups, then ceremoniously removed the pitcher to an incredible ovation. As the Rocket walked off the field, he pointed to the crowd and then to his heart, then emerged from the dugout for a curtain call and tipped his cap. The entire Oriole duguout joined in the ovation, a classy gesture which harkened back to the Yanks paying tribute to Cal Ripken Jr. when he ended his consecutive game streak against them.
It was a touching moment that had me flashing back to another Clemens ovation at the Stadium, one for which I'd been a part: Game Four of the 1999 World Series. Clemens was the new kid on the block, having joined the Yanks in that controversial trade for David Wells which shook up the defending champions as they opened spring training. I'd jeered the Rocket several times that season as he put up a fat 4.60 ERA to go with his meager 14 wins, and scorned him as he'd been pounded at Fenway Park during the ALCS. But on this night, with the Yanks up 3-0 in games against the Atlanta Braves, the Rocket's first World Series ring was within his grasp, and he did the job with zeal. Clemens pitched 7.2 innings and left with a 3-0 lead and two men on, and when Joe Torre pulled him it, the Stadium shook. It didn't stop shaking for the next hour and a half. Mariano Rivera extricated the Yanks from a jam (which Jeff Nelson had aided), Jim Leyritz homered in the bottom of the inning, the Yanks closed the deal in the top of the ninth, and suddenly 56,782 people were piling on each other and singing "New York, New York" at the top of their lungs. Now THAT was an ovation.
The one on Saturday couldn't quite approach that, but it was a true feel-good moment for a pitcher who's been anything but touchy-feely throughout his career. But any man with 309 wins, 4099 strikeouts, and six Cy Young Awards under his belt deserves a moment like that.
Clemens' reward for victory number 310 was a job promotion: acting manager for the Yanks' final game of the season. With Joe Torre offering his "suggestions," the job of writing out the lineup card and making strategic decisions was left to Clemens, with Andy Pettitte as his bench coach, and MIke Mussina as his pitching coach.
The big story of this day was another big man in search of a milestone: David Wells going for career win number 200 in what might be his last start as a Yankee, on a mound which he has owned like no other: 44-18 with a 3.69 ERA on the Yankee Stadium hill in his 17-year career.
I wanted this one for Boomer, and I felt nervous from the moment the TV cameras showed the thick gray clouds overhead. Surely the gods couldn't take what might be Boomer's last start as a Yankee away, leaving him stranded at 199, could they? Truth be told, my unsettled stomach had as much to do with the previous night's carousing, but as I was lying prone on the futon in front of the TV, rehydrating my broken body, a realization hit me: there will be no more casual baseball moments beyond this point; it's all butterflies from here onward.
Wells fell behind 1-0 in the second inning, but Alfonso Soriano drove an Eric DuBose pitch into the netting in leftfield for a two-run homer in the third, and the Fat Man rolled, allowing only three more hits. But Boomer wasn't without drama. In the fifth inning, as the rain started to fall and the urgency to make it offical increased, an object on the field required a groundskeeper to come out of the bullpen. The cameras on him in closeup, Wells unleashed a torrent of four-letter words into his glove before finally throwing his first pitch and getting back to business.
In the top of the eighth, manager Clemens sent in a defensive reinforcement in the form of third baseman Aaron Boone, who replaced Drew Henson (who earlier in the game had stroked his first big-league hit, something which the Yankees hope will wow his offensive linemen in some Houston huddle next August).
The piece de resistance came with two outs in the seventh, as manager Clemens came to remove Wells. The pitcher stood frozen on the mound as Clemens neared, incredulous at what was about to happen. Finally, he began to smile, even a chuckle, as the Rocket arrived. Clemens gave Wells a hug while simultaneously signalling for a righthander and Wells departed to another long, thunderous ovation, cap in hand. For all of the controversy that has swirled around the bulky pitcher throughout his career in pinstripes, the man's reverence for the Stadium and his bond with the fans made this a moment to savor. If Boomer is indeed going -- the Yanks hold a $6 million option on the 40-year-old injury-prone management-tweaking Fat Man, who may wind up in his native San Diego instead -- his exit was fitting.
The matter of the ballgame and preservation of Wells' gem was still an open question, given the state of the Yankee bullpen. But Jeff Nelson, looking chastened after blowing Jorge DePaula's milestone on Friday, came in to face Tim Raines Jr., and the matchup wasn't even close. Think wolf against fluffy little bunny rabbit. Nelson broke off three nasty sliders that Little Rock could do nothing but look at, striking out without taking the bat off his shoulder to end the inning. Mariano Rivera shut the door in the ninth, and Wells had his 200th. Clemens even sat in Joe Torre's chair to field questions for the postgame reporters, and the Yanks wrapped up a 101-win regular season with a stylish smile.
• • •
Jeebus Cripes, that was a long post. If you're still reading, you know that the playoffs begin on Tuesday. I'll be at Yankee Stadium for Game One against the Minnesota Twins in the afternoon, and I can hardly wait.
The Twins are 0-13 against the Yanks over the past two seasons, and they face Mike Mussina, who's 20-2 with a 2.94 ERA in 24 starts against them in his career. But only a damn fool would count Minnesota out. This is a different team from the one the Yanks beat up on early -- Shannon Stewart has catalyzed their offense since coming over from the Blue Jays for Bobby Kielty, and the starting pitching has stabilized behind burgeoning ace Johan Santana. Statheads pointed to manager Ron Gardenhire's refusal to add Santana to the rotation as a sign of his ineptitude and use his 11-2 record and 2.86 ERA as a starter to prove their point. But Santana's early-season toiling in the bullpen limited the 24-year-old's total innings, increasing the likelihood that he'd be fresh for October. Ask the Seattle Mariners about that topic sometime.
I'll take a closer look at the playoffs in the next day or two. In the meantime, check out my man The Twins Geek (a/k/a John Bonnes) for an in-depth -- and occasionally cheeky -- preview of the Yanks-Twins series. And if he doesn't throw enough numbers at you, check out Aaron Gleeman's analysis as well.
Right now I'm looking forward to savoring the whole October experience, whether or not the Yanks can climb back to the top of the heap. It's all butterflies and from here, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
thanks for ruining a number of pages on baseballreference.com. nothing like being full of one's self. dork.
To which I replied:
Dear Ms. Sisco,
I'm sorry you feel as though my sponsorship of several pages on baseball-reference.com detracts from your experience there. But I think that you should stop to consider the fact that it's sponsors like me who give that site the money ($[X] a year in my case) to not only stay in business but to reach millions of people every month, even idiots such as yourself. That sponsorship is also the only form of advertising I use to draw people to my little not-for-profit site. If a sentence or two of text which points people to my site chafes your ass so much, I think you've got larger issues for which you should seek professional help.
Mess with the bull and you get the horns. There are few sites on the web that mean as much to me as Baseball-Reference.com, and I strongly believe in putting my money where my mouth is. The way in which B-R lets people show their support is unique, and in my case it's brought a lot of new readers to this site, and some nice email along the way. So Stace, if you're reading this, just know that I'm not going to let one rotten apple spoil the barrel. In fact I'm going to sponsor another page. It's that of Daffy Dodger Babe Herman. This is how it will read:
This page is dedicated in loving memory of my grandfather, Bernard Jaffe (1908-2000), who became a Dodger fan upon watching Herman get hit in the head by a fly ball, and who handed down his love for the game in more ways than anyone can ever know.
I've since had another, even angrier exchange with Sisco which I'll spare my readership except to add that this person (who may not be a Ms. after all) "openly debate[s] the legitimacy of Carlton Fisk's installation in the Hall of Fame." If 2,356 hits, 376 homers (including the most for any catcher as a catcher, 351), eleven All-Star appearances and the all-time record for games caught aren't enough for this ass-clown, I guess my lowly site has no chance of fulfilling her (or his) expectations either.