Yankees 4, Orioles 3
The fates of three teams came down to the decision faced by Lee Mazzilli in the ninth inning of a tie game Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium: Should Alex Rodriguez be pitched to, or walked?
For Mazzilli's Baltimore Orioles, the outcome of the decision, and by extension the game, would mean the difference between a winning record and a losing record on a grueling 13-game road trip that was coming to a merciful end on this afternoon.
For Rodriguez's New York Yankees, it would determine whether they could salvage a desperately needed win in the final game of this series and slow the tide of chaos and turmoil that threatens on a daily basis to engulf them.
And for the Boston Red Sox, who had already posted a victory up the coast, the outcome at Yankee Stadium would determine whether they would creep another game closer to the Yankees' shrinking lead in the American League East race.
Mazzilli chose to walk Rodriguez. And moments later, Derek Jeter was crossing the plate with the winning run in the Yankees' 4-3 victory that made only one of the three teams happy.
While the Orioles quietly were dressing and preparing to go home following a 6-7 jaunt across four cities and three time zones -- their six-game winning streak having just been snapped -- the Yankees, still 21/2 games up on the Red Sox, were wiping the cold sweat from their foreheads and thanking the heavens, once again, for the fact they have Jeter on their side.
In a game everyone knew the Yankees had to win, it was Jeter who manufactured a run almost entirely by himself in the bottom of the first inning to reduce the Orioles' quick 3-0 lead by one. It was Jeter who made the key defensive play of the game in the seventh inning, preserving a tie game by turning a rundown between second and third into a double play when Baltimore's David Newhan tried to advance a base behind Jeter's back.
And it was Jeter who drew the leadoff walk against Orioles closer Jorge Julio in the ninth inning of a 3-3 game, forcing Mazzilli into a decision for which there was no easy choice.
"In the nine years I've been here," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said of Jeter, "when we've had a big game, he's the one who makes us go."
The Orioles had a chance to take the lead in the top of the ninth against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, after consecutive singles by B.J. Surhoff and Jay Gibbons put runners on the corners with nobody out. But Larry Bigbie struck out on a 95-mph fastball, Brian Roberts grounded out and Newhan, trying to bunt his way on, was thrown out at first by Rivera.
Taking over in the bottom of the ninth, Julio (2-3) threw his first six pitches for balls -- producing a walk to Jeter, a wild pitch that allowed Jeter to advance to second and a 2-0 count to Bernie Williams. Williams bunted Julio's seventh pitch for a sacrifice, sending Jeter to third, with Gary Sheffield coming to the plate and Rodriguez on deck.
On the Orioles' bench, Mazzilli did not hesitate. "I'm walking them both," he said to pitching coach Ray Miller and bench coach Sam Perlozzo.
Perlozzo pointed out Mazzilli's other option -- walk only Sheffield, and pitch to Rodriguez in hopes of inducing a double play. Rodriguez, though undoubtedly the most gifted player in the league, was hitting only .211 this season with runners in scoring position and routinely gets booed by the feisty Yankees partisans.
But Mazzilli had already made up his mind. He would walk Sheffield and Rodriguez and take his chances with Yankees catcher Jorge Posada.
"It's a no-brainer," Mazzilli said. Rodriguez "is one of the best in the game. It's the only way you can go. If we pitch to him and he gets a sacrifice fly, then what?"
Miller went to the mound to explain the decision to Julio and encourage him to keep his pitches low to Posada.
"It's the manager's decision," Miller said. "A-Rod is one of the best hitters in baseball."
The problem with loading the bases, however, was that Julio had shown no command of the strike zone. Now, throwing exclusively sliders, Julio got ahead of Posada 1-2, but his next two pitches missed. On 3-2 catcher Javy Lopez called for a fastball, and Julio's pitch was nowhere close. He walked off the field with his head down as Posada made his way to first and Jeter touched home plate with the winning run.
Asked if he was surprised by Mazzilli's decision, Julio said: "Yeah, because I wanted to face A-Rod. But I respect the decision of the manager. He's in charge."
Orioles Notes: Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro's three-run homer off Yankees starter Javier Vazquez in the first inning was the 544th of Palmeiro's career and his second in as many games. Two innings later, Vazquez hit him on the right forearm with a fastball, prompting home-plate umpire Mark Carlson to issue a warning to both benches. . . .
After leading off with a double past Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora in the first inning, Jeter stole third base, giving him 11 steals of third this season in 11 tries. . . .
Lopez had a rough game, his contributions to the Orioles' cause including an error and a passed ball -- both of which contributed to Yankee runs -- and an 0-for-4 afternoon at the plate in which he struck out once and grounded into an inning-ending double play.