The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Saturday, October 20, 2001


Yesterday's Gone

I've spent most of the past twenty-two years of my sports fandom with one team nearest and dearest to my heart. I'm not talking about the Yankees; by the standards of most fans I'm a front-running bandwagoneer. I'm talking about my original hometown NBA team, the Utah Jazz. The Jazz have made the NBA playoffs in each of the past 17 years and they've developed something of an annual custom. Each year, they fail to show up for one ballgame per series. I mean, their performance in that game is bad enough to make commentators like the annoying Bill Walton struggle for the appropriate hyperbole to describe how a team that wins sixty or seventy percent of its ballgames can get blown out by thirty or forty points. I refer to these games as their Publishers Clearinghouse Annual Sweepstakes, because on those days, they could have mailed in their performance.

The Yankees had a game like that on Saturday. After going up 2-0 in the first inning, courtesy of a Bernie Williams home run, the Yanks just fell apart. Once the Mariners broke through to tie the game in the fifth inning off of Orlando Hernandez, everything that could go wrong did. El Duque allowed a leadoff home run to John Olerud to start the sixth, and by the end of the inning, some 45 minutes later, the score was 9-2. From there, things proceeded to go from bad to worse, as the Mariner bats, mostly silent up to this point in the series, took out their frustration against the butt end of the Yank bullpen. The final score, 14-3, was the worst loss the Yanks have ever experienced in the postseason.

Yet just as the Jazz have continually shown, just as the Mariners showed after losing Game 3 of the ALDS last Saturday to Cleveland by the mind-boggling score of 17-2, an embarrassing loss still only counts one game toward the series. So it came as no surprise that the Yanks, still up 2-1 in the series, came out having put all of yesterday's dreadful mistakes behind them. A gimpy Roger Clemens, considerably stronger than his two outings against Oakland last round but still a far cry from 100%, walked a tightrope through five innings, allowing only one hit and striking out seven while walking four. His opposite number, Paul Abbott, walked an even stranger tightrope to go with the eight batters (tying an LCS record) he put on base on his own accord--the man still had a no-hitter going through five innings when Lou Pinella removed him.

Piniella deprived Abbott of his chance to be the modern-day Bill Bevens. So this one came down to the bullpens, two of the best in baseball. The M's Norm Charlton and Jeff Nelson pieced together the sixth and the seventh, putting Yankees on base (Charlton allowing a double to Tino Martinez to end the no-hit bid) but continuing to escape unscathed. The Yanks turned to Ramiro Mendoza, who continued his string of postseason effectiveness. He had put together 8.1 innings of shutout ball this postseason before yielding a solo home run to the Mariners' top RBI man, Brett Boone in the top of the eighth.

Arthur Rhodes came on in the bottom of the eighth to protect the lead, set to face his nemesis, David Justice. He struck out Justice looking (and grimacing) before Bernie Williams took him over the right field wall to tie the game. Mariano Rivera shut the M's down on three pitches, sending the Yanks into the bottom of the ninth to face the Mariners' closer, Kazuhiro Sasaki. Sasaki retired Shane Spencer, then allowed Scott Brosius to reach on a hard grounder which shortstop Mark McLemore speared but couldn't get rid of in time.

The stage was thus set for Alfonso Soriano, the Yanks' talented rookie second baseman. Soriano has had his share of lapses in this series. In Game 1, he failed to run hard out of the box on a fly ball he thought might reach the seats. When it didn't, he was held to a long single, and it took a face-saving steal of second base, followed by a David Justice single, to add the insurance run Soriano thought he'd already banked. He was scolded by his teammates and his manager for that lapse. In Game 4, his failure to cover second base on a force play in the seventh inning caused Mark Wohlers' throw to go into centerfield, setting up another pair of runs.

But those gaffes might as well have been ancient history by the time Soriano stepped into the box against Sasaki. Drawing ahead in the count, he hit a juicy 1-0 fastball just hard enough to reach the right-centerfield fence and give the Yanks a thrilling walk-off home run, their first in postseason play since Chad Curtis ended Game 3 of the 1999 World Series with a dinger prior to snubbing Jim Gray's request for an interview.

So now the Yankees find themselves one game away from ending the Mariners' 116-win dream season and returning to the World Series for the fourth straight year. It's comforting for Yankee fans to note that they have their two hottest starters lined up with a chance to put it away, Andy Pettitte in Game 5 and Mike Mussina in Game 6. Pettitte will face Aaron Sele, a pitcher the Yanks have made a routine of beating on during the last three Octobers. Sele has never won in the postseason, going 0-5 with a 4.73 ERA. Should the Mariners win, the Yanks are faced with yet another cross-country flight and a battle against Freddy Garcia on Wednesday.

Premature jocularity is out of the question. Yesterday's gone, just like Soriano's home run, and as Joe Torre reminded (referencing Earl Weaver), momentum is today's starting pitcher. No one should believe that a 116-win team is vanquished until they watch it melt with their own eyes, a la the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Lou Piniella's team has their backs to the wall, and the Yankee fans have to like their team's odds. But Yogi Berra's maxim applies equally to all those still playing ball at this time of year.

Some more equally than others, perhaps.
[actual date of publication Monday, October 22, 2001, 6 PM]

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