The outcome of these postseason games between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers long ago became repetitious. Tonight's American League first-round series game produced a stirring pitchers' duel, but nothing new in the way of an outcome. The Yankees played as if they were biding their time and were destined to beat the Rangers every time they meet in the playoffs.
Ricky Ledee drove in the game-winning run with a seventh-inning double that gave left-hander Andy Pettitte a 3-1 victory over Rick Helling as the Yankees took a commanding two-game advantage in their best-of-five series, which will resume Saturday in Texas. It was the Yankees' eighth straight first-round victory over the Rangers. Roger Clemens will be next up on the mound for New York, trying to put the Rangers out of their annual postseason misery.
And misery it is: No team except the Rangers has lost eight straight games in first-round play.
"We know in our hearts that we can play with these guys, but until we start doing it, there's always going to be doubt," said Johnny Oates, the disheartened Texas manager.
Yankees Manager Joe Torre called tonight's victory "huge" and said it gave the New York "a terrific advantage" in the series. "With Clemens and [David] Cone [to pitch a fourth game, if necessary], it makes going down there a little less stressful," Torre said.
"We're really confident now," Ledee said. "We'll just go down there and play our game. We proved today we can win close games," after the Yankees' 8-0 rout in Game 1 of the series.
The Yankees added an insurance run in the eighth when left-handed reliever Mike Venafro, who was born in Takoma Park and lives in Chantilly, walked pinch hitter Jim Leyritz with the bases loaded.
Helling, a 28-year-old workhorse the last two seasons with Texas, deserved better. The 6-foot-3, 220-pounder struck out eight over 6 1/3 innings, six looking at called third strikes as he worked the outside corner--or beyond it--to take advantage of umpire Chuck Meriwether's wide strike zone.
But Helling, a 20-game winner last season and 13-game winner in 1999, weakened in the seventh inning, walking his first batter, then allowing a single by Chili Davis and the run-scoring double by Ledee. That was Helling's 123rd and last pitch.
Pettitte, 27, who finished the season with a 9-4 record in his last 15 starts, gave up a fourth-inning home run to Juan Gonzalez, but otherwise gave up six other hits and struck out five in 7 1/3 innings. He left, with no one on base, to a standing ovation and doffed his cap to the raucous sellout crowd of 57,485 at Yankee Stadium.
Jeff Nelson came on to strike out Ivan Rodriguez and Gonzalez. Nelson jumped high on the mound in celebration as Gonzalez fanned. Mariano Rivera closed out the Rangers in the ninth.
With his home run, Gonzalez broke the Rangers' scoreless string of 25 innings in first-round play against the Yankees. The Rangers had last scored in Game 2 of the 1998 first-round series, their only run that series.
Gonzalez's line drive over the leaping Ledee at the padded blue wall in left-center field was only the Rangers' second run in their last 45 innings of first-round play against the Yankees. It was Gonzalez's sixth career first-round home run, but he came into the game hitting .067 in the playoffs the past two seasons.
The Yankees broke through against Helling to tie the score in the fifth when Scott Brosius hit a 3-2 pitch off the wall in left for a two-out double, scoring Tino Martinez from first. Meanwhile, the Rangers did nothing creative to break their ineptitude.
They failed to capitalize on a scoring opportunity to start the fifth inning. Roberto Kelly led off with a single to center, and Lee Stevens bounced a fading line drive into the left field seats for a ground-rule double.
But with those two in scoring position, the Rangers neither added a timely hit nor showed any inclination to manufacture a much-needed run. All they looked was bad as Pettitte made clutch pitches. After falling behind 3-0 in the count, he struck out Mark McLemore. Royce Clayton bounced out to third, as the runners held. Finally, Pettitte fanned Rusty Greer.
"Andy made the pitches where he had to," said Oates.
Speaking of Pettitte, Torre was more effusive. "I thought he had his stuff from the start. I felt very comfortable with him out there. He made big pitches. When you need to count on him, he doesn't disappoint."
Pettitte said: "It seems like every year when things aren't going well, there's talk of trading me. It's just something you have to block out, although this year I thought it was really going to happen.
"I had a stretch there of a couple months when I really struggled. . . . Sometimes you're going to get beat. Sometimes things work out. Tonight we really played a great game. I didn't know if we were ever going to get to Helling."
CAPTION: Yankees starter Andy Pettitte exults after getting last out in the seventh inning. Pettitte held the Rangers to seven hits, one run in 7 1/3 innings.
CAPTION: Todd Zeile of the Rangers covers up as Yankees second baseman Chuck Knoblauch throws to first to complete the double play in the second inning.