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1998 Yankees Diary: The Final Hurdle

In the World Series, the Yankees faced the surprising Padres, led by Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn and Trevor Hoffman, plus other talented All-Stars.

San Diego Padres Tony Gwynn, 1998 World Series
The incomparable Tony Gwynn.
SetNumber: X56611

Coming into the 1998 season, nobody knew what to expect from the New York Yankees. After winning their first World Series championship in almost two decades in 1996, they finished two games shy of an AL East title in ‘97 before being knocked out of the postseason as the Wild Card by Cleveland in the ALDS. A new general manager, Brian Cashman, had just taken the helm, and while the core from ‘96 still remained and ensured that they would be one of the most dangerous teams in the American League, a little bit of uncertainty clouded the air.

That was the situation seven months ago, when we began our journey looking back at arguably the greatest team of all time. Since then, we have explored the team’s atrocious start, watched the Stadium collapse, saw the Bombers break the AL win record, and pondered at the meaning of it all when they found themselves in a hole in the ALCS. And now, as the 2023 League Championship Series are now underway, we’ve reached our own destination: the 1998 World Series against the San Diego Padres.

Heading into ‘98, expectations were even more murky out in San Diego. This was a largely anonymous franchise that had largely wasted the prime of its superstar hitter, Tony Gwynn, who confounded the best of the best on the mound and earned a trophy case of batting titles but had only only one playoff appearance to his name. The Padres won the NL West in 1984 and broke Cubs fans’ hearts to capture their first pennant, though the powerhouse Tigers ate them alive in the Fall Classic.

San Diego had been in existence since 1969, but across their first 26 years, the ‘84 campaign was their lone highlight. An MVP year by Ken Caminiti in ‘96 helped launch them to an NL West title over the Dodgers, earning skipper Bruce Bochy NL Manager of the Year honors. They went down in a three-game NLDS sweep at the hands of the Cardinals, though, and sank back to under .500 in ‘97, their fourth losing season in five years.

To the Padres’ credit, they shook off the disappointment and decided that the time was ripe to go for it again in ‘98. They had some potent bats, but they needed a bona fide ace. They got one in Kevin Brown.

It was unquestionably a Hail Mary move since Brown was due to hit free agency the following year, but the man who had led the Marlins’ pitching staff to a championship in ‘97 was on the market with the Fish going full teardown. Although the Padres surrendered a future All-Star in Derrek Lee as part of the deal, the fiery Brown delivered in ‘98. He fanned 257, paced the majors with a 2.23 FIP and 0.3 HR/9 (just 8 homers in 233 innings), and while he missed out on the Cy Young, he would lead the majors with 8.6 rWAR and 9.6 fWAR.

Backed by Brown, Gwynn, Caminiti, and the quietest 50-homer season in MLB history from the overlooked Greg Vaughn, the Padres often carried leads deep into ballgames. At that point, Bochy felt extremely comfortable handing the ball to future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman. The changeup specialist was terrific while averaging 32 saves and a 2.75 ERA from 1994-97, but he took his game to another level in ‘98. Hoffman went 53-for-54 in save opportunities — notching 41 in a row, too — with a sterling 1.48 ERA and 0.849 WHIP in 73 innings. Hoffman was considered so dominant that it was he, not Brown, who finished runner-up to 20-game winner Tom Glavine in the NL Cy Young race. (The ‘90s, man.)

When “Hells Bells” started blaring over the speakers out in San Diego, opposing teams knew that the chimes often ushered in their doom.

This mix of talent led to a franchise-record 98 wins and an easy NL West title. Barry Bonds’ Giants were a distant second at 9.5 games behind.

Once in the postseason, however, the Padres faced a juggernaut of a schedule. In the divisional round, they came face to face with a Houston Astros squad that won 102 games, boasted a star-studded lineup that included two Hall of Famers (Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio) and an intimidating pitching staff headlined by trade deadline acquisition Randy Johnson, who famously threw four shutouts in the final two months of the season. Brown K’d 16 in the NLDS opener to beat Johnson, 2-1, and seventh-inning solo shot by former Yankees World Series hero Jim Leyritz delivered another 2-1 victory in Game 3.

The Padres wisely refused to let the series return to the Astrodome, and a four-run eighth in Game 4 helped them polish off the upset over Houston.

San Diego’s reward was the opportunity to face another team that hit a triple-digit win total: the dynastic Atlanta Braves. There’s a serious argument that this was the best of Bobby Cox’s ballclubs, as they set their own franchise mark with 106 victories. They were flooded with Hall of Fame talent — Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Fred McGriff, etc. — and they were in the middle of a stretch that could only be rivaled by the modern-era Astros. This was their seventh consecutive NLCS appearance, and the streak would hit eight the following year.

Once again, the Padres got off on the right foot with a Game 1 win, this time thanks to Caminiti’s 10th-inning blast that silenced Turner Field.

Brown then struck out 11 in a 3-0 shutout victory in Game 2 over Glavine, and back in San Diego, erstwhile Yankees southpaw Sterling Hitchcock narrowly outpitched Maddux. The Padres had a shocking 3-0 series lead, but they did have room for a scare, dropping the next two at Qualcomm Stadium (née Jack Murphy) to send the series back to Atlanta. Unknown outfielder Michael Tucker hit a huge homer off Brown in relief to propel the Braves to a late Game 5 win, becoming the first team in MLB history to trail a series 3-0 and force a Game 6.

A scoreless duel between Hitchcock and Glavine ended in the sixth, when the Padres dropped five runs on the Hall of Fame lefty and the Atlanta bullpen. Three innings later, Hoffman slammed the door for San Diego’s first pennant in 14 years.

And now, San Diego faced the ultimate test: the 114-win New York Yankees. Why not another 100-win team, right? If they would go on to win the championship, it would go down as one of the most difficult paths to a championship in the history of sports.

Make no mistake, they had the firepower to do it. Their offense was loaded with veteran playmakers, and as a team they ranked fifth in the Senior Circuit with 167 home runs. On the mound, they boasted one of the NL’s top staffs, with a one-two punch of Brown and Andy Ashby that could match up with almost anybody’s. And should they have a lead late, Bochy could hand the ball off to Hoffman, well on his way to becoming one of just two closers in MLB history to record 600 saves.

While not as high-profile as the Braves or Astros, the 1998 Padres earned a lot of individual hardware. They sent five guys to the All-Star Game (Brown, Ashby, Gwynn, Hoffman, Vaughn). Picked up off the cheap from Milwaukee a couple years back, Vaughn rebounded from a dismal ‘97 to win both the Comeback Player of the Year and a Silver Slugger. Hoffman would take home the NL Reliever of the Year Award — the predecessor to the award which is now named after him. These guys had star power, and as we’ve seen, star power looms larger than ever when the lights shine brightest in the postseason.

Of course, one of the things that matters most in this regard is how the pitching matchups line up in the postseason, so let’s take a look at how each team set up their rotation.

Game 1: Kevin Brown vs. David Wells (10/17)

The Padres would open the World Series by sending out their four-time All-Star ace, the aforementioned Brown. Although Yankees fans tend to associate him with Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS (and reasonably so), that was a 39-year-old Brown at the end of his career. In 1998, he was not only in his prime, he was battle-tested in the bright lights of October. The previous season, he had, of course, been a key starter for the World Series champion Marlins, and already that postseason, he had outdueled Johnson, Glavine, and Smoltz.

To face him, Joe Torre sent out David Wells. A fellow Cy Young contender, Boomer was a seasoned playoff vet by this point, playing in his seventh postseason after previous stints in Toronto, Cincinnati, and Baltimore. He had proven to be Mr. Reliable for the Yankees already that October, allowing just five runs across 23.2 innings in three starts and limiting opposing batters to just a .566 OPS while earning ALCS MVP honors.

Game 2: Andy Ashby vs. Orlando Hernández (10/18)

Despite being in the league for several years at this point, Ashby was a postseason neophyte, with just one appearance under his belt. That inexperience showed. In his first start of the 1998 NLDS, Ashby struggled, and was ultimately pulled in the fourth inning after surrendering three runs on six hits. In his two starts against the Braves, however, he was absolutely brilliant, grinding through at least six innings and allowing no more than two runs in each outing.

The rookie Hernández was likewise an October neophyte, with only one postseason start under his belt heading into the World Series. That one start, however, was the biggest game of the 1998 season: with the Bombers staring a potential 3-1 deficit in the face, El Duque spun seven shutout innings against Cleveland to pick up the win and turn the ALCS around. And that’s to say nothing of his lengthy career abroad, pitching pivotal showdowns in both the Cuban National Series and for Team Cuba in international play.

Game 3: Sterling Hitchcock vs. David Cone (10/20)

Hitchcock just barely missed the success of the dynasty years, having been traded by the Yankees to the Mariners after 1995 in the trade that brought Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson to the Bronx. Although he had minimal postseason experience because of that — he made two brief appearances in pinstripes as a reliever in the 1995 ALDS — he showed that October baseball did not bother him one bit in the 1998 postseason. In fact, he won the NLCS MVP courtesy of his two starts against the Braves, in which he allowed just one run in ten innings of work to earn a pair of wins.

As the World Series went underway, David Cone was still looking to define his 1998 playoff performance. The Game 3 starter of the ALDS, he allowed just two hits in 5.2 scoreless innings to secure the sweep against the Rangers, while in Game 2 of the ALCS, he was handed a tough loss despite shutting Cleveland’s offense down across eight innings of one-run ball. In Game 6 of that series, Cone struggled a bit, allowing five runs on seven hits in five innings; in that one, though, he secured the win — and the series victory — thanks to the offense.

Game 4: Kevin Brown vs. Andy Pettitte (10/21)

On the brink of defeat, Bochy did not hesitate to send his ace back out there. Rather than rolling with a fourth starter like Joey Hamilton (who pitched an inning of relief in Game 3 anyway), he understandably preferred to use his best pitcher on short rest rather than hold him out for a game that might never come.

Unfortunately for Bochy and Brown, standing in the way was Andy Pettitte, a young starter who already had 10 postseason starts under his belt. And while he had struggled in his previous outing — he was shelled for six runs in less than five innings to put the Yankees down 2-1 in the ALCS — the left-hander had a track record as one of the league’s up-and-coming starters and more than 10 days of rest between outings.