You might have better luck turning up artifacts from Atlantis
than evidence that the Texas Rangers actually appeared in the
1998 postseason. They left behind just a single run--like some
unearthed shard of pottery--as the only proof that they played
the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series.
Otherwise they were as lost as their manager, Johnny Oates, was
two hours before the last of their three games. Oates was
talking on the telephone in his windowless office last Friday
when a power outage hit The Ballpark in Arlington. "The room
went completely black," he said later. "It was so dark I
couldn't hang up the phone. I couldn't find it."
The helpless feeling of sensory deprivation is as good a way as
any to describe what it's like to play the Yankees, who rolled
into the American League Championship Series this week against
the Cleveland Indians having followed the winningest season in
league history with one of the best-pitched postseason series
Veteran starters David Wells, Andy Pettitte and David Cone,
who've been through the wringer more than a George Steinbrenner
turtleneck, accounted for all but 6 1/3 innings of the
three-game sweep in which more Texas fans dashed for home plate
(two during a Biblical rain delay last Friday) than did Texas
"If they keep pitching the way they did against us, it'll be
very difficult for anybody to beat them," says general manager
Doug Melvin, whose Rangers were also excised from the 1996
playoffs by New York, which went on to win the world
championship that year. "From now on I've got to find a way
where we don't play the Yankees in the first round. At the
general managers' meetings next month I think I'll suggest some
changes to the playoff format."
After disposing of the woefully thin Boston Red Sox in four
games in the other American League Division Series, the Indians
faced the unnerving realization that no matter how Cleveland
manager Mike Hargrove or New York skipper Joe Torre arrange
their rotations, the Indians never will have a clear edge in any
matchup of starting pitchers. Cleveland is more comfortable with
games decided late, when Hargrove makes like a caffeinated
Kasparov with his many bullpen moves. "You do win games this
time of year with your bullpen," Indians general manager John
Hart says. "We've showed it every year."
"I don't see it," Boston pitcher Bret Saberhagen said of
Cleveland's chances of beating New York four times in the
best-of-seven series. "The Indians have to pitch their ass off
and play their ass off and even then.... They can't make a
mistake. It can be done. Sometimes magic happens in the
playoffs. But you have to hope the Yankees starters are not on
top of their game like they are now. I mean, they gave up one
run to the best hitting team in the American League--other than
themselves, of course."
Cleveland is the only team still playing that doesn't have a
true No. 1 starting pitcher. Their best starter down the
stretch, righthander Dwight Gooden, hasn't made it to the eighth
inning all year. Hargrove's choice to open the Division Series,
righthander Jaret Wright, couldn't make it through five innings
against the Red Sox. But righthanders Charles Nagy and Bartolo
Colon put inconsistent seasons behind them to pitch back-to-back
gems at Fenway Park. Nagy, pitching his first postseason game
since losing Game 7 of the World Series last year, and Colon,
23, pitching his first postseason game, period, allowed one run
each over a combined 13 2/3 innings. "To have them put us on
their backs and allow our offense time to get going--in a
hostile environment--that was huge," Hart says.
Nagy won Game 3 (the final score was 4-3) with eight strong
innings that confirmed the importance of a midseason change in
his mechanics. At the suggestion of pitching coach Mark Wiley,
Nagy now begins his delivery with a more pronounced left
shoulder turn, which gives him better balance and lends better
sink to his pitches. All but six of his 24 outs against Boston
were strikeouts or grounders--a convincing retort to the Fenway
fans who heckled him during warmups because of his 5.22 ERA.
"Guys were getting all over me because they said I killed their
Rotisserie teams," Nagy says.
"Chuck has always come through in the big games," says Cleveland
reliever Paul Assenmacher. "Last year against Baltimore [in the
Championship Series] he went toe-to-toe with Mike Mussina. We
weren't worried about Chuck at all. But Bartolo--he'd never
pitched in a big game."
At noon last Saturday, four hours before his start, Colon was in
his Boston hotel room getting breathing lessons. The 15-minute
session was part of his frequent performance-enhancement work
with the Indians' brain coach, psychologist Charles Maher. Yet
two batters into the game--after having given up a double and a
walk--Colon seemed to have forgotten what followed "inhale."
Then he blew a third-strike fastball past Mo Vaughn, retired
Nomar Garciaparra and Mike Stanley on grounders and went on to
make the Indians believe he can make the leap Wright made in his
3-0 postseason last year. "I think we'll look back and see that
Bartolo came of age in this game," Hart says. For now, Colon
still is young enough to think Home Alone, a movie he watches
repeatedly, is funny.
After giving up two hard hits in the sixth inning, Colon was
pulled. He was losing 1-0, and leftfielder David Justice--who
hadn't thrown out a runner in his 21 games in the outfield this
year--had fired a pea to the plate from short leftfield to nail
John Valentin. Third base coach Wendell Kim's blunder in sending
Valentin was caused by the panic of knowing the bottom of the
Boston lineup was to follow. Vaughn and hitting savant
Garciaparra accounted for all but one of the Sox's 19 RBIs in the
Boston manager Jimy Williams added his own submission to the
Anthology of Red Sox Infamy ($19.18, We Press) by having his
closer, Tom Gordon, start the eighth inning, instead of reserving
Gordon for the ninth, as he had all year. Four batters later the
Indians took the lead for good on a two-run double by Justice.
Both Nagy and Colon prospered from Boston's lack of discipline
at the plate. They needed only 169 pitches while facing 51
batters. Cleveland pitchers don't figure to enjoy the same
economy against the Yankees, who look at more pitches than
Steven Spielberg. The Texas starter in Game 2, Rick Helling, for
instance, was cooked after six innings, having thrown 119
pitches to 27 batters. "The amazing thing about the Yankees is
how many pitches they see," Melvin says. "They take these
2-and-2 pitches just off the plate and you go, 'How do they take
that?' All of them do it. They have one good at bat after
another in that lineup."
The Indians will find the New York lineup is even more labor
intensive these days because of Shane Spencer, the 26-year-old
rookie who after eight years in the minors hit as many grand
slams in nine days in September as Torre hit in 18 years as a big
leaguer--three. "The reincarnation of Babe Ruth," Texas first
baseman Will Clark called him. If it seems Spencer came out of
nowhere, you're close: His parents live in Shirley, Ark. (pop.
363). "I know they've got a YIELD sign now," Spencer says. "I'm
not kidding." Cable TV? "Recently. Very recently," he says.
In his first postseason at bat, against Helling, a pitcher he'd
never faced before, Spencer hit a home run into Yankee Stadium's
Monument Park. In the sixth inning of Game 3, with two on and
the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead, thunderclaps rumbling,
lightning flashing and an ominous wind whipping empty blue
peanut bags and brown napkins around the infield, Spencer
walloped another home run--his ninth in his past 33 at bats.
Minutes later, the heavens opened with torrents of rain.
(Interested, Mr. Spielberg?)
"The kid's as cool as a cucumber," Cone says. "Before the game
[coach] Chris Chambliss asked him if he wanted to take batting
practice, and he said, 'Nah.' Didn't take a swing until he got
in the batter's box. This is the playoffs! Amazing."
Of course, the same adjective is applicable to Cone and his
pitching mates. No staff had ever allowed just one run in a
postseason series, and only four clubs had allowed fewer runs
than games played. "Wells set the tone," Cone said. Wells threw
eight shutout innings in Game 1, after which Steinbrenner
squeezed Wells's cheeks and gushed, "You're a f------ warrior,
that's what you are!" Wells celebrated by pulling on a Van Halen
cap and a Metallica jersey and chatting up Billy Corgan of
Smashing Pumpkins in the locker room.
Known as a fastball pitcher, Wells confounded the Rangers with
curves and changeups even when he was behind in the count. In
Game 2, Pettitte was just as baffling, painting the outside
corner with fastballs while the Rangers kept looking inside for
his signature pitch, a cut fastball. Texas scored against him
only after Chuck Knoblauch dropped the ball on a tag play at
second base. Cone continued the three-part mystery series with 5
2/3 shutout innings--and it took an act of God (the deluge) to
get him out of the game. "I don't think they knew what to expect
from me," says the always inventive Cone. "I don't know what the
hell to expect from me."
Every day the Yankees send a starter to the mound who has a vast
reservoir of big-game experience. Only the Atlanta Braves can
also make that claim. In their careers Wells, Pettitte and Cone
combined are 70-51 with a 3.45 ERA after Aug. 31, including 13-7
with a 3.92 ERA in the postseason. Each has won the clinching
game of a postseason series. And fourth starter Orlando
Hernandez, with his international experience playing for the
national team of baseball-mad Cuba, may have pitched under more
pressure than any of them.
No club with the best regular-season record has won a World
Series this decade, but the Yankees, buoyed rather than burdened
by their 114 wins, were off to the sort of table-running
postseason the Braves had in 1995. That year Atlanta allowed
only 43 runs in an 11-3 surge to the world championship. "Let's
see what happens," Hart says. "I've always thought the American
League championship has to go through Cleveland."
Historians and archaeologists are standing by.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN IACONO COVER Baseball's Final Four EXCLUSIVE Major league scouts analyze each team position by position Can anyone stop rookie sensation Shane Spencer and the Yankees? [Shane Spencer watching baseball after hit]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER COVER [Regional] Baseball's Final Four EXCLUSIVE Major league scouts analyze each team position by position Can David Justice and the Indians upset the mighty Yankees? [David Justice]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID LIAM KYLE Brinkmanship In a close call, ump Joe Brinkman ruled Valentin safe at home in the first inning of Game 2. [Joe Brinkman watching John Valentin sliding headfirst as Sandy Alomar applies tag]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Babe who? Spencer (far left) is icing on the cake for the power-packed Yankees, who left Texas's Ivan Rodriguez disconsolate. [Derek Jeter and teammates congratulating Shane Spencer]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above--Ivan Rodriguez behind home plate]
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER David is Goliath When he wasn't gunning down a runner at the plate, Justice was stroking timely hits to spark the Tribe. [David Justice hitting baseball]
The Scout's View
SI asked big league scouts who have closely followed the playoff
teams to help prepare these reports on the four League
Championship Series participants. The scouts were promised
anonymity in return for their candor, and here's what they
Has struggled this year but works deep into count and can beat
you in a lot of ways.
Great plate coverage. A tough out who uses whole field. Will
chase breaking pitches on occasion. Superior range defensively;
allows other infielders to position one more step away.
Another tough out who never gives away an at bat. Sets up
pitchers at times. Very good rightfielder.
Gets deeper in count more than ever. Not afraid to take a walk
and pass the baton to next hitter. Terrific range in center but
doesn't come in well on balls.
Power to all fields. Hard sliders and fastballs that sink or run
away give him trouble.
Switch-hitter loves the low fastball. Good mistake hitter and
better with runners on. Lefthanded, he struggles with balls
above the waist.
He'll swing over good breaking stuff, especially from the left
side. Excellent defensively. Moves feet so well, it's like
having a shortstop behind the plate.
Sliders and changeups can get him out. He can juice any
fastball; you can't get it by him. Has struck out a lot in past
but riding a wave right now.
Comfortable at bottom of lineup where there's no pressure. Power
to both gaps. Pitchers challenge him and Posada to try to
avoid top of lineup, but they can hurt you. Very good defensive
OF Tim Raines loves to hit to leftfield from left side. Dives
into the ball. Can get him out with hard stuff inside. C Joe
Girardi is a singles and doubles hitter with a short stroke;
very good catcher. OF Chad Curtis likes ball up and will chase
pitches too high. Infielders Homer Bush and Luis Sojo are
adequate but have a tendency to take too big a swing. OF Ricky
Ledee is a good, not great, all-around player.
David Wells, LHP In a helluva groove. Can put his fastball
anywhere he wants and cuts it sometimes. Throws curve anytime in
the count. Shows a changeup occasionally. Basically a two-pitch
guy who is tough to bet against when pitching with confidence.
David Cone, RHP Ability to give hitter different
looks--overhand, three-quarters and sidearm--a big plus. Hitters
don't get comfortable. Has nasty, tight slider with late bite,
and a slower, bigger breaking slider that buckles righthanded
Andy Pettitte, LHP Lives on his changeup and cut fastball. Has a
good curve and should use it more.
Orlando Hernandez, RHP Pitches backward: Uses his good curve and
slider to set up his fastball, which has good movement.
Lefthanded batters are comfortable facing him, because they get a
good look at the ball.
RH closer Mariano Rivera has plus fastball that seems to start
out at hitter's belt and ends up at his eyes. Good cutter. Last
month started showing a slider with a little bigger break. You
never know which Hideki Irabu will show up. Sometimes
righthander looks like he doesn't want to be out there. Body
language is pathetic. Fastball has tendency to be straight.
Lives off his splitter. RH Jeff Nelson's nasty sinker is tough
on righthanded hitters. Lefties hit him, though, because they
get good look at his sweeping slider. LH Mike Stanton has
straight fastball and is up in the zone a lot. Gives up too many
homers. With his long arms LH Graeme Lloyd is tough on lefties:
"Wraparound" breaking ball gets them to flinch. RH Ramiro
Mendoza has excellent sinker that runs away from righthanded
batters. Slider has short break.
Can't see anybody beating this team. Yankees can hit, pitch, run
and catch, and they have a good manager. They don't panic and
don't beat themselves, so opponent better be near perfect.
Intelligent hitter, uses the whole field. Pitch him away and
play him away, or jam him with fastballs at the hands. Tight
hamstring could limit base stealing. Defensively, has plus range
but a weak arm.
Looks for fastballs early. Likes pitches up and out over the
plate. Handles the bat well and tries to go the other way.
Dead low-ball hitter, but can hit anything when he's hot--as he
is now. Will chase fastballs up and in and pitches down and away
Get him to chase sliders away and fastballs up, but don't mess
around with fastballs down--he's lethal ankle-ball hitter. Plus
power to all fields. Has improved his concentration and,
therefore, his defense.
Terrific pull hitter, he loves fastballs on the inner half. If
you pitch him on the outer half of the zone, he'll try to pull
everything and hit a lot of grounders to short.
Broke his right hand in early August and since returning on
Sept. 16 hasn't hit inside fastball as well as before. Jam him
until he shows he can handle fastballs.
A 6'7" power hitter who likes to get his arms extended, so he
can be jammed. But also guesses well, so if he gets an inside
pitch he's looking for, he can hit it a mile.
High-ball hitter who likes the pitch out over the plate.
Switch-hitter with better success from the right side, where he
can pull the ball. As lefty, a slap-and-run guy.
OF Brian Giles is a low-ball hitter who likes the pitch in. INF
Joey Cora is line-drive hitter who can turn on inside pitch or
spray outside one the other way. INF Jeff Branson, lefty low-ball
hitter, is good pinch hitter. OF Mark Whiten is still dangerous
switch-hitting home run threat. C Einar Diaz, will chase almost
any pitch and won't play much.
Jaret Wright, RHP Power pitcher with fastball he can sink (93
mph) or ride (97 mph). Key is whether he can throw his slurve
for a strike and on a hitter's count. Otherwise, when in trouble
will challenge hitters with his heat--so they look for it.
Charles Nagy, RHP Fastball is only marginal (86 to 89 mph), but
split-finger has been effective lately. He's 100-pitch guy whose
mistakes come late.
Bartolo Colon, RHP Big-time fastball (92 to 98 mph) of two-seam
(sinking) and four-seam (riding) varieties. Struggles with curve
and tends to leave changeup high and hittable.
Doc Gooden, RHP No longer has smoking fastball and power curve.
Relies on a sinking fastball and slider with deep break. Don't
chase his pitches out of zone.
RH Mike Jackson doesn't throw hard for a closer, but he locates
fastball well and moves it in and out. Slider is hard and breaks
late, murder on righties. LH Paul Assenmacher is no longer
strike-throwing machine he once was, but gets by with sweeping
curve that's key pitch. RH Paul Shuey has three plus pitches:
fastball (92-96), splitter and curve that breaks late and hard.
Probably has best stuff on the team, but control is a problem.
RH Dave Burba is solid power pitcher with sinking fastball, good
curve and cutter he breaks in on hands of lefties. RH Steve Reed
relies on sidewinding curve that's murder on righties. Crafty RH
Chad Ogea makes his living with changeup. Had terrific
postseason last year but was beset by injuries this season. LH
Jim Poole relies on curve. Only time he uses average fastball is
to push hitters off plate and raise hitters' plane of vision.
Cleveland's starters are six-inning guys, so middlemen
Assenmacher and Shuey become crucial. If Colon and Wright don't
have command of their stuff, they will have trouble with
disciplined New York hitters. Offensively, Tribe needs to have
Lofton, Thome and Justice come through against lefties David
Wells and Andy Pettitte to have a chance.
The helplessness of sensory deprivation is as good a way as any
to describe what it feels like to play the Yankees.