It ended as all postseason series seem to end for the New York
Yankees. Their American League Division Series against the
Oakland Athletics culminated with Mariano Rivera, the Mr. October
of bullpens, alchemizing baseballs into fleeting wisps of smoke,
manager Joe Torre sobbing tears of joy and relief, and a
clubhouse attendant wheeling another cartload of champagne into
the Yankees' clubhouse. Until that familiar endgame, however, the
two-time defending world champions had looked little like their
usual regal selves. The upstart A's came within a hit or two of
showing the baseball establishment that the emperor has no
Oakland pushed the Yankees to the limit: a deciding fifth game.
It was just the second time in 11 postseason series under Torre
that New York had to risk its playoff life on one game. The
Yankees escaped with a 7-5 win, but only after enduring so much
stress that Torre said he occasionally had to glance at the
scoreboard to remind himself that his team, which held a 6-0 lead
10 batters into the game, was still ahead. "Usually I don't do
this," said New York first baseman Tino Martinez, who delivered a
three-run double in the opening inning, "but I found myself in
the sixth and seventh innings counting the outs until we'd get to
The full complement of games was required mostly because Torre
had no confidence in a fourth starter and because his offense was
sputtering. On top of that, his ace during the second half of the
season, Roger Clemens, continued to shrink from postseason
responsibility. Those deficiencies figure to come into play when
New York plays Seattle for the American League championship.
Clemens lost Games 1 and 4, dropping his career postseason record
to 3-5 with a 4.32 ERA. (His teams are 4-10 in his postseason
starts. At week's end the Yankees had won 21 of their past 24
postseason games; Clemens took all three losses.)
Rather than use Denny Neagle or David Cone in Game 4, Torre asked
Clemens to end the series last Saturday on three days' rest. The
Yankees had 15 cases of champagne waiting in a storeroom off
their clubhouse. Clemens got to the mound late--he was in the
clubhouse changing shirts and rubbing hot liniment over his body
while his teammates waited at their positions in the first
inning--and left early. He was booed off the field by the Yankee
Stadium fans after failing to get an out in the sixth inning of
what became an 11-1 drubbing. The champagne was returned for a
Clemens complained about a tight strike zone, but 22-year-old
Oakland starter Barry Zito whimpered not a bit. Zito became the
first rookie lefthander to beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium in
the park's 124-game postseason history. Zito's cool was typical
of the A's youthful spirit. They played with elan, starting with
their first run of the series, when third base coach Ron
Washington waved home Eric Chavez from second on a hard-hit
single with no outs in the fifth inning of Game 1, down 2-0 to
Clemens. "I saw [rightfielder Paul] O'Neill field the ball back
on his heels," Washington said. "That's when I sent him."
O'Neill, bothered by a hip pointer and 37-year-old legs, played
the field in this series with the mobility of a Fridgedaire. He
did, however, with a bloop double in his last plate appearance,
finally end a stretch of 77 at bats without an extra-base hit.
The huffing and puffing of O'Neill and Clemens, 38, not to
mention Torre's finding no use for Cone, 37, Neagle, 32, and DH
Jose Canseco, 36, made New York resemble the '64 Yankees--an aging
dynasty at the end of the line, playing in the postseason against
a young club on the rise (with the A's in the role of the '64
Cardinals). "We think this will be our worst club over the next
five years," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said after Game
4. "You'd better beat us now, I guess."
Zito's win forced both clubs to fly overnight to Oakland for Game
5. Less than an hour before the first pitch on Sunday, Torre
called a meeting of his players in the clubhouse. "We had to get
on that damn plane and come all the way out here," he told them,
"and let's not have it all be for nothing." He scanned the room
looking for "eye contact and body language" and was so impressed
he said little more. "Wow," he said later. "I could tell they
were locked in and ready to go."
Torre didn't know it at the time, but Chavez had unwittingly
primed the Yankees by saying at a pregame press conference,
"They've had a great run.... But it's time. I think tonight, if
we can get this game, people are going to start looking at this
team for years to come as starting something that [the Yankees
have] accomplished the last couple of years." The Yankees heard
the comments over the loudspeakers while taking batting practice.
"Past tense!" harrumphed third baseman Scott Brosius. According
to one Yankee, Brosius "made sure every starter knew about it
before the game." The Yankees then rocked Gil Heredia for those
six first-inning runs.
Even with that fat cushion, lefthander Andy Pettitte, also
working on three days' rest, could not get through the fourth
inning. He left with the tying runs on base in a 7-5 game. That
moment, though, is precisely when the Yankees' crisis passed.
Mike Stanton, Jeff Nelson and then Rivera--set up by a one-out
emergency cameo by Game 3 winner Orlando Hernandez--locked down
the series. Stanton, Nelson and Rivera have a 1.08 ERA over 125
postseason innings. Rivera, whose 0.34 postseason ERA is the best
in baseball history, ended the series only eight outs shy of
breaking Whitey Ford's record of 33 consecutive scoreless
postseason innings. "That's where their experience kicks in,"
Beane said. "Stanton struggled in September, and then it's
October and he was lights out. Nelson has struggled against
lefties, and he was lights out. And trying to get past Mariano is
like trying to climb Mount Everest."
After the final out Torre bawled because "of what this team has
come through all year," including an 0-7 finish to the regular
season. Meanwhile, the Yankees bought 10 cases of champagne from
the Athletics. So subdued was their celebration that they didn't
even crack open two of the cases. Torre's Yankees have been here
before, though never quite like this.
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
Chuck Knoblauch 2B/DH
.282, 5 HRs, 26 RBIs
Still very good hitter who gets deep into counts. Defensively,
though, you never know.
Derek Jeter SS
.339, 15 HRs, 73 RBIs
Tough out. Fights off tough pitches; not afraid to hit with two
strikes. Occasional power, can steal. Reliable defender.
Paul O'Neill RF
.283, 18 HRs, 100 RBIs
Likes ball out over plate, though doesn't hit as well to
leftfield as he used to. Usually a clutch RBI guy, but slumping
lately. Has lost a step defensively.
Bernie Williams CF
.307, 30 HRs, 121 RBIs
Hits deep into counts. Will pass baton to next hitter rather
than chase pitches. In field, he's poor on balls in front of him.
David Justice LF
.286, 41 HRs, 118 RBIs
Throw him hard inside, though he can still handle that if you
don't get it in enough. Good fielder with good arm.
Tino Martinez 1B
.258, 16 HRs, 91 RBIs
Down year. Tends to get himself out by swinging at bad pitches,
Jorge Posada C
.287, 28 HRs, 86 RBIs
Handles every pitch. Defensively, as good as it gets: good arm,
great footwork. Leader for staff.
Luis Sojo 2B
.286, 7 HRs, 37 RBIs
Early-count swinger. Get ahead of him and he'll expand strike
zone. Limited range but good hands.
Scott Brosius 3B
.230, 16 HRs, 64 RBIs
In funk all year with bat. Defensively, has great range,
especially coming in on slow rollers.
DH Glenallen Hill is capable of hitting the ball out at any time,
but he's a hot-and-cold hitter who comes into the Seattle series
cold. 2B Jose Vizcaino is perfect role guy: Excellent on defense
and puts the ball in play or can get a bunt down. PH Jose Canseco
can change a game with one swing, but does little else. Pound him
inside, but if you miss, it's gone. OF Clay Bellinger plays
several positions but doesn't offer much offensively.
Roger Clemens, RHP (13-8, 3.70 ERA) Pitched very well over
second half, sometimes with dominating 94 to 97 mph fastball and
sometimes throwing his splitter up to 40 times a game. Also has
good slider. Hot until he pitched poorly in last two
regular-season starts and both starts in Division Series.
Andy Pettitte, LHP (19-9, 4.35 ERA) Yankees' best big-game
pitcher. Command is excellent; uses both sides of plate. Cutter
is extremely good and changeup even better. Repeats delivery
very well. Pitching with a lot of confidence.
Orlando Hernandez, RHP (12-13, 4.51 ERA) Has been up and down,
but knocks your socks off when on his stuff: two- and four-seam
fastballs, sliders from different arm angles, a drop-in curve.
Denny Neagle, LHP (15-9, 4.52 ERA) Unreliable. Can be good or
awful, depending on command of his changeup. At times has
altered mechanics in middle of the game, fiddling with Luis
Tiant-like head turn.
Some say righthanded closer Mariano Rivera has become more
hittable--lefthanders seem a tad more comfortable now--but he
still throws in mid-90s and his cutter/slider is still very
good. To beat the Yankees late, you have to beat him. Good luck.
Setup men LHP Mike Stanton and RHP Jeff Nelson are fine
statistically, but I don't have much confidence in them from
appearance to appearance. Stanton has a good fastball and
curveball but finds ways to get in trouble. Lefthanders can hit
Nelson. With Ramiro Mendoza out for season, Nelson has been in
games as early as the sixth. That's too early for him.
HOW TO BEAT THEM
Get to the starters. If they reach the seventh inning, you're
done. But their middle relief is vulnerable, especially without
Mendoza. The Yankees may be long in the tooth, but they can
still score runs. Their fate will depend on their starting
pitching. This is the team to beat in the American League.
under Torre, New York had to risk its playoff life on one game.