What happens when a dynasty at the height of its power, playing in one of the most offense-favored environments in the history of the sport, travels to the biggest offense-favored ballpark ever? Well, in one word, chaos.
And chaos was what we had, roughly two decades ago, when the 43-26 New York Yankees traveled to Colorado, to face the 33-36 Rockies for a three-game set in June 2002.
A middle-of-the-year series 20 years go against a non-contender shouldn’t leave that much of an impression. But you’ll be interested in knowing that in stumbling upon this three-game set and pitching this idea to our managing editor, Andrew Mearns, he immediately remembered this series, and which games I was talking about.
And if there was ever a series eventful enough to leave a mark for this long, it was this one. Many runs were scored, virtually every pitcher who took the mound was bullied by the opposing offense into taking a seat in the dugout, and there were massive comebacks by each side.
Both teams combined to score a whopping 70 runs over these three games. Every single Yankee in the starting lineup either scored a run or drove one in, in each of the games, except for Shane Spencer in the series finale.
Whenever a team travels to Coors Field, it’s basically impossible to feel comfortable with your pitching, even more so when it is a team that doesn’t play there often, like the Yankees. Knowing that, Joe Torre had to feel at least alright with how his pitching was lined up for this series — the Yankees had Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens set, in that order, to face the below-.500 Rockies. Yet at the end of it, they combined to allow 15 runs (12 earned) over 13.2 innings of work.
Somehow, the Yankees won the series in spite of that. It probably had something to do with the fact they got 17, 18, and 19 hits respectively in each game. Let’s break them all down:
June 18th: A blitz by the top of the order as Mike Mussina guts one out
The Yankees took care of business early on in the first game of this series, scoring seven of their 10 runs in the first four frames, and although everyone pitched in, it was mostly the one-two punch of Alfonso Soriano and Derek Jeter getting it done. Jeter started the scoring with a solo shot in the top of first and was followed by a Robin Ventura RBI single, driving in Jason Giambi. In the second inning, the lead was extended to 5-1, as Shane Spencer also hit a long ball, and Giambi drove in both Mussina and Soriano on a single.
The first game had plenty of scoring but lacked drama, with the Yankees pulling away early and Mussina keeping Colorado at bay, despite the five runs he allowed over six innings. The future Hall of Famer stranded runners in four different innings and saved the bullpen for what was to come in the next two games.
Final Score: Yankees 10, Rockies 5
June 19th: Give up a seven-run inning, and still win in blowout fashion
In the second game, both offenses remained mostly silent in their first time through. Pettitte and Mike Hampton allowed only one run each in the first three innings, but then the fourth rolled around, and everything went off the rails.
With a two-run bomb by Ventura, and an RBI double by none other than Pettitte, the Yankees went out for the bottom of the fourth leading 4-1, and then like they tell you, no lead in Coors is safe — Pettitte wouldn’t even get out of that inning. The Rockies jumped on the Yankees’ starter with a leadoff bomb from Larry Walker, before the Todds (Helton and Zeile) got on via walk and error, then Benny Agbayani, who you may remember from his Subway Series Era stint with the Mets, drove in both with a double, followed by a home run from Juan Uribe.
It should be noted that Agbayani and Uribe were two of the worst hitters in baseball that season — they both had a wRC+ below 50 — with the added fact that Uribe was an everyday player in that season. At least Agbayani could cop out on a small sample size. Two singles and a walk later, Pettitte departed, and the Yankees trailed 8-4.
At that point, the Yankees had a 12-percent chance of winning the game. However, a three-run rally in the top of the fifth brought the lead down to one, and in the next inning, it was time for an unsung hero to emerge. Do you remember the name John Vander Wal?
Vander Wal was a decent major-leaguer, who spent most of his time with the Rockies and Expos, and played a single season as a bit of a fourth outfielder with the Yankees in 2002, at 36 years of age. He was a league-average bat and didn’t leave a huge mark aside from generally being known as a good pinch-hitter. For this one game, he showed off his specialty by stepping in to bat for reliever Randy Choate and driving in four runs despite not getting an at-bat until the sixth inning.
In the blink of an eye the Yankees had a 12-8 lead, and despite the Rockies answering back with a pair of runs it became a runaway shortly after. No lead in Coors is safe, but by the end of the game the Yankees had a comfortable 20-10 victory in hand.
Final Score: Yankees 20, Rockies 10
June 20th: Another huge comeback prevents the sweep
Given the direction that the first two games had gone, surely this was the setup for a sweep, no? Especially after the first four innings the Yankees played in the finale, where Giambi broke open the game with a three-run blast and a sacrifice fly, followed by a Ventura solo shot and Clemens helping himself out with a sac fly of his own. Add that all together, and the Yankees were up handily, 7-1.
However, that would ignore the cardinal rule: no lead is safe in Coors. The tides shifted in the sixth inning, a frame after Choate had come on to replace Clemens and allowed one run. There was still a six run lead thanks to a Soriano solo shot in the top of the sixth, but it all dissipated once the Rockies began a parade of baserunners. Choate allowed two walks and two singles before handing the ball over to Mike Thurman, who promptly gave up two more singles and a walk before a back-breaking grand slam off the bat of Todd Hollandsworth, suddenly putting the Rockies up 10-8.
Despite this, the Yankees managed to force extras thanks to a pair of runs from Ron Coomer and Jorge Posada in the ninth. Colorado would not be denied this night, however, and Steve Karsay could not stop the Rockies in the bottom of the 10th. A pair of singles set up Zeile for the walk-off three-run blast to end it, and capped off a truly wild series.
Final Score: Rockies 14, Yankees 11 (10)