After jumping out to an early 1-0 lead in the American League Championship Series, the New York Yankees dropped the next two to Cleveland in excruciating fashion. With their typically high-powered offense able to score just two runs total across 21 innings and postseason veteran Dwight Gooden looming, the Bombers handed the ball to rookie sensation Orlando “El Duque” Hernández for his first postseason start — in the most important game of the season for the 1998 Yankees.
Playoffs: Tied 2-2 in ALCS (118-50 overall)
When you’ve got a rookie on the mound making the biggest start of his life, what’s the number one way to make things easier for him? Give him an early lead! Well, that’s exactly what the Yankees did in the top of the first, as the third batter of the game, Paul O’Neill, deposited a 3-1 pitch over the wall in right to give the Yankees an early 1-0 advantage.
As it turns out, that is all the Bombers would need, as Hernández showed that he was not daunted by the bright lights of October baseball. As recounted by Jack Curry in his new book on the 1998 Yankees, the veteran of many intense Cuban international games waved off an attempted pep talk by team owner George Steinbrenner the day before by simply saying “Mañana, no problema.”
Hernández was so relaxed that he surprised his skipper, Joe Torre, by lending a hand to the wait staff at the team hotel beforehand:
“On the morning of Game 4, Torre was eating breakfast in the bustling hotel restaurant when he noticed a familiar figure cleaning plates and silverware from tables to help out the overtaxed staff. That helper was El Duque, who seemed as carefree as a pitcher could be.”
After surviving a 25-pitch first that ended on a scary fly ball from Jim Thome that died a couple feet shy of a three-run homer, El Duque settled in.
Omar Vizquel singled twice and swiped a pair of bases, Kenny Lofton grounded a double down the right field line in the third, Manny Ramirez worked a walk in the first, and David Justice was plunked in the sixth — this represents the entire extent of the Cleveland offense against El Duque. Against a stacked lineup that had a future Hall of Famer in Jim Thome batting fifth, he allowed just three hits in seven scoreless innings, fanning six and walking just two.
While Hernández stifled the Cleveland lineup, the Yankees batting order struggled to string together much against their former teammate. In fact, Gooden matched his opponent’s three hits and three free passes. The difference, however, came in the sequencing: El Duque had been able to scatter his baserunners effectively, whereas the Yankees were able to concentrate theirs in the fourth.
O’Neill and Bernie Williams worked back-to-back walks to lead off the frame. Chili Davis doubled in O’Neill, sending Bernie to third. Tino Martinez followed that up with a sacrifice fly that brought in Williams, although he was able to reach because Lofton misplayed the ball in center and was charged with an error. Jorge Posada flew out to center and Chad Curtis grounded into a double play to end the inning, but the damage was done, and the Yankees had extended their lead to 3-0.
Gooden would start the fifth before handing it off to the bullpen. Both Hernández and Cleveland starter Dave Burba, working as a long reliever in the postseason, traded zeroes through the seventh. Mike Stanton took over in the eighth after Enrique Wilson led off with a walk, striking out Lofton and getting Justice to bounce into a 4-6-3 double play. In the top of the ninth and after keeping the Bombers hitless for three innings, Burba lost the strike zone; a Tino leadoff double, a wild pitch, and a Scott Brosius sacrifice fly later, and the Yankees’ lead was up to four runs.
And that’s where things would stay. Due to how critical the game was — despite what the 2016 Cubs would have you think, going down 3-1 is all but a death sentence in a seven-game series — Torre opted to bring in Mariano Rivera although it was not a save situation, and in typical Mo fashion, he set down the heart of the Cleveland order with as much effort as it takes to eat a spoonful of ice cream.
In the span of just a few hours, a crisis had been averted, the series was tied, and the 1998 Yankees were back on track. El Duque proved that he was everything that had been advertised and more.