The 2002 Yankees: Why I Will Never Understand Baseball

Al Bello

Storytime, kids! 2002 was the first season that I closely followed the Yankees from start to finish, and they were about as complete a group as you'd hope for from a baseball team. They also serve as a warning sign that no matter how terrific the assembled team is, they can just as easily collapse without warning in the playoffs. Ten years later, the 2012 squad looks just as dominant, but before anyone crowns them preseason champions (a la the 2011 Red Sox and Phillies), let's just see how they do on the field first.

The 2002 New York Yankees were a machine. They led the league in offense with nearly 900 runs and led the league in FIP with a 3.62 staff mark. They steamrolled the American League for 103 wins (seventh in team history) and with an offense led by MVP candidates Alfonso Soriano and Jason Giambi and a pitching staff entering the playoffs of Clemens/Pettitte/Mussina/Wells, they looked prime to return to the World Series for the fifth consecutive year. Unfortunately, this was not meant to be, as they were stunned in the first round by a surprising Anaheim Angels team that beat them in just four games. As a 12-year-old, I was heartbroken. How could they lose so pitifully after dominating all year? The 2002 squad has fallen from memory due to their playoff failure, but I'm not so sure we truly realize how stunning an upset the ALDS loss was. Follow the jump for a summary of the season and some perspective on why this loss was such a surprise.

The Yankees entered the 2002 season as American League favorites again. Looking back on it, I think that people greatly overstate the difference between the '02 and '01 team. Yes, "Tino, Scottie Bro, Knobbie, and Paulie" were all gone, but they were replaced with Jason Giambi, Robin Ventura, and a platoon of Shane Spencer, John Vander Wal, and Rondell White. Giambi and Ventura were, let's face it, significant improvements over Tino and Brosius, and though the platoon didn't really work well, Knoblauch and O'Neill were so ineffective in the field the previous year that production was about equal. The pitching staff was the same as the previous year, and it had been bolstered by the additions of David Wells (though the signing was controversial) and setup man Steve Karsay.

The season started out slowly and the Yankees were five games behind Boston on the morning of May 7th. The team had showed promise but was frustrating to follow, as they had gone 11-13 after starting 7-1, an under-.500 stretch that included an extremely tough loss in Seattle where Ted Lilly pitched 7 1/3 no-hit innings only to have it be broken up by an RBI single from Desi Relaford. The Mariners only had one hit, yet beat the Yanks 1-0. They had just been swept at home by the Seattle Mariners and they flew to Tampa Bay to play the Devil Rays. The D-Rays were just the medicine the Yankees needed, and the team proceeded to win 13 of their next 14 games, which included the dramatic May 17th win. More on that game....

This game was the definition of a classic. An early Yankees lead powered by a Bernie Williams solo homer was erased with a Twins-esque rally in the 3rd inning off Mike Mussina: double-single-single-groundout-single, good for three runs. The Yankees laughed at this small ball, and promptly scored five in the 4th on a Robin Ventura two-run homer that reached the fabled black seats and a three-run homer by Alfonso Soriano. Both were red-hot and had hit their tenth homer of the year already, marks not reached by either in the season before until June 5th and August 1st, respectively. Twins starter Rick Reed was replaced in the 5th, and LaTroy Hawkins was promptly greeted with a Giambi single and a Jorge Posada two-run bomb, making it 8-3.

Mike Mussina didn't normally cough up five-run leads, and the Twins were not a fearsome offensive group, so the game appeared over. Nevertheless, the punch-and-judy Twins offense was at it again in the 6th off of Mussina and later, Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza: double-single-single-double-single-single-sac bunt-intentional walk-sac fly-single (six runs). They might have scored more if Torii Hunter wasn't thrown out at third to end the inning, a baseball faux pas. The Twins now held the lead, and they held it until the bottom of the 9th, when All-Star closer Eddie Guardado took the mound with the Yankees down to their last two outs. Now batting from the right side, Bernie Williams was never someone to be intimidated by situations like these, and he homered on a 1-2 count to tie the game. It was a 46% WPA swing and the eighth time in Bernie's career that he had homered from both sides of the plate.

After Bernie tied it, Jason Giambi had a chance to quiet the chants of "Ti-no, Ti-no" and win the game with a homer, but he struck out looking and was booed going back to the dugout. The game stayed tied at nine until the 14th, when after the Yankees had squandered opportunities with runners in scoring position in the 12th and 13th, the Twins accomplished yet another rally without the benefit of a homer. Against long reliever Sterling Hitchcock, they mounted the following assault: walk-single-single-groundout-flyout-single-single, which somehow scored three runs. Fortunately for the Yankees, the Twins had to send out veteran reliever Mike Trombley, who was the seventh man to come out of their bullpen and (unbeknownst to him) was pitching in the third-to-last game of his career.

Despite Trombley's struggles, the Twins held a 95% chance of winning after a Soriano flyout left the Yankees with two outs to go and only a man on first base. Then Jeter singled, and Trombley walked Bernie. Giambi stepped to the plate in the rain. What followed was a 79% WPA swing, a walk-off grand slam deep into the right-center field bleachers, and Giambi joined Babe Ruth as the only Yankees to ever win a game where they were trailing by three with a grand slam. It was after this memorable game that I became positive that these Yankees were not going to trail behind the Red Sox in the standings for much longer. Giambi took the momentum from that game and won AL Player of the Month in May.

The Yankees ended May 19-9, then went 14-12 in June to overtake the slumping Red Sox, a month highlighted by a June 14th Subway Series win where Armando Benitez blew a save (of course) and Robin Ventura hit a two-run 10th inning homer in his return to Shea Stadium and a three-hit 1-0 shutout of the San Diego Padres by Ted Lilly on June 22nd, as the Yankees squeaked by in Jake Peavy's major league debut. This performance was one of Lilly's last as a Yankee though; the Yankees decided to make a trade for one of the best young arms in the game, Detroit Tigers ace Jeff Weaver, and Lilly was off to Oakland while Weaver came to New York in a three-team swap on July 5th. I didn't like it much because as heralded as Weaver was, it didn't make sense to trade a good young lefty like Lilly away from Yankee Stadium. The move didn't impact the season much though, and Lilly was injured for all of August, so it wasn't awful (it only got really bad once Weaver imploded in 2003). The team also dealt for malcontent Blue Jays right fielder Raul Mondesi on June 30th in a salary dump after George Steinbrenner witnessed Enrique Wilson play right field. I don't think anyone misses reaction trades like those. Mondesi's .315 OBP did not help the Yankees much and they would have been better off sticking with the Spencer/Vander Wal platoon.

Regardless of Mondesi's suckage, the Yankees went 17-8 during July, and they sent six players to the infamous All-Star Game tie in Milwaukee: starters Giambi, Soriano, and Posada as well as Jeter, Ventura, and Mariano Rivera.(Though Ventura probably wouldn't have been picked if the manager was anyone other than Joe Torre. Somewhere, Eric Chavez is still puzzled as to why he was never selected to an All-Star Game). The Yankees even stomached their worst loss of the year, a stunning 10-7 loss in Cleveland to the struggling Indians that ended with six runs in the 9th against Rivera of all pitchers and a walk-off grand slam to Bill friggin' Selby (he of 11 career homers). To this day, I still don't know how that happened, and I'm positive that no one involved does either. Fortunately, they kept winning anyway, and they took six out of eight games from Boston the rest of the way to put away the division by mid-August. The starting pitching continued to excel, and the Yankees ended the year tied for the league lead with 103 wins, and they finished 10.5 games ahead of a very good Red Sox team.

The Yankees were matched up in the playoffs against the wild card Anaheim Angels, who were only a "wild card" by definition of the term. They were a 99-win powerhouse that led the league in hitting (.282 BA) and just barely finished second in ERA (3.69 to Oakland's 3.68). Still, the Yankees took four out of seven from them in the regular season and had only lost two out of their last sixteen postseason series. Their four starters in the ALDS were "The Four Aces" before Philadelphia made the title cool (or so I hear).

Despite this advantage, the pitching staff completely dropped the ball. In Game 1, Clemens left in the 6th after eight hits and four runs on 113 pitches. He and the was bailed out by the Yankees' bats, who teed off against the Angels bullpen in the 8th, and the Yankees escaped with a win. The usually reliable Pettitte fared even worse in Game 2, as the Angels duplicated their efforts from the previous night by scoring 4 runs on eight hits, this time in only three innings. He was replaced by postseason ace Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, and the Yankees rallied from a 4-0 hole to knock Angels starter Kevin Appier out of the game and take a 5-4 lead in the 6th on a two-run homer by Soriano against then-unknown Francisco Rodriguez (appearing in his first playoff game and only the sixth pro game in his career). Though the lead was slim, it appeared to be safe entering the 8th, as El Duque had thrown four scoreless innings and only allowed one hit. Alas, two bad pitches to Garret Anderson and Troy Glaus later, it was 6-5 Angels on back-to-back homers. A couple of insurance runs were scored against Karsay, Mike Stanton, and Weaver to make it 8-5. The Yankees mounted a rally in the 9th against lockdown closer Troy Percival, but a chance to tie the game with runners on first and second was blown after Nick Johnson struck out swinging and Mondesi popped up (worthless ass). The series was tied and home-field advantage went to the Angels.

In Game 3, the Yankees jumped out to a 6-1 lead in the 3rd against Ramon Ortiz, but Mussina couldn't hold it. After four runs on six hits in four innings, he was pulled in favor of Weaver and then Stanton, who lost the lead in the 7th. Stanton gave up two doubles in the 8th, and Karsay was greeted with a two-run Tim Salmon homer to make it 9-6. The Yankees went down without a whimper in the 9th, as they only got one hit in the last six innings against the bullpen combo of John Lackey, Scott Schoenweis, Rodriguez, and Percival. Facing elimination, the Yankees sent playoff veteran David Wells to the hill in Game 4, and they held a 2-1 lead entering the home half of the 5th inning. Then, the season went to hell. Shawn Wooten (he of three homers on the season) tied the game on a long homer to left-center. Eight singles and a double later, the Angels had a 9-2 lead and the Yankees were on their third pitcher of the inning. The season was effectively over at that point, and they lost 9-5. The Yankees were no longer American League champions.

Now, this was the best Anaheim Angels team in their 50-year history and they won the franchise's only World Series title in a tough seven-game marathon over the San Francisco Giants, so these Angels were not an embarrassing team to lose to by any means. However, given how dominant the Yankees were over the course of the 2002 season, there was no excuse for their no-show in the ALDS. The pitching completely collapsed (8.21 ERA in 34 innings) and the Angels pretty much embarrassed the four-time AL champions in just four games. This no-show was a perfect example of the anomalies that short series tend to produce. Even if the 2012 team shows no signs of slowing down throughout the season, absolutely nothing can be assumed about the playoffs.

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