The New York Yankees and New York Mets have an interesting relationship. Because they do not play in the same league, I would not, strictly speaking, call them rivals. Although their annual Subway Series battles figuratively set the city ablaze — and sometimes have the appearance of a true rivalry — the relationship between the two teams is more akin to one between an older and a younger sibling. Even so, the “rivalry” has produced many amazing moments, the most famous naturally being the 2000 World Series, the first time two New York teams met in the World Series since 1956.
Because of this history, the first Subway Series game at the new Yankee Stadium drew much excitement, and it did not disappoint. Of course, you probably don’t remember any of it, except for one simple thing: Luis Castillo dropped the ball.
Date of Game: June 12th, 2009
Final Score: Yankees 9, Mets 8
Game MVP: Luis Castillo (Honorable mention to Mark Teixeira)
Coming into that game the 2009 Yankees had been figuratively punched in the mouth, having just lost three straight to the Boston Red Sox in Fenway, dropping the Yankees to 35-26 and putting them two games behind Boston in the AL East. This was not the first time that season that they had staggered, as they had a 2-7 stretch in April that included a five-game losing streak, which itself included a sweep at the hands of the Red Sox. After that previous rough stretch, the team righted the ship with a nine-game winning streak that sparked a 19-6 stretch across the latter part of May and first week of June. At this point, the question remained, “Could the team do it again?”
Joba Chamberlain got the ball for the Yankees. In his first season as a full-time starter (which also happened to be his last as a starter), the former phenom had put together a very mixed bag. His stat line, at a glance, was not horrendous — a 3-1 record in 11 starts, with a 3.79 ERA in 59.1 innings; a deeper dive, however, revealed that he struggled to keep runners off the basepaths, allowing opposing hitters to slash .254/.353/.401 against him. While he never had a truly bad outing in his first 11 starts, and even included a couple of gems in which he looked like a future ace, he had not quite put it together, and just looked like your typical, back-of-the-rotation starter.
Chamberlain began the game with two scoreless frames, allowing just two batters, David Wright and Ryan Church, to reach base (and Church only reached on a fielder’s choice). Meanwhile, Robinson Canó homered off Liván Hernández in the bottom of the second to give the Yankees a 1-0 lead, their first of the day. They would not keep it for long, however, as the Mets put together a “rally” in the top of the third that went walk, fielder’s choice, walk, hit-by-pitch, walk, strikeout, hit-by-pitch, ground out. Yep, that’s right, it was a rally where only two people put the ball in play, and neither of those batted balls left the infield, but it was a rally all the same, giving the Mets a 2-1 lead.
That lead, however, only lasted until the bottom of the inning, as the red-hot Mark Teixeira drilled a two-run shot to give the Yankees a 3-2 lead.
Both teams managed a scoreless fourth, but the action resumed in the fifth when Brett Tomko replaced Chamberlain on the mound for the Yankees. Future Yankee Carlos Beltrán opened up the inning with a double to right field, stealing third while David Wright drew a walk. Church then drilled a double deep into the right-center field gap, driving in two and advancing to third on an E4. Of course, that last part didn’t matter, as former Yankee Gary Sheffield did what he used to do in the old stadium and homered down the left field line. Tomko and David Robertson managed to stop the bleeding there, but in the meantime, a 3-2 lead had turned into a 6-3 deficit.
Over the next few innings, the Yankees regained the lead, courtesy of a solo home run by Derek Jeter in the fifth and a three-run home run by Hideki Matsui — on his 35th birthday! — in the sixth.
Unfortunately, that lead did not last long, as a Sheffield double and Daniel Murphy single set the stage for the tying run to score in the seventh when Fernando Tatis Sr. grounded into a 4-6-3 double play, knotting the game at seven runs apiece. In the top of the eighth, after Phil Coke got Alex Cora to pop out to short and Fernando Martinez to fly out, Joe Girardi called on Mariano Rivera for four outs in a tie game. In a rare event, that move backfired, as he walked Beltrán — just the third walk he had surrendered to that point in the season — and allowed an RBI double to Wright. He got Church to strike out swinging, but the damage was done.
Sean Green and Pedro Feliciano sent the Yankees down in order in the bottom of the inning, while the Mets were unsurprisingly unable to score again off Rivera in the top of the ninth. Heading into the bottom of the ninth, the Mets handed the ball off to their closer, Francisco Rodríguez.
Over first two and a half months of the 2009 season, K-Rod was one of the most dominant relief pitchers in the game, allowing just two earned runs and 16 hits in 29.1 innings to that point. He was coming off a record 62-save season in 2008 with the Angels, and this time around, he had an ERA of just 0.61, a FIP of 2.66, and an opponent OPS of .453 — in short, he had been virtually unhittable. On any reasonable, normal day, this game was effectively over.
This, clearly, was not a normal day.
After Brett Gardner opened the inning by popping out to the catcher behind home plate, Jeter put the tying run on base with a single, and he would reach second on a stolen base after Johnny Damon struck out on a hit-and-run. With the red-hot Teixeira coming to the plate, who already had one home run on the day, the Mets opted to intentionally walk him to face the slumping Alex Rodriguez.
That move instantly paid off, as A-Rod proceeded to hit a pop fly into short-right field. He slammed his bat into the ground before lightly jogging to first base, angry because he missed his pitch, as the pop fly drifted over to one of the surest hands in baseball, that of three-time Gold Glove Award winner Luis Castillo.
And then, the unthinkable happened: Luis Castillo dropped the ball.
It was the most improbable play of improbable plays, as can be seen by the equally-shocked reactions of the four broadcasts calling the game (the Yankees’ and Mets’ TV and radio broadcasts, respectively). Everything had to fall right for the Yankees to win this game like this. With the height of the pop up, Jeter scoring from second was a no-brainer, but Teixeira — not exactly notorious for his speed — had to run hard from the moment the ball left the bat. Castillo had to have thrown the ball not home, where the first baseman Murphy had been pointing, but to Cora at second base — Teixeira was easily able to beat Cora’s throw home. Without all of these happening ... well, the dropped ball would have kept the game alive, and would have put runners on the corners with two out and Canó coming to the plate, but who knows what would have happened next?
There’s no two ways about this: There is absolutely no reason the Yankees should have won this game, and they knew it. Speaking to reporters after the game, A-Rod said, “I still don’t believe it. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I’ve never seen that before.” Jeter, meanwhile, simply said, “We feel like we just stole one. We were lucky.”
Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good. Sometimes, all it takes to win is for Luis Castillo to drop the ball.