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25 Best Yankees Games of the Past 25 Years: Mussina’s near-perfecto

The agony and the ecstasy of falling one strike short of perfection.

New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox

As the 2001 calendar flipped over to September, the Yankees were riding high in the standings. They entered Fenway Park with a six-game lead over their bitter rivals, and a successful series in Boston would take them ever closer to sealing their fourth-straight division title.

Having won the first two games of the series, Mike Mussina was handed the ball to finish off the sweep. The Yankees’ big-ticket free agent signing the previous winter was as good as advertised in his first season in pinstripes. Entering the Sunday night contest 13-11 with a 3.55 ERA, Moose was by many metrics the best pitcher in the AL, leading all starters in FIP, K-BB%, and fWAR (though not the Cy Young favorite on account of teammate Roger Clemens’ 18-1 record). What was about to unfold over the next three hours would go down as one of the great near-misses in MLB pitching history.

Date of Game: September 2, 2001

Final Score: Yankees 1, Red Sox 0

Game MVP: Mike Mussina

Mussina was no stranger to flirting with perfection. Thrice during his tenure with the Orioles had Moose tossed a complete game one-hit shutout. In 1992 — his first full season in the bigs — Mussina turned in four perfect innings against the Rangers before walking leadoff hitter Rubén Sierra and surrendering a Kevin Reimer double two batters later. Then in 1997, Mussina retired the first 25 Cleveland batters he faced before Sandy Alomar Jr. broke up the perfecto bid with a single. Finally, in 2000, a pair of walks, a seventh-inning Ron Coomer single, and an error-laden ninth were the only things standing in between Mussina and perfection against the Twins.

Adding further intrigue to this matchup was the opposition’s starting pitcher. David Cone was instrumental in the Yankees dynasty years, but it was clear in 2000 that his race with the Yankees was run. And so, he ended up signing a minor league contract with the rival Red Sox over the winter and was surprisingly effective, pitching to a 4.31 ERA in 25 starts that year. Now he was to face the man who had effectively replaced him in the Yankees’ rotation. How fitting that pitcher’s ensuing performance should come against the author of the sport’s most recent perfect game.

From the first pitch, it was clear both starters had brought their A-stuff to the ballpark. Cone allowed a baserunner in each of the first two innings but nullified the threat each time, inducing an inning-ending groundball. Mussina meanwhile struck out five of the first six batters he faced, including the heart of the Boston lineup — Manny Ramirez, Dante Bichette, and Brian Daubach — on 14 pitches in the second.

Cone repeated the pattern of the first two innings by again allowing a baserunner in each of the third and fourth before locking down and getting out of the frame. Mussina crucially spared his pitch count in the third, inducing three straight groundouts on just seven pitches. The swing-and-miss stuff resurfaced in the fourth and fifth with Moose striking out a pair in each frame.

In seemingly the blink of an eye, the teams were entering the later innings locked in a classic pitchers’ duel. Pitching against his former teammates appeared to revive the peak version of Cone that had been missing since his perfect game two years prior. He mowed through the Yankees lineup with seemingly little effort, giving up only four hits and three walks through eight innings. Mussina matched him stride for stride, racking up 12 strikeouts on 99 pitches as the teams headed to the final frame deadlocked at 0-0.

Tino Martinez led off the top of the ninth with a line drive single to left-center. After a Jorge Posada flyout to left, Paul O’Neill pulled a groundball deep in the second base hole which Lou Merloni mishandled, allowing Martinez to go from first to third. Clay Bellinger was called upon to pinch-run for Martinez and promptly scored the game’s first run on an Enrique Wilson double down the right field line that just snuck under Daubach’s diving glove.

This spelled the end of Cone’s night, a brilliant 120-pitch effort that was repeatedly jeopardized by his infielders’ shoddy defending. Derek Lowe came in to end the threat, fanning Alfonso Soriano and getting Chuck Knoblauch to ground out to leave runners stranded on second and third.

With their opponents clinging to a tenuous 1-0 lead, their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, and under threat of being on the losing side of a perfect game for the first time in franchise history, the Red Sox were determined to go down swinging.

Troy O’Leary led off the bottom of the ninth pinch-hitting for Shea Hillenbrand, and on a 2-2 fastball yanked a sharp liner to the just-subbed-on Bellinger at first. Every perfect game seems to have linchpin defensive effort, and Bellinger’s diving stab and flip to Mussina certainly appeared to fit the bill.

With two outs left, Mussina made mincemeat of Merloni, striking out the second baseman on a nasty 1-2 curveball for his 13th and final K of the game.

Tension reached a fever pitch in Fenway, with every one of the 33,734 in attendance out of their seats one the verge of witnessing history. However, interim hire Joe Kerrigan had other ideas, and the Boston skipper sent out Carl Everett to pinch-hit for catcher Joe Oliver.

Mussina quickly drove the count to 0-2 before trying to get Everett to bite on a waste pitch. Then, on an elevated 1-2 fastball, the unthinkable happened.

Everett fought off the pitch, dumping an excuse-me bloop single to left-center to break up the perfect game and no-hit bid. The crowd erupted into raucous cheers as if the home team had won the pennant, and the beginnings of a wry smile creased Mussina’s face as he came within one strike of clinching immortality. It was the ninth time in MLB history that a pitcher had come within one out of a perfect game, a list which now stands at thirteen instances. Mussina would get Trot Nixon to groundout to complete the 1-hit, 13-strikeout, 116 pitch shutout.

So there you have it folks, Moose fell one strike shy of completing the 17th perfect game in MLB history. It would have been the fourth in Yankees franchise history and would have capped off an unprecedented three-peat of perfect games by Yankees pitchers with the two most recent coming from Cone and David Wells the year before. They say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but I think few Yankees fans old enough to remember this night will ever forget Mussina’s proximity to perfection.

For those who are so inclined, here is the full game footage of that memorable night: