If there was anyone unconvinced about the strength of the Yankees even after their record-breaking 1998 regular season, the dominant display they put on in the ALDS should have dispelled the doubts of even the staunchest cynic. They utterly boat-raced the AL West champion Rangers, holding the second-most potent offense in the league to one run across three games with sterling pitching performances by David Wells, Andy Pettitte, and David Cone. The Texas outfit may have had AL MVP-to-be Juan Gonzalez flanked by Ivan Rodriguez and Will Clark, but they were no match for the Yankees’ arms as New York steamrolled their opponents in a three-game sweep to book their tickets to the ALCS.
There, they would face a much sterner test against Cleveland, the AL Central champions. Fresh off a World Series appearance the season before (not to mention a pennant in ‘95) and comfortable winners in four games over the Red Sox in the ALDS, Cleveland had the more complete roster relative to the Yankees’ ALDS opponents, particularly where pitching is concerned. They had a bona fide ace in second-year starter Bartolo Colon and an offense stacked with the likes of Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Kenny Lofton, and David Justice. The clash of AL titans kicked off on a chilly autumn afternoon in the Bronx in front of a capacity crowd, and the home team fired them into life in the very first inning.
Playoffs: Up 1-0 in ALCS (117-48 overall)
On the mound for the Yankees was the hero of the ALDS opener, David Wells. Boomer twirled a gem in Game 1, tossing eight scoreless innings with nine strikeouts, holding Texas’ three-headed monster of Gonzalez, Rodriguez and Clark a combined oh-fer. He opened the ALCS with a three-pitch strikeout of Lofton as it appeared he had brought the same wipeout stuff and attack mindset that served him so well seven days prior.
Jogging out of the Cleveland dugout came Jaret Wright to take on the might of the Yankees lineup, but nothing could have prepared him for the onslaught he was about to suffer. The powerful lineup wanted vengeance for Wright beating New York twice in the 1997 ALDS loss. They would get that and then some.
A pair of singles in two-strike counts by Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter made it patently clear that the Bombers would fight for every pitch. Indeed, Paul O’Neill worked his count full before singling to right, plating Knoblauch for the contest’s first run. Bernie Williams followed it up with a single of his own and all of a sudden the first four batters had all singled and the Yankees had a 2-0 lead without an out being recorded.
Wright got close to escaping the inning there, getting Tino Martinez to ground into a forceout and fanning Tim Raines, but a wild pitch to Shane Spencer brought O’Neill home and allowed Martinez to advance to third. After Spencer walked, up stepped Jorge Posada, whose single brought Martinez home and knocked Wright from the contest. Chad Ogea entered from the bullpen and promptly surrendered a single to Scott Brosius, allowing Spencer to score the fifth and final run of the frame. It also wrapped up Wright’s line on the night, with the future Yankee credited for five runs on five hits and a walk while recording just two outs.
From there the game was effectively a formality as Cleveland never looked likely to extract themselves from the chasm Wright placed them in, particularly against a dealing Wells. Through the first six innings, he never allowed more than one baserunner to reach in a frame. He’d face the minimum in the first, fourth, fifth and sixth and collected a strikeout in all but the second and sixth innings.
Cleveland found marginally more success as Wells began to tire and the lineup turned over for the third and fourth times. Justice singled to lead off the seventh and Wells hit Thome with a pitch to put a pair on but stranded them by striking out Richie Sexson swinging. Cleveland finally broke through in the ninth as Wells’ pitch count climbed well over 100, Joey Cora leading off with a single before scoring on a two-run blast to left by Ramirez. Thus, Wells would not be given a chance at the complete game with Joe Torre going to Jeff Nelson for the final two outs, but he could hold his head high after completing 8.1 innings allowing two runs on five hits and a walk to go along with seven strikeouts.
While the Yankees would not replicate their first-inning outburst, they did score another pair of runs in the middle innings. Posada led off the sixth with a home run to deep right while O’Neill and Williams opened the seventh with a pair of doubles — the latter plating the former.
New York had a chance for more in the eighth facing reliever Paul Shuey, loading the bases on a Brosius single and walks by Jeter and Williams, but Martinez struck out swinging to strand all three ducks on the pond. It had no bearing on the outcome of the contest, though, as the Yankees comfortably took Game 1, 7-2.