The New York Yankees won their 36th American League pennant tonight in the same workmanlike manner that has characterized this often difficult season. If they've been less dazzling than 1998 and if they're not decisively better than some other teams, they've still managed to clear every hurdle and answer every challenge.
They did so again tonight in wrapping up the AL Championship Series by defeating the Boston Red Sox, 6-1, in front of 33,589 at Fenway Park. In what was supposed to be a matchup of the ages, a heavyweight bout featuring two rivals with 90 years of history behind them, the Yankees simply used the series as their stage to advance to the 1999 World Series against the New York Mets or Atlanta Braves.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter started their scoring with a two-run home run in the first inning, and catcher Jorge Posada ended it with a two-run home run in the ninth. In between, starter Orlando Hernandez allowed one run in seven-plus innings for his second victory of the playoffs, and reliever Ramiro Mendoza worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth to preserve the lead. The Yankees also scored two unearned runs in the seventh when Boston's defense came unglued for a second straight night.
In a season when their starting pitching was sometimes average, their manager missed 36 games to recover from cancer surgery and the upstart Red Sox pushed them deep into September, the Yankees still have ended up where they feel most comfortable: four victories from their 25th World Series trophy.
"We had our problems this year," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said amid a raucous clubhouse celebration. "We just hung in there and got the job done. We didn't have a lot of miracles, like some other teams. But it always feels good to be going to the World Series--no matter how you got there."
As they celebrated inside cramped quarters, a hundred or so fans gathered outside their clubhouse chanting "Let's go, Yankees!" Manager Joe Torre probably spoke for most of his players when he said he would relax in front of a television Tuesday night to watch the Braves and Mets play Game 6 of the NLCS.
"We had to earn it this year," Torre said. "I think teams felt they had a better shot this year. I think that makes it more satisfying."
Torre said he warned his players during spring training that they continually would be compared to last season, when they won a record 125 games. The Yankees never could shake those comparisons, but in the end, they've ended up in a familiar spot.
"We've been measured against ourselves all year," Torre said. "We couldn't compete against ourselves. That's a once in a lifetime thing."
As for the Red Sox, they went deeper into the playoffs than almost anyone believed possible. After losing superstar Mo Vaughn in free agency last winter, General Manager Dan Duquette constructed a club that had a wonderful work ethic and players who knew their roles.
Designated hitter Brian Daubach was signed as a free agent before he could go to Japan to play. Outfielder Troy O'Leary was claimed off waivers from Milwaukee. And Mike Stanley was acquired in a trade in late 1998. The sum of the parts was greater than any of the individual pieces, and when it finally ended tonight, the Red Sox took it hard.
"It's just hard to believe it's over," said shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. "It's hard to believe we won't be putting the uniform back on tomorrow. This is such a special group, a close-knit group. They weren't better than us. But we didn't play better than them. I mean, we could have won the first three games of the series and been up 3-0."
Jeter gave the Yankees a 2-0 lead in the first inning, and Hernandez, the series MVP, nursed that lead brilliantly into the eighth inning. The Yankees made it 4-0 with the help of a couple of errors.
Just as they had been in Game 1 of the series, the Red Sox were baffled by Hernandez's catalog of pitches that come at hitters from a variety of speeds and arm angles. Boston had base runners in all but one inning against Hernandez, but didn't score until Varitek homered to lead off the eighth.
When Garciaparra followed with a double, Torre went to his bullpen. He used three relievers before finally calling on Mendoza to pitch to Scott Hatteberg with one out and the bases loaded. He struck out Hatteberg on a nasty sinker, then got Trot Nixon on an infield pop fly. He retired the Red Sox in order in the ninth.
"I'm glad we get plenty of experience in low-scoring games," Torre said. "It just makes for a bad stomach and palpitating hearts and all that stuff. It's all pitching. You can make a lineup up one way or the other but it's still going to come down to how you do the job on the mound."
Red Sox starter Kent Mercker lasted just 3 2/3 innings. He gave up only two runs but allowed nine base runners, threw 79 pitches and was in almost constant trouble.
Had the Red Sox tied the game in the eighth, Manager Jimy Williams might have called on his ace, Pedro Martinez, who brought roars from the crowd when he jogged out to the bullpen and began to throw. He stayed there, too, as Mendoza did his job and the Red Sox began their 82nd consecutive offseason without a World Series championship.