Although I am a young fan, I am quickly realizing how difficult it can be to explain a player to a younger generation. How does one describe Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez to those who never saw him pitch? The Cuban righthander had an amazing story and one of the most unique pitching motions in baseball history behind him, and he was a terrific post-season pitcher as well (2.55 ERA in 106 innings). El Duque threw 876.1 innings in New York for six seasons, all of which ended in American League East division titles. He was a World Series champion in his first three seasons, winning the 1999 ALCS MVP along the way for his mastery of the Boston Red Sox (1.80 ERA in two starts). He had a wide range of pitches to work with, and through great control, he did not waste much time on walks either.
Back in '98 though, El Duque was an unknown. Relations between the United States and Cuba were even worse then than they are now. For decades, only a few Cuban pitchers (Luis Tiant, Camilo Pascual, and Mike Cuellar) were able to make it to the big leagues and find success. In '95 though, El Duque's half-brother Livan escaped from Cuba through Mexico and burst onto the baseball scene with the upstart Florida Marlins in '97. He helped the Fish win the Wild Card and eventually the World Series, picking up some postseason awards along the way (albeit with the help of the Win statistic). El Duque was older than Livan and had been a star pitcher for several years already with the Cuban national team when Livan crashed baseball's biggest stage. El Duque helped Cuba win many international competitions, most notably the gold medal at the '92 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He longed to pitch in Major League Baseball though, so he defected late in '97. El Duque declared himself a resident of Costa Rica, and he signed a four-year $6.6 million deal with the Yankees. He pitched to a 3.33 ERA in 51.1 innings between high-A Tampa and AAA Columbus in '98 before, through happenstance, he was given an opportunity to pitch in New York's crowded rotation. David Cone's finger was bitten by his mother's dog, forcing him to miss a couple starts. El Duque dazzled in a few starts against the Devil Rays and Expos, forcing the Yankees to keep him in the rotation. By August 13th, he had pitched to a 3.13 ERA in 83.1 innings, a remarkable feat for a rookie in an era heavily weighted toward offense. No one was really sure what his age was, but it did not matter. That day in Yankee Stadium, El Duque would pitch arguably the best game by a rookie in team history against the eventual AL West champion Texas Rangers, an offensive powerhouse.
The Yankees and Rangers built a small rivalry during the late-'90s. Both teams underwent a renaissance in '96, with managers Joe Torre and Johnny Oates splitting the AL Manager of the Year Award for guiding their teams to division titles. While the Yankees had won their first division title in 15 years, the Rangers had won their first division title in team history. Texas waited 24 years to celebrate a playoff team since the franchise's move from Washington in '72, and powered by great hitters like Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez, they won three division titles in a four-year period between 1996-99. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Yankee dynasty teams of Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams in the Division Series every year, losing each time and going 1-9 against the eventual World Series champions. Until the Rangers won back-to-back AL pennants in 2010 and '11, that period was the pinnacle of the franchise's success. Disregarding their playoff failures, they were a stellar team on offense. The Rangers scored 940 runs in '98, led by the (disputed) AL MVP Gonzalez, who slugged 45 homers and a league-leading 50 doubles. El Duque had his work cut out for him.
To begin the game, he set Texas down in order, and the Yankees gave him a 1-0 lead against Texas starter Rick Helling on an RBI single by first baseman Tino Martinez. El Duque quickly forced Helling to get back to the hill by striking out the side in the top of the second inning, no easy feat considering the hitters were Gonzalez, Will "The Thrill" Clark, and "Pudge" Rodriguez. He walked third baseman Todd Zeile to begin the third, but struck out right fielder Mark Simms and induced a ground ball double play from shortstop/future "actor" Royce Clayton. The Yankees scratched out another run against Helling on an infield single, a wild pitch, a ground ball to the right side, and a sacrifice fly (small ball enthusiasts would have loved it). The score was 2-0 now, but the Yankees were unable to add any more runs against Helling, who allowed just three hits and two runs in a complete game eight-inning effort. Helling had no luck though, since his mound opponent was throwing the game of his young career.
El Duque gave up his first hit in the fourth, a double off the center field wall by second baseman Mark McLemore, then walked left fielder Rusty Greer to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the form of Gonzalez. Players nicknamed Gonzalez "Igor" for his intimidating presence at the plate, but El Duque was unfazed. Gonzalez swung through three straight sliders and struck out. El Duque walked Clark to load the bases with two outs for Pudge. The big catcher fared no better than Igor, and he struck out swinging as well. Oates, the Texas manager, thought that El Duque intentionally pitched around the lefties Greer and Clark to face Gonzalez and Rodriguez despite their All-Star credentials. ''I thought the fourth inning was a tell-tale sign. I got a feeling he knew exactly what he wanted to do that inning. He was going to go after our right-handed hitters. I was very impressed.''
El Duque then struck out the side in the fifth inning to bring his total on the day to 10, the highest total of his 13 starts thus far. One of these batters was Zeile, who later remarked, "He threw three different pitches at three different angles, and when you do that you're going to be effective." El Duque amazingly struck Gonzalez out for the third time to end the sixth inning with a runner on first base. Gonzalez later mused, "Tough guy on the mound tonight. It was a big night for him." He closed the seventh inning by sending Simms down on a called strike three to leave Zeile at second base, who had hit a two-out double.
Simms was El Duque's 12th strikeout victim, tying the 30-year old Yankee rookie record set by '68 AL Rookie of the Year Stan Bahnsen on August 1st of that year. El Duque blew past Bahnsen by retiring McLemore on a called strike three to end the eighth inning. Hernandez had thrown 125 pitches, but Torre sent him to the mound to try to finish the game in the ninth. After retiring Greer on a groundout, he walked Gonzalez to end his evening. The crowd cheered "DU-QUE, DU-QUE!" as he left the mound to a thunderous applause.
The 13-strikeout game tied for El Duque's career high, which he matched on just one other occasion (August 28, 1999 against the Mariners). After the game, he said, "Imagine how I feel. This is a great honor. This team has a great history. This definitely merits going out and celebrating--not celebrating too much, but celebrating.'' The '98 Yankees certainly did their fair share of celebrating on their way to the franchise's 24th World Series championship.
Long live the "El Duque" dance.