The New York Yankees arose from their slump and slumber tonight. All it took was an October call to arms and, right on time, they came to play.
With their strengths on display, and their weaknesses suddenly hidden, the Yankees dazzled the befuddled, what-are-we-doing-here Milwaukee Brewers, 5-3, in the opener of the American League East Division playoff.
For two lackadaisical months, the classically constructed Yankees have growled among themselves, wondering how they could be a losing, sixth-place team.
This evening, in one-third empty County Stadium, the bona fide Pinstripers re-emerged, performing with dash and daring that offered a harsh counterpoint to the tense bumbling of the Brewers.
"We were beginning to doubt ourselves. We wondered if we really could just turn it on when we had to," said Rick Cerone, one of the season-long slumpers who came on tonight with two doubles, one that drove in two runs and capped a four-run, game-changing fourth inning against Brewer starter Moose Haas.
"The intensity you saw tonight, with everybody screaming and excited, is something we haven't felt in a year," Cerone said.
From Oscar Gamble's two-run homer, to Dave Winfield's laser arm, to the flashy glovework of Cerone and Graig Nettles, it was an almost ostentatious show of strength that the Yankees made in this game, despite its close score.
However, as might be expected, the core of this Yankee team -- its magnificent bullpen of Ron Davis and Rich Gossage -- proved decisive.
Davis arrived in the fifth with the Yanks ahead, 4-3, two Brewers on base and Ron Guidry, battered by seven hits, ready for the showers. As a calling card, Davis, who got the victory, struck out AL home run co-champion Gorman Thomas, then proceded to retire all eight men he faced, four on strikes.
Yankee Manager Bob Lemon then did the unthinkable. He removed a pitcher who was almost untouchable in favor of another man. Or, at any rate, a Goose. Gossage gave up a single, but, by way of atonement, ended the game by reaching back for intimidating strikeouts of Jim Gantner and Paul Molitor to conclude his heavyweight save.
While the Yankees were playing with both fundamentals and flash, the Brewers were embarrassing themselves at every turn. While Nettles was leaping to steal a double down the line -- with two men on base -- from Ted Simmons in the third, while Cerone was making a slide-on-your-knees-into-the-screen, reach-back-over-your-head, full speed catch of a low foul pop, the Brewers were making three errors.
To be sure, this game had its simple elements, like Gamble, who had been zero for 27, singling, doubling and homering; or Bob Watson, after a .218 year, contributing three hits.
However, this night of Brewer demise had a darker, hidden element.
It wasn't the way Charlie Moore was out trying to stretch a single against Winfield. It wasn't Gantner letting a grounder through his legs. It wasn't the way Simmons threw a peg into center field in the ninth to allow Jerry Mumphrey to go first to third on a stolen base. It wasn't even the awful choke by shortstop Robin Yount who, with two out and Mumphrey on third in the Yankee ninth and the Brewers behind by a mere 4-3, did everything but trip and fall on his face as he booted Reggie Jackson's grounder behind second to give the Yankees an insurance run.
No, worse was an invisible little mental mistake that probably swung this game irretrievably to the Yanks.
One day ago, Brewer Manager Buck Rodgers said, "A short series like this could be decided by a little thing like somebody missing the cutoff man."
Tonight, the outfielder who blew that humble cutoff was Milwaukee's own Ben Oglivie.
Several Brewer sins preceded Oglivie's. First, Haas walked leadoff man Jackson in the fourth. Next, he threw a low fast ball to a low fast-ball hitter, Gamble, who tied the game, 2-2, with a homer to right.
Then, after Watson singled, Yount failed to charge and short-hop a chop by Rod Milbourne. The play a top infielder would have gobbled aggressively, Yount played cautiously and Milbourne beat out a "hit."
Finally, Cerone hooked a 3-2 pitch double into the left field corner.
Oglivie, his back to the play, assumed both runners, going with the pitch, would score. He was wrong. Milbourne never should have.
The Brewers had the proper relay set with Yount lined up with the plate in short left. Milbourne still was three running strides from third when Oglivie's strong throw came streaking in. Coach Joe Altobelli had the "stop" sign up.
But Oglivie, who never looked before he threw, had pegged to second. The ball arrived on three hops since there was no cutoff man to stop it. Milbourne scored uncontested. The inning ended quietly. Few noticed.
In a strategic switch after this game, Lemon changed his pitcher for Game 2 from Tommy John to DaveRighetti. If Righetti loses Thursday, the Yankees still go home tied with John in reserve. The kid southpaw can sleep easier.
Any Yankee fan, in fact, can sleep more soundly tonight.