Not to say that the late ‘90s/early-’00s Yankees dynasty teams were never underdogs, but at a certain point along the run, they gained an almost mythical quality. Comeback wins, so many different players coming through in big moments ... it seemed like whatever questions were asked of them, they had an answer.
One of the biggest tests of their resolve came down the stretch of the 2000 season, and they still ended up emerging triumphant from the challenge.
Regular Season Record: 87-74
Manager: Joe Torre
Top Hitter by WAR: Jorge Posada (5.5)
Top Pitcher by WAR: Roger Clemens (4.6)
After winning their third World Series in four years in 1999, the Yankees picked up where they left off to begin the 2000 season. An eight-game winning streak in mid-April seemingly put down a marker that the Yankees were going to be the team to beat again, and they did have big contributors leading the way. Jorge Posada broke out behind the plate for his first All-Star season, Bernie Williams belted a team-best 30 homers with a 140 OPS+, and Derek Jeter was, well, Derek Jeter.
However in the spring and early summer, the Yankees were merely playing okay, and got drawn back into a three-way race in the AL East. Joining them in battling for the division were the Red Sox, who they had battled in the previous year’s ALCS, and an upstart Blue Jays team led by Carlos Delgado and former Yankee David Wells. After a June where the Yankees went just 10-15, they were three back in the division and on just a 83-win pace.
Things started to change in July, thanks in part by a trade. On June 29th, the Yankees sent Zach Day, Ricky Ledee, and Jake Westbrook to Cleveland for David Justice. After having been a key part of Braves’ burgeoning National League frontrunners, Justice had gone to Cleveland and finished in the top five in MVP voting in ‘97, and continued raking there over the next couple seasons. With the Yankees in desperate need of someone to bolster their lineup, and having missed out on other targets, the Yankees paid a hefty price and brought in Justice. He hit the ground running, and the Yankees then reeled off a 18-8 July that returned them back to the top of the AL East.
The Yankees continued that through August and September thanks to the help of some further additions. In the week leading up to the trade deadline and then the waiver deadline, the Yankees added Denny Neagle, Glenallen Hill, José Canseco, José Vizcaíno, and Luis Sojo. Neagle wasn’t great, Canseco didn’t play a ton (but did have one memorable monster home run) and was merely average when he did, but the other three were all either very good or provided a memorable moment that may or may not be brought up later in this article.
After a win on September 13th that was their sixth in their last seven games, the Yankees extended their AL East lead to nine games. With a little under 20 games to and on pace for 95 wins, it seemed like all was fine.
Over the rest of the season though, the Yankees became ice cold. They went just 3-15 over their final 18 games. The pitched allowed over eight runs per game over that stretch, including seven separate games where the opponent cracked double digits. They ended the year on a seven-game losing streak. After being on pace for 95 wins just a little more than two weeks prior, they finished with just 87. The lead they had built up ended up being too much for anyone to overtake them in the division, but they were limping badly into the playoffs.
In the ALDS, the Yankees were matched up against the AL West champion Oakland Athletics, who were led by eventual AL MVP Jason Giambi. After dropping Game 1, the Yankees bounced back to take the next two, giving themselves a chance to take the series at home. However, the A’s knocked Roger Clemens out after six runs and five innings, en route to an 11-1 win. That meant the Yankees would have to go back to Oakland for Game 5, where they got off to a perfect start by scoring six first-inning runs, with the big blow coming on a bases-loaded Tino Martinez double.
Oakland chipped away at that lead over the rest of the game and even sent Andy Pettitte to the showers in the fourth. But thanks to a sterling, scoreless effort from the Yankees’ bullpen, they came up short, with Mariano Rivera throwing a five-out save to clinch the series.
The ALCS offered up another AL West team, the Wild Card Seattle Mariners, who had dispatched the AL Central-winning White Sox with ease in a sweep. Seattle featured a solid rotation and a lineup led by the likes of Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, John Olerud, and a 24-year old Álex Rodríguez who was just about to smash free agent contract records.
The ALCS played out fairly similarly to the previous round. The Yankees dropped Game 1, but then reeled off consecutive wins to get on the verge of clinching the series. After the Mariners saved themselves in Game 5, the series went back to New York.
In Game 6, the Mariners jumped out to a 4-0 lead, looking to force a Game 7. The Yankees chipped away at their deficit in the fourth, but the big moment came in the seventh inning. With two on and out one, Justice came to the plate. Their mid-season acquisition came through once again, delivering a three-run home run to give the Yankees the lead.
The Yankees tacked on a couple more runs in the inning and eventually withstood a Mariners rally, eventually winning 9-7 to go to their fourth World Series in five years. Justice won ALCS MVP for his heroics. After taking the NLCS in five games over St. Louis, their World Series opponent would be the Mets, creating the first Subway Series since the Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956.
After Pettitte and Al Leiter exchanged scoreless inning early on in Game 1, the Yankees took a sixth-inning lead, only for the Mets to rally, take the lead, and knock out Pettitte in the seventh. The Mets held that lead until the ninth, where the Yankees were down to their final three outs against Armando Benítez, with whom they had some history. After Benítez recorded the first out of the inning, a 10-pitch walk to Paul O’Neill and a pair of singles loaded the bases. Chuck Knoblauch tied the game with a sac fly, but they couldn’t plate another run, and the game went to extra innings. The Yankees bullpen got nine outs from Rivera and Mike Stanton, setting the stage for the bottom of the 12th.
With the bases loaded, another midseason acquisition, Vizcaíno, hit a walk-off single to give the Yankees Game 1:
In Game 2, Clemens created a bit of controversy, but eventually gave the Yankees eight scoreless innings. Taking a 6-0 lead into the ninth, the Yankees almost completely coughed it up, but eventually hung on for a 6-5 win.
The Mets took Game 3 following an eighth-inning rally after it previously had been tied. Remarkably, it was the Yankees’ first World Series loss since Game of 1996, snapping a 14-game Fall Classic winning streak. With the Mets now down just a game and with the next two at home, they had a golden opportunity to change the tide of the series. It took exactly one pitch for that “momentum” to be flipped.
Jeter’s first-pitch home run gave the Yankees a lead that they would hold wire-to-wire, however not without some moments of stress. Holding just a one-run lead with two outs in the fifth, Neagle was removed with Mike Piazza due up. Torre decided to bring in David Cone, which didn’t exactly seem like the smartest move. Cone was in the midst of probably the worst season of his career in 2000. After an ERA near seven in the regular season, he had been removed from the rotation and had only thrown one inning total in the previous 14 playoff games. However, Cone got Piazza to pop up, ending the inning as the Yankees eventually went up 3-1 in the series.
Game 5 would be a rematch of Game 1 with Pettitte and Leiter, and the two again were both pretty good. The Yankees had taken a 1-0 lead, only for the Mets to answer with two runs. The Yankees evened the score in the sixth inning, eventually setting the stage for the ninth inning.
While Pettitte had already exited, Leiter was still going as the Mets took the field for the ninth, well up over 100 pitches. After he got the first two outs of the inning, he walked Posada and allowed a single to Scott Brosius. That brought up Sojo, who then created one of the funnier World Series-deciding plays ever.
Sojo was a hero, Rivera finished things off in the ninth, and the Yankees were champions for the fourth time in five years. Jeter was named World Series MVP after hitting .409/.480/.864.
Little would we have known at the time, but this would be the last championship for this era of the Yankees. They made it back to the World Series the next year and then again in 2003, but they fell each time and large parts of the roster were already different for ‘03. Maybe the late-season losing streak was a sign the roster was getting old, but it provided for one of the more remarkable runs for a Yankee championship team.