After their elimination by the Angels in Game 5 of the 2005 ALDS and with a 37-year-old Bernie Williams no longer a realistic full-time option for center field, the Yankees handed their roster a major boost (and their rivals a major blow), signing Johnny Damon to a four-year, $52 million contract on December 20, 2005. He slotted right in as the everyday center fielder and leadoff hitter, compiling decent debut and sophomore seasons in pinstripes as the team’s table-setter.
Fast-forward to 2008 and the Yankees are in a serious transitional period. It is the final season at the old stadium, and four-time World Series-winning manager Joe Torre has been replaced by longtime backup catcher Joe Girardi. Coming off a loss in the first game of a four-game set against the Royals, the Yankees find themselves at 30-31, falling fast in the division and 6.5 games back of the Al East-leading Red Sox. Already, worries are creeping in about the possibility of missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
Date of Game: June 7, 2008
Final Score: Yankees 12, Royals 11
Game MVP: Johnny Damon
On a sweltering hot afternoon at the Stadium, the Yankees take the field looking to turn the page on the previous night’s loss that dropped them back below .500 for the season. A 36-year-old Andy Pettitte takes the mound in front of a packed house and against a Royals team that really should be a cakewalk opponent for the home team.
They prove to be anything but, opening the scoring before everyone has had the chance to find their seats. Mark Teahan lines a two-out double to deep left before the next batter, José Guillén, crushes a two-run homer to left to put the Yankees in a 2-0 hole before their first plate appearance.
The Yankees answered right back with Damon leading off with a double to the right-center field gap of Kansas City starter/future pitching guru Brian Bannister. He advanced to third on a Derek Jeter sacrifice bunt before coming around to score on a Jason Giambi two-out ground ball single to right to cut the Royals’ lead in half, 2-1.
Both starters settled down to log 1-2-3 half-innings in the second, but the respite would be short-lived. In the top of the third, David DeJesus reached with a one-out single and came around to score on a Mike Avilés triple to right-center. After a Teahen hit-by-pitch, Avilés would then score on a Guillén single through the hole on the left side. Teahen eventually scored the third run of the inning on a John Buck single to left-center, but Damon managed to stop the bleeding at 5-1 by throwing Buck out at second as he tried to stretch out a double.
As they did in the bottom of the first, the Yankees offense responded with some fireworks of their own in the fourth. Alex Rodriguez led off with a single followed by a Giambi walk to put two on with no outs for Jorge Posada. He ripped a double down the right field line, scoring Rodriguez and advancing Giambi to third. Robinson Canó then dumped a single into short right, allowing Giambi to score and Posada to move to third before eventually scoring on a Wilson Betemit sac fly. With one out, Melky Cabrera singled to center, moving Canó to third before being driven home on a Damon single up the middle. Jeter stepped to the plate with runners on second and third and one out after Damon stole second. He hit a fly ball to short right, allowing the cannon-armed Guillén to gun down Cabrera at home and escape the inning with the scored deadlocked at 5-5.
The Yankees grabbed their first lead of the game in the bottom of the fifth on a Giambi solo shot to deep right; however, the Royals seemed to have an answer for everything the Yankees threw at them. In the top of the seventh against a clearly flagging Pettitte, Kansas City put runners on second and third with no outs via an Alberto Callaspo leadoff double followed by an Esteban Germán bunt single to third. Joey Gathright then singled to score Callaspo and move Germán to second, and the pair moved up to second and third on a DeJesus sac bunt.
The Yankees intentionally walked Avilés and Teahen struck out to bring the villain of the day, Guillén, to the dish. Pettitte came within one pitch of escaping the inning with the scores knotted, however Guillén jumped on an elevated 2-2 fastball that caught to much of the plate, sending it into the seats in left for a soul-crushing grand slam.
Pettitte exited the game having surrendered 10 runs in 6.2 innings, and the Yankees found themselves trailing by four with only three innings to go. They clawed back some of that ground in the bottom of the frame. Bobby Abreu lined a one-out double down the line in right before A-Rod cut the deficit in half with a booming two-run home run to left-center off reliever Brett Tomko.
José Veras worked a scoreless top of the eighth setting the offense up for another rally. Canó led off with a single and advanced to second on a one-out Cabrera single. The pair moved up a base on a wild pitch to Damon and both scored as he singled left-center. He stood on first 5-for-5, but more importantly having tied the game at 10 apiece, allowing the Yankees to hand the ball to Mariano Rivera for the ninth. However, Mo surrendered a solo shot to DeJesus on the first pitch he threw, meaning the Bombers had to do it all over again in the bottom of the ninth.
Giambi lined out off KC closer Joakim Soria to open the frame, bringing Posada to the plate. The Yankees catcher wasted no time in his at-bat, blasting a first-pitch fastball to deep right to tie the game at 11-11. Canó grounded out to short, seemingly leaving the game in the hands of New York’s eight and nine hitters. Betemit worked a walk and advanced to second on Cabrera’s third hit of the afternoon, an infield single to third. This allowed Damon his sixth AB of the contest, and he solidified his status as the hero of the game:
Damon lined a walk-off ground-rule double, one hop over the short porch in right to cap off a remarkable comeback. It was the first 6-for-6 performance by a Yankees hitter since Myril Hoag in 1934; no one has matched Damon’s feat in the 13 seasons since ‘08. The final season at the old stadium sadly did not produce any playoff memories, but Damon did send it off with some history of his own.