There were times this season when the New York Yankees looked positively average. Their starting pitching was dismal for stretches, their clutch hitting awful and their infield defense an embarrassment. Some days, it was hard to remember they were on their way to 98 victories and the best record in the American League.
What they couldn't do was match last season's record-setting 114 regular season victories, and even though they said all the right things about this being a new season, they admitted the ghosts of 1998 haunted them for far too long. But tonight when the bright lights were turned back on, the Yankees reminded all of baseball of who they really are. Bernie Williams drove in six runs, Orlando Hernandez pitched two-hit ball for eight innings and the Yankees opened a first-round playoff series with a methodical 8-0 victory over the Texas Rangers before 57,099 at Yankee Stadium.
"We're having a lot of fun," Williams said, "but it's just the first game. We've got a lot of work to do. With those guys, it's like waking up an anthill. Thursday is going to be a different game, and we've got to do the same things we did tonight."
Hernandez nursed a one-run lead into the fifth inning, when the Yankees scored twice more to give him a cushion. He didn't allow a hit or a base runner to reach scoring position after the third inning and sailed through eight innings in shutting down the American League's second-highest scoring offense.
"Yankee Stadium, Yellowstone Park, I don't care where we're playing," Rangers Manager Johnny Oates said. "We should score more runs than that. We can score more runs than this by accident. Take nothing away from El Duque [Hernandez]. He pitched well. But with our offense, it's mind-boggling. We've talked the talk a lot. It's now time to walk the walk."
Williams doubled in two runs in the fifth, hit a three-run home run in the sixth and singled in a run in the eighth. He also made a diving catch of Juan Gonzalez's liner in right-center with two runners on in the third. The Rangers didn't get another runner into scoring position.
"He's a special person, a special talent," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said of Williams. "He'd be the same guy if he was making 10 cents. He works so hard at it. He's always looking for help, asking, 'How can I do something better?' "
The Yankees were so efficient that their only worrisome moment involved an off-the-field incident. Bench coach Don Zimmer, the beloved baseball lifer who managed the Yankees for 36 games while Joe Torre recovered from cancer surgery, crumpled to the dugout floor in the fifth inning after being hit on the left side of the head by a foul ball off the bat of Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. Play was stopped as medical personnel attended to Zimmer, who appeared to be knocked out. After being helped out of the dugout, Zimmer returned moments later holding an ice pack to the side of his face, having suffered an abrasion of the left jaw and ear.
The Rangers, who had the highest team batting average during the regular season, didn't come close against Hernandez and his variety of arm angles, breaking pitches and fastballs.
If the victory was simply one of the 11 postseason victories that stand between the Yankees and a 25th World Series championship, it might have meant something more to the Rangers. The Yankees have ushered them out of the playoffs two of the last three seasons with the Rangers losing six of seven. Last season, they scored one run during a three-game sweep. The Yankees have also won 16 of the last 23 regular season games between the teams.
This season was supposed to be different. The Yankees no longer looked invincible, and the Rangers added Rafael Palmeiro to the middle of their lineup and a pair of first-rate rookies--Jeff Zimmerman and Mike Venafro--to their bullpen. "I think we've closed the gap," Oates said before the series.
Rangers starter Aaron Sele was in trouble in almost every inning. He stayed around long enough to face one hitter in the sixth and was charged with six hits, five walks and three earned runs. He was followed by a parade of relievers, including Venafro, the Chantilly native, who allowed Williams's three-run home run in the seventh.
"I don't know if there was one turning point," Oates said. "Somewhere along the way you could pick Bernie. He made a difference out there."