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      F I E L D  T R I P S

JUNE 15, 2001

April 28 , 2001: Oakland A's at New York Yankees, Yankee Stadium
The Lilly Hammer

Missing last week were the two key ingredients of a daytime summer ballgame: sunshine and victory. Both ingredients made a welcome return on this Saturday afternoon. A crystal clear 60° day straight out of the catalog provided the backdrop for the Yanks to pummel the A's, though a late-inning comeback made the final score much closer than the game appearred.

Back in the winter, this game had looked to be an early season highlight. The upstart A's pressed the Yankees to five tense games in the American League Division Series last fall, and had added leadoff hitter extraordinaire Johnny Damon in the offseason. Stocked with strong bats such as MVP Jason Giambi and talented young arms like Tim Hudson and Barry Zito, many "experts" had picked the A's to dethrone the three-time defending World Champion Yankees.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Bronx. The A's lost 10 of their first 12 ballgames, and entered this game with a miserable 8-15 record. Damon had been a flop, and the pitchers had struggled as well. To make matters worse, the A's archrivals in the AL West, the Seattle Mariners, had stormed out to an 18-4 start, leaving the A's already 10 1/2 games back in the standings.

The Yankees, for their own part, had lost 4 out of 5 coming into this series with Oakland, including a sweep at the hands of the Mariners. Only a victory over the A's on Friday night had prevented them from falling below .500.

The starting pitchers looked like a mismatch. Tim Hudson won 20 games for the A's last year, improving on a stellar half-season in '99. Ted Lilly, on the other hand, represented the third option in the Yankees quest to find a solid fifth starter. But Lilly (acquired from the Montreal Expos in the Hideki Irabu trade in December '99) had made a strong impression in his first start, striking out 10 Red Sox in 6 2/3 innings earlier in the week.

It was the rookie who got the upper hand. Lilly struck out two in the first, ending the inning by catching Jason Giambi looking. At this point, a fan just behind us christened the rookie's strikeouts "Lilly Hammers," and he, like the pitcher, kept hammering away at the A's.

Lilly took a no-hitter into the fifth, but I doomed him. Peering from behind my binoculars, I had observed aloud that none of the Yankees were talking to him in the dugout, as is the custom for a pitcher working on a no-no. Sure enough, Lilly's bid was foiled during the next inning. A walk, a double, and a wild pitch later, he'd lost his shutout, and when Ramon Hernandez homered down the leftfield line, I cursed a blue streak at the damage I'd caused.

But the Yanks had been doing some damage of their own. Knoblauch, Jeter, O'Neill and Williams, the usual suspects, rallied the Yanks for two runs in the third, and the bottom half of the lineup came up with two more in the fourth. The A's closed the gap to 4-3, but the Yanks kept punishing Tim Hudson, adding another run in the fifth and two more, on a Chuck Knoblauch home run, in the sixth. By that point, Hudson had thrown over 100 pitches, allowing 12 hits and seven runs—a long and ineffective day at the office for him. Knoblauch torched him for four straight hits, three of them in the middle of rallies.

Lilly departed after 5 2/3 innings in which he allowed only two hits and struck out six. The Yankee bullpen cruised along until Ramiro Mendoza walked Hernandez to lead off the eighth. Hernandez scored on a sacrifice fly by Jason Giambi, the fifth sac fly we'd seen in two games. With a 7-4 score, Mariano Rivera opened the ninth poised for a save, but the Yankees insisted upon making his job difficult. Jeter made a throwing error on a Miguel Tejada grounder, and Olmedo Saenz went yard with a two run blast. Rivera shook off the blow and with a K and a fly ball, nailed down the win. It was the 500th victory for Joe Torre as a Yankee manager, and the first ever for the Lilly Hammer.

Two other minor notes:

  • Yankee second baseman Alfonso Soriano came close to drawing his first walk of the season. The free-swinging Soriano twice went to 3-ball counts, and the crowd, many of them aware of the moment's potential significance, seemed poised to erupt in the unlikely event of a walk. But Soriano failed to oblige, flying to right in the fifth, and grounding to first in the seventh [he would draw his first walk the next day].
  • Catcher Joe Oliver was Lilly's batterymate, starting instead of Jorge Posada. Oliver, a 13-year veteran, hails from Memphis, Tennessee, and his choice of intro music for his at bats is country music. Not the good kind, either (Hank, George, Willie, etc.); he favors the slick hat acts. Alan Jackson's rendition of "Summertime Blues" greeted him for one at bat. While I obviously can't condone his brand of music, I do respect his individuality among the hip-hoppers and classic rockers in the Yankee lineup. Thus, I have inevitably nicknamed him "Country Joe."

Final score: Yankees 7, A's 6. One beer, one soda, one hot dog, and one gorgeous day at the ballpark. BOX SCORE