This is an article that was originally published on HardRockSports.com.
HardRock Sports columnist Scott A. Ham explains how the weekend series between the Yanks and Indians had a little bit of everything.
There was a lot of anticipation going into the weekend series between the Yankees and the Indians. Yankee loyalists have stopped short of calling this a disappointing season in light of last year’s triumph, but the grumbling about the Bomber’s lackadaisical play at times has been heard loud and clear. They fought off slumps earlier in the season and mediocre pitching from Roger Clemens to stand atop the AL East despite a strong Red Sox team constantly nipping at their heels. The Indians, on the other hand, have found a level of regular season play that has improved upon everything they’ve accomplished in the last four seasons, finding a consist and steady offense due largely to the addition of Roberto Alomar. Cleveland was clearly the best team in the league leading into the All Star break.
That setup alone would be enough to make this series interesting, but consider that the road to the World Series has run through Cleveland and New York the last four seasons, the Indians playing the Series in ’95 and ’97, the Yanks in ’96 and ’98. Not a lot of credence can be given to July series having an effect on October and neither team was playing for that. What they did want to win was respect.
Game one Friday night had all the makings of a classic and the evening didn’t disappoint. David Cone was making his first start since his perfect game Sunday against the Expos while Tom Candiotti, the struggling knuckle-baller picked up as a free agent in mid-season made the start for the Indians. The early talk focused on the possibility of Cone throwing back to back perfection, but Cleveland put those notions to rest pretty early.
Early as in the first inning. Kenny Lofton walked to lead off the game and two batters later Roberto Alomar followed him. Both runners were stranded without yielding a run, but Coney’s luck would end there. After Paul O’Neill hit a two run homer in the bottom of the first, the Indians countered with a two run shot of their own off the bat of rookie Russ Branyan, a screaming line drive that landed deep into the lower deck of right field. The 23 year-old Branyan has excellent power, but has shown some weaknesses at the plate, including striking out 1 out of every 3 at-bats in the minors.
The Yanks weren’t done though. They posted a three spot in the bottom of the inning, capped by Paul O’Neill’s RBI triple to right center, scoring Knoblauch. Cone appeared to calm down a bit until he reached the Cleveland half of the fourth. With one out, Russ Branyan walked and took second on Kenny Lofton’s single. Omar Vizquel followed with a shot to second, which Knoblauch threw wide on the relay to first, loading the bases with two outs The play was eerily reminiscent of the great play Knobby made in the eighth inning of Cone’s perfect game, ranging to his right to backhand the ball and making a strong throw. An inning that should have been over became a key moment in the game when Roberto Alomar followed the error with a grand slam to right center, giving the Tribe a 6 – 5 lead.
By this point, everyone was expecting a slugfest. The teams had scored a combined 11 runs midway through the fourth and it could only get worse. Cleveland had already dipped into their long relief, replacing Candiotti with Chris Haney in the second inning. The Yanks followed that lead, bringing in Allen Watson to start the fifth and stop the bleeding. Both pens performed admirably with neither team scoring until the top of the eighth, when Mike Stanton relieved Watson and promptly gave up a solo homer to Richie Sexson, making the score 7 – 5.
Of course, the game couldn’t end there. In the bottom of the inning, the Yanks scored a pair off a double by pinch hitter Chad Curtis scoring Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez. Scott Brosius followed with a walk, loading the bases with one out. Jorge Posada stepped to the plate with a chance to blow the game wide open in the bottom of the eighth and hit a sharp grounder to the right of the mound. Roberto Alomar dove to his right, snaring the ball and from his knees, flipped the ball with his glove to Omar Vizquel at second. Vizquel grabbed the toss barehanded and relayed to first, completing one of the most amazing clutch double plays you will ever see.
The ninth inning went scoreless, leaving the game to extra innings. As soon as Cleveland stepped to the plate, I knew this game wouldn’t make it past the tenth inning. I was right. Einar Diaz drew a two out walk, stole second base, and scored on Enrique Wilson’s single to center. The Yanks would need a big bottom of the tenth, depending on the bottom three of their order to accomplish it.
Chili Davis led off with a single off of closer Mike Jackson and was pinch run for by Luis Sojo. Chad Curtis followed, sacrificing Sojo to second. Scott Brosius popped to right, leaving the game in Jorge Posada’s hands. Posada, after being down in the count, worked out a walk, as did Chuck Knoblauch right after, loading the bases.
With the bases loaded and two outs, Derek Jeter stepped to plate having gone 0 for 5 with three strikeouts on the day. Jeter had some truly terrible looking at-bats against Candiotti, but that wasn’t bothering him in the tenth. Jeter took Jackson’s first pitch and drove it deep to right field, just out of reach of Manny Ramirez, scoring Sojo and Posada for the 9 – 8 win. The performance was typical of Jeter this season, not because he went an uncharacteristic 1 for 6, but because he again put the weight of the Yankees on his back and carried them to victory.
Game two Saturday afternoon went pretty well for the Yankees. Hideki Irabu continued to pitch well, giving up 1 run over 7 innings, striking out 7 and Ed Yarnall pitched 2 innings of scoreless relief. Oh, did I mention the Yankees scored 21 runs?
Saturday was one of those games that lost control early and continued rolling down the hill. The Yanks scored 4 runs in the first, 1 in the fourth, and 7 in the fifth. With a 12 – 0 lead, Joe Torre starting removing starters and putting in bench players like Luis Sojo, Ricky Ledee and Jeff Manto. The bench wound up going 3 for 6 with 1 walk and 4 RBI’s. Chili David went 5 for 6 with 6 RBI’s including a three-run homer off Friday’s starter Tom Candiotti, who entered the game in relief in the sixth inning and gave up 5 runs over two-thirds of an inning. The game, which featured a combined 30 hits and 22 runs, was actually an hour shorter than Friday nights game.
Game three on Sunday was the match up people were waiting for. Candiotti and Langston aren’t members of the Indians usual rotation, but Bartolo Colon is and was scheduled to start against Roger Clemens. Both pitchers are having sub-par seasons, but they’re power pitchers who throw really, really hard.
The game didn’t feature the seesaw offense of the first two, but it did feature a great pitching match up and some timely hitting. The game was scoreless until the bottom of the fourth when Derek Jeter hit an opposite field home run for the Yanks first hit. Cleveland followed with a run in the sixth on a pair of walks and an RBI single by Manny Ramirez that tied the game. Both bullpens pitched out of trouble in the eighth and Ramiro Mendoza avoided an Indians’ threat in the ninth, stranding a runner at second.
In the bottom of the ninth, Chad Curtis led off with a ground out to third. Ricky Ledee came to the plate having struck out three times and causing a few near misses in left with centerfielder Bernie Williams. None of that seemed to bother Ledee, however, as he stroked a game winning home run to the bleachers in right-center in a moment reminiscent of Jeter’s heroics in game one on Friday. For Ledee it was a sweet ending to a great series, going 4 for 9 with 4 RBIs and quieting the moaning about the left field situation.
The three game sweep maintained the Yankees lead in the AL East at seven games and gave them the best record in baseball. Cleveland has been battling a number of injuries to starting players, including Sandy Alomar, Wil Cordero and Travis Fryman, but their current slump losing eight of nine seems to focus more on the lack of production from Roberto Alomar and Manny Ramirez. It wasn’t the starting lineup that allowed 21 runs on Saturday, it was a weak pitching staff, a condition the Indians front office is desperately trying to remedy. After Saturday’s blowout, the word “message” floated around the Yankee clubhouse, mostly by reporters trying to coax a little fire from the players. Were the Yanks trying to let Cleveland know that their pitchers aren’t afraid of their vaunted offense and in fact the Yankees have one of their own? Maybe. Maybe not. What the Yankees did establish is they can play with Cleveland no matter what their troubles may be. One message did get through, though. While these may not be the 1998 Yankees, they certainly remember how to play that way.
That deserves some respect.