The 1927 Yankees, known as the legendary “Murderers’ Row” for their formidable lineup, are waiting in the wings to see who they’ll be facing in the championship round of our All-Time Yankees Fantasy Showdown. One thing is for certain: their opponent will be a modern-era squad that most fans will know well.
For the last six weeks, we’ve been using Out of the Park Baseball 21 to simulate a tournament among the greatest Yankees teams ever. There have been shocking upsets, thunderous comebacks and late-inning dramatics as franchise icons have gone head-to-head. You can find summaries of late-round action here, here and here.
Now on to our second Final Four matchup:
(1) 1998 vs. (4) 2009
Of course, these two teams have several significant things in common. Four, to be precise, in the form of the vaunted “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. But they’re the products of distinctly different roster-building strategies. The 1998 Yankees were the high point of the late-nineties dynasty, whose teams prized balance and consistency over flash. While certainly still benefiting from the organization’s financial might, they represent a bygone era before $100 million payrolls (and eventually $200 million payrolls) became standard.
In the ensuing years (I’d argue after the 2001 World Series defeat) the organization returned to its more George Steinbrenner-esque roots as big-game hunters. The acquisitions of Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson marked a departure from the ‘90s teams. Money, and perhaps money alone, would ensure championship glory. Except it didn’t.
Until 2009, when the Yankees once again opened their massive coffers, but spent their dollars on better investments. They got the ace they craved (and desperately needed) in CC Sabathia. Mark Teixeira provided a middle-of-the-order bat to an already dangerous lineup. Nick Swisher and A.J. Burnett also signed on for key roles and, collectively, the new group helped reinvigorate a stale and often stifling clubhouse.
And so these two teams, similar yet distinct, meet.
Game One was a matchup of aces: David Cone for 1998 and Sabathia for 2009. Both gave their teams strong starts. Cone went six strong, surrendering just two hits and one walk while striking out six. One of the two hits, however, was a fourth-inning solo homer to Robinson Cano to give ’09 the first run of the series.
Sabathia, on the other hand, threw six scoreless, striking out five and walking three before handing the ball to utility reliever Alfredo Aceves. This is where the ’98 team’s fundamentals and execution came to the fore. Paul O’Neill led off the bottom of the seventh with a walk, then stole second base with Jorge Posada at the plate (and ironically, behind the plate.) Posada then moved O’Neill to third with a groundout to first base before Darryl Strawberry, pinch-hitting for Chad Curtis, lifted a fly ball to right that allowed O’Neill to tag and score. Without registering a hit, ’98 had tied the game.
Then in the bottom of the eighth, 1998 showed they could bring the thunder too, as Bernie Williams cracked a solo homer to right with two outs to give his team a 2-1 lead. Mariano Rivera closed out the ninth to seal a series-opening victory for ‘98.
In Game Two, after 2009 Andy Pettitte conceded a first-inning run, his ’09 teammates exploded for four runs in the second, powered by a Melky Cabrera grand slam off ’98 starter David Wells. Jeter added a two-run homer in the fourth off Wells and ’09 scored three more in the eighth to enter the final frame up 9-3. Ninety-eight managed to make things interesting, though, with Tino Martinez launching a three-run homer off Sergio Mitre before O’Neill victimized Rivera for a two-run shot to pull his team within one. But ’09 Rivera retired ’98 Posada to close out the game and knot the series at 1-1.
Game Three was a back-and-forth contest. The ’09 team put up three runs in the first off “El Duque” Orlando Hernandez, but ’98 hit back with four off A.J. Burnett in the top of the second, keyed by a three-run Chuck Knoblauch homer. Ninety-eight added another run in the third, but Teixeira blasted his own three-run shot in the fourth to give 2009 a 6-5 lead. The score sat there until the ninth, which quickly morphed into a surreal nightmare for Mariano Rivera.
First, in the top half, ’09 Rivera’s attempt to close out the game was spoiled by a Tino Martinez solo shot that tied the game at six. Then in the bottom half, ’98 Rivera gave up a walk-off jack to Jorge Posada. The 2009 team won 7-6 to take a 2-1 series lead, with Mariano Rivera getting the win, the loss and a blown save.
Game Four was a relatively straightforward affair, which saw ’98 win 5-3 to even the series. Bernie Williams provided the bulk of the fireworks with a first-inning three-run homer off ’09 starter Joba Chamberlain.
There were, once again, late-inning heroics in the crucial Game Five. With 1998 up 5-1 in the bottom of the seventh, 2009 rallied for three runs (the key hit being A-Rod’s two-run homer) before exploding for six runs in the eighth. The late-game blitz gave ’09 a 10-5 win and a 3-2 series lead.
Game Six was eerily reminiscent of Game Three, with Mariano Rivera’s “Black Mirror”-esque waking nightmare repeating itself in reverse. With ’98 up 4-3 in the top of the ninth, Rivera gave up a run-scoring double to A-Rod to tie the game. But in the bottom of the inning, ’09 Rivera surrendered a walk-off homer to pinch-hitter Darryl Strawberry. The 1998 team mustered late-inning magic of their own to send the series to seven games, with Rivera once again getting the win, the loss and a blown save.
Confused? You’re surely not alone.
That left one final and decisive contest to determine who would move on. And once again, the pendulum swung wildly in both directions. In this rematch of “El Duque” and Burnett, 1998 struck first. With runners on second and third and one out in the opening inning, Paul O’Neill swung and missed at Burnett’s 2-2 offering, but the ball got by Posada. Chuck Knoblauch scored to give ’98 a 1-0 lead.
It didn’t last long. Nick Swisher powered a 414-foot, two-run homer to right off “El Duque” in the top of the second to give ’09 a brief lead. But that didn’t last long either. In the bottom of the second, a solo shot by Posada and a two-run blast by Jeter put ’98 up 4-2.
Two innings later, in the top of the fourth, Jeter’s ’09 version smashed a two-run triple to right to tie the game at four as these two tenacious heavyweight fighters continued to trade blows in the middle of the ring.
In the bottom of the fifth, Scott Brosius went deep of Sergio Mitre for a two-run shot that gave ’98 a 6-4 lead. But, of course, ’09 returned fire immediately. In the top of the sixth, A-Rod launched a three-run homer to right off Ramiro Mendoza and all of a sudden, ’09 were in front 7-6.
And what do you think happened next? That’s right, in the bottom of the sixth, ’98 answered back. Strawberry hit a solo shot off Chad Gaudin to lead off the inning before Jeter cleared the left-center field fence for his second two-run homer of the ballgame, this one a 418-foot bomb. Ninety-eight was back in the driver’s seat with a 9-7 lead.
Then … well, that was it. The two sides had punched themselves out and collectively registered just one hit the rest of the way. Jeff Nelson, not the presumably traumatized Rivera, came on in the top of the ninth and retired ’09 one-two-three to preserve the win and send 1998 into the finals. Bernie Williams was named MVP.
“Murderers’ Row” is up next.