The 2001 season, in hindsight, goes down as the last great hurrah of the late ‘90s Yankees dynasty. Although they did not win their fourth straight World Series title — a feat that had not been accomplished since the 1949-1953 Yankees won five straight — they sent the 116-win Seattle Mariners packing in five games in the ALCS and went seven games with the Arizona Diamondbacks in a dramatic World Series.
And yet, the thrilling pennant run almost ended in its cradle. The lineup, which had ranked fifth in the AL with 804 runs during the regular season, had been completely stifled by a young Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, and while Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte had pitched well, the lineup had given them no room for error against the potent A’s order. Just like that, the three-time defending champs were not only on the verge of elimination, they were on the verge of being swept by the 102-win Oakland Athletics.
But this was the Yankees of the late 1990s. When the season looked bleakest, that’s when the magic happened.
Final Score: Yankees 1, Athletics 0
Game MVP: Mike Mussina
With the team facing elimination and a young Barry Zito on the mound, the Yankees needed a big game from future Hall of Famer Mike Mussina. And boy, did he deliver. Across the first six innings of the game, he allowed just two hits — a pair of one-out singles to Jason Giambi and Jermaine Dye in the fourth — and one walk, striking out four. He was absolutely electric: according to Baseball Reference’s Game Score, it was the most dominant postseason start of his Yankee postseason career. And it came at the absolute perfect time, as the Yankees offense was only able to scratch off two hits against the Oakland lefty.
Unfortunately for Mussina, nobody truly cares about his gutsy performance. For what matters to history is not the game, but a play that every single kid born in the mid- to late-90s mimicked hundreds of times, despite the fact that it is the textbook definition of what not to do as a shortstop.
Let’s set the scene. It was the bottom of the seventh in Oakland. The Yankees were clinging to a 1-0 lead, courtesy of a Jorge Posada solo homer off the subsequent year’s Cy Young Award winner in the top of the fifth, which broke the Yankees’ 15-inning scoreless streak.
The bottom of the seventh started like pretty much every other inning for the Yankees, as Mussina got Jermaine Dye to pop out to shortstop and Eric Chavez to fly out to center. With two away, Jeremy Giambi laced a groundball through the hole for a single to right, bringing Terence Long to the plate.
Despite quickly finding himself in an 0-2 deficit, Long worked his way to a 2-2 count, then laced a ground ball down the first base line past a diving Tino Martinez into the right field corner. Giambi, who had been running on contact, just kept running, and as he rounded third, the throw from Shane Spencer was airmailed and missed, well, everybody. Giambi was going to score with ease, tying the game.
But then, Derek Jeter ...
Derek Jeter ...
I’ve seen this play thousands of times. I’ve re-enacted this play as a kid hundreds of times. I still struggle to explain it. According to Jeter and bench coach Don Zimmer, this was a play that the team had practiced, with the shortstop moving in position to cut the ball off in order to cut down the runner advancing to third. While this explanation makes sense, it ignores the fact that Jeter was not actually in a position to cut the ball off. To me, it looks entirely like a reaction play: seeing that Spencer had overthrown the cutoff man, Jeter raced down the line to cut it off so that a play — whether a throw to third or the shovel pass to Posada that he made — could be attempted.
In the end, though, the why doesn’t matter. What we do know is this: Giambi was called out at the plate for the third out of the inning, preserving a razor-thin lead in a must-win game. Since Mussina would hand the ball off to Mariano Rivera for the final two innings, the game in essence ended right there.
The excitement of this victory gave the Yankees momentum, and they went on to win the next two games in decisive fashion (including a dominant 9-2 win in Game 4 and another highlight-reel Jeter play in the Game 5 clincher) to send the Yankees to the ALCS for the fourth consecutive year.
The 2001 postseason was filled with epic moments, and — spoiler alert — are a prominent part of this series. Without The Flip, however, that run likely ends after just three games.