The toy-car-racin', profanity-rappin', towel-snappin' romper
room that is the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse at Network
Associates Coliseum fell so quiet last Saturday evening you
could have heard a jaw drop. How in the world, the A's wondered,
did New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter suddenly and
inexplicably materialize, apparitionlike, and ruin their party
with one quick flick of the wrist? How did the Yankees, who
looked so old and infirm for the first two games of the American
League Divisional Series that you could almost hear them creak,
suddenly revert to, well, the Yankees? The Athletics knew where
to find the answers: the calendar. This was October.
The ancient Greeks thought those favored by the gods with
immortality played upon the Fortunate Fields in eternal bliss.
Forgive the A's if they believe the Yankees have found the
baseball equivalent. Four times in the past two postseasons
Oakland needed only one victory to kill New York's latest
dynasty. Four times Oakland failed. Having lost the first two
games of the five-game series at home, the Yankees and their
mystique lived on when, taking advantage of sloppy Oakland play
(three errors among other gaffes), they completed an
unprecedented three-game comeback with a 5-3 victory in Game 5
on Monday night.
In the first two games, which New York lost 5-3 and 2-0,
respectively, the Yankees scored one run in 14 2/3 innings
against Oakland's winning starting pitchers, lefthander Mark
Mulder and righthander Tim Hudson. The A's celebrated
boisterously with their usual musical selections featuring
lyrics that would make a drunken longshoreman blush.
Before Game 3 in Oakland, during a casual bit of pulse-checking
in his own clubhouse, New York manager Joe Torre was not
comforted by what he found. "I thought my team was anxious," he
said the next day.
"Darn right," outfielder Paul O'Neill said. "We were desperate."
The turnaround began, though, 30 minutes before the game as
righthander Mike Mussina, whom New York had signed to a
six-year, $88.5 million free-agent contract last November, put
on a game face that might as well have been cast in stone.
Pressure? Torre always has regarded Game 3 as the most important
of a postseason series, and here was Mussina pitching a Game 3
in his first postseason start for New York--with the Yankees
dynasty hanging by a thread. "I watched him for a while, and I
liked what I saw," said Reggie (Patron Saint of October)
Jackson, a New York adviser, after the game. "He sat in front of
his locker and was very serious. I could tell by his body
language the man was ready."
Said Mussina, "Reggie told me later that he got fired up just
seeing me prepare. What I did, though, was treat it like any
other start. You have to. If you think about what's on the line
and take the weight of it out to the mound with you, you can't
Torre maintains that the foundation of the Yankees' October
success was built on the mound. The visitors' bullpen in Oakland
on this day offered a reminder. First Roger Clemens threw there
as preparation for a possible Game 5 start. Then the ever
mysterious Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, the Game 4 starter if
necessary, took the hill for a fascinating 15-minute phantom
throwing session with an invisible baseball and invisible
catcher. Then Mussina warmed up for his start, and in the later
innings Game 2 starter Andy Pettitte readied himself for
possible relief duty in Game 5. Clemens, Mussina, Hernandez and
Pettitte. It looked like one of those old Soviet army parades of
weaponry through Red Square.
Once Game 3 began, Mussina outdueled Barry Zito, Oakland's
23-year-old lefthanded prodigy, in a 1-0 instant classic. The
Yankees got only two hits off Zito and reliever Mark Guthrie,
who pitched the ninth inning--matching the most meager output in
the Bronx Bombers' storied 279-game postseason history. (Hall of
Famer Warren Spahn two-hit New York for the Milwaukee Braves in
the 1958 World Series.) One of those hits, however, was a
fifth-inning home run by Jorge Posada.
"It's almost all I've known; I'm used to it by now," Mussina
said of dueling another ace. He joined Oakland's Vida Blue (who
shut out the Baltimore Orioles in 1974) as the only starters to
win a 1-0 game on the road in an American League playoff game.
It was the 16th time in 35 starts this year that the Yankees had
scored once or not at all while Mussina was in the game.
New York closer Mariano Rivera provided one of his signature
saves, but only after Jeter had made an unforgettable one of his
own. Oakland attempted to tie the score with two outs in the
seventh when Terrence Long grounded a hit into the rightfield
corner that sent Jeremy Giambi, who'd been on first base,
chugging homeward. Rightfielder Shane Spencer fielded the ball
and overthrew the cutoff man, second baseman Alfonso Soriano, as
well as the backup cutoff man, first baseman Tino Martinez. The
throw also was off-line. Oakland on-deck hitter Ramon Hernandez,
standing on the grass on the first base side of home plate,
remembered thinking, That ball's going to hit me.
Enter Jeter, deus ex machina. His assignment, he said later, is
to rove the infield like a free safety. "I'm like Ronnie Lott,"
he said, laughing. Jeter might hang near second base, for
instance, if a relay throw is needed to catch the batter
advancing toward that base. In this case, though, he read the
trajectory of Spencer's sailing throw and dashed toward an area
between Martinez and Posada, the catcher. Jeter fielded the ball
on a hop with two hands on the foul side of the line and, with
his momentum still carrying him away from the plate, shoveled a
backhand flip to Posada so accurately that Posada needed only to
reach back and tag out Giambi, who wrongly disregarded
Hernandez's plea to slide.
Jeter's play was a brilliant combination of intuition and
athleticism, much like San Francisco 49ers receiver Dwight
Clark's celebrated Catch at the back of the end zone in the 1982
NFC Championship Game. When a replay of Jeter's acrobatics
appeared on a television in the Oakland clubhouse after the
game, several A's chortled, "What's he even doing there?" Said
outfielder Johnny Damon, "I couldn't believe it. I thought, What
in the heck is he doing there? Then I was amazed that the shovel
pass he made was perfect. Jeter made a play that saved their
season." Said Oakland manager Art Howe, "I don't have any clue
why he was involved in that, but it worked out well for them."
It was exactly the kind of attention-to-detail play that has
made the Yankees the Yankees. "We've had that in as long as I've
been here," Jeter said. (In Game 5 he would make another
out-of-this-world play, cartwheeling into the stands behind
third base to snare Terrence Long's foul pop in the eighth
The series had turned. New York, under Torre, was 11-3 in Game
3s. Torre found no anxiety the next day. "Much more relaxed," he
said, gauging the pregame mood during batting practice. El Duque
went further. "Incredibly," he said, "it seemed as if we were
leading the series."
New York rolled to a 9-2 victory in a Game 4 that was as tedious
and disjointed as Game 3 had been mortise-and-tenon tight.
Hernandez, pitching with the wisdom of his 9-1 postseason
record, exploited the Athletics' increasing urgency to rap a
clutch hit. (They were 4 for 43 with runners in scoring position
during the series.) Oakland's starter, righthander Cory Lidle,
was pitching his first postseason game. He admitted he "fell
apart" after not getting strike calls on a few close pitches.
Oakland's high-volume joyride ended when the Yankees again fell
back on their October experience. What else is new? Look at the
starting pitchers in the four clinching Division Series games
this year: Clemens, 39, for the Yankees; Jamie Moyer, 38, for
the Seattle Mariners; Curt Schilling, 34, for the Arizona
Diamondbacks; and John Burkett, 36, for the Atlanta Braves.
Every team, though, wishes for the reservoir of experience from
which the Yankees draw.
"I'll tell you what it is, because I've seen it from both
sides," said Mussina, the former Baltimore Oriole. "It's not
always exactly how it looks. The main things are: [The Yankees]
never panic, and they never stop busting their tails. And when
we--I should say we now--get a break, we take advantage of it.
People talk about Jeter's play. It was great, but I also think
about the line drive [third baseman] Scott Brosius caught off
Damon in the sixth. If that gets by him, maybe Damon's on
second, and maybe he scores on a hit. A lot of the reasons why
we win may seem uneventful."
The Athletics know too well. Having lost Game 5 to New York last
year, too, once again they went home for the winter unable to
defy the calendar. And the Yankees? They played on upon the
Fortunate Fields of October.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO COVER The Playoffs American League The Yank's Historic Comeback But Can Derek Jeter & Co. beat the mighty Mariners, baseball's winningest team?
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO Backbreaker The breathtaking flip by Jeter (background) led to Posada's tag on Jeremy Giambi in Game 3.
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO Berning In Game 4, Bernie Williams, with five RBIs, was one of the Yankees whose bat warmed.
COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN Zero hero With his momentum-turning effort in Game 3, the methodical Mussina made the most of his meager run support.
THE SCOUT'S VIEW
.250, 9 HRs, 44 RBIs
Trying to hit everything out. Still can spark Yankees by getting
on base and running.
.311, 21 HRs, 74 RBIs
The glue. Can go to right field with power. Outstanding
.241, 18 HRs, 51 RBIs
Swing has gotten real long. Good fastballs usually get him out.
.307, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs
Streaky. Can hit the ball out or steal a base. Defensively,
better going side to side than in or back.
.280, 34 HRs, 113 RBIs
Adjusted swing so he's not as vulnerable on balls over inner
half of plate.
.277, 22 HRs, 95 RBIs
Developed into clutch guy. Opponents prefer him on the right
side late in the game.
.267, 21 HRs, 70 RBIs
Bat has slowed. Age shows in his hands, which are no longer
.287, 13 HRs, 49 RBIs
Slow bat, so you can pound him inside. Had a bad year defensively.
.268, 18 HRs, 73 RBIs
Goes up there swinging. Good athlete who can make a play on
defense or steal a base.
OF Shane Spencer excellent against lefties. A gap-to-gap hitter
with good power. Underrated defensively. IF Randy Velarde's game
has slowed. Can only handle balls out over the plate. IF Clay
Bellinger a limited player who might see time as pinch runner.
IF Luis Sojo is a good fastball hitter who can rise to the
occasion. His best role is as a pinch hitter. IF Enrique Wilson
valuable defensively: can play three positions. Good fastball
hitter from the left side.
Roger Clemens (20-3, 3.51 ERA) Can crank it up and give you a
great start, but not as sharp as he was most of the season.
Throwing more splitters now, which he tries to get guys to chase.
Andy Pettitte (15-10, 3.99 ERA) A big-game guy. Throws four
pitches--fastball, cutter, curve, change--for strikes.
Especially effective against teams with lefthanded power. Has
risen to the occasion year after year.
Mike Mussina (17-11, 3.15 ERA) Showed in Division Series Game 3
why the Yankees paid him big free-agent money. Can stifle an
attack with his fastball, splitter, curve and change, all of
which he throws for strikes, plus his ability to create on the
Orlando Hernandez (4-7, 4.85 ERA) Not as effective as he once
was, but on any given day can come up big. Injuries have taken a
toll on his stuff.
RHP Mariano Rivera still game's best closer. Great cutter allows
him to pound lefties inside. Throws strikes and has the
confidence to come through with the game on the line. LHP Mike
Stanton gets righties out as well as lefties. Has curve, slider
and plus fastball. Valuable bridge to Rivera. RHP Ramiro Mendoza
runs hot and cold. When his sinker is good, nothing comes in
above thigh-high; when it's bad, everything is up and he gets
whacked. RHP Jay Witasick has straight fastball teams can adjust
to. Hasn't gotten slider over consistently. LHP Sterling
Hitchcock can give you an inning as a bridge, especially against
HOW TO BEAT THEM
Get the lead early and make the Yankees chase you; hope they
don't grind out at bats. Get to the lesser arms of the bullpen
early. If you have to chase this team, then you have to get
through Stanton and Rivera--and nobody has been successful doing
that for three years.
"I couldn't believe it," said Oakland's Damon of Jeter's play.
"I thought, What in the heck is he doing there?"
"I could tell by his body language the man was ready," said
Jackson of Mussina's pregame mien.