David Cone was really good in 1998. He was one of the 10 best pitchers in all of baseball by fWAR and strikeout rate, the best arm in a typically excellent late-90s Yankee rotation. You might not know that through the first couple runs of the rotation, though, as after Coney turned in his best start of the season at Tiger Stadium, his ERA still sat north of 10.
The effort against Detroit paced the Yankees to their eighth consecutive victory, however, and pulled the Yankees right up to the Orioles atop the AL East.
April 18: Yankees 8, Tigers 3 (box score)
Record: 9-4, .692 (0.5 GB)
This game ended up being one of those trademark 1998 Yankee games, where if you asked what made the team so special, you could just look at the box score. Eight of the nine guys in the starting lineup had a hit — poor Chuck Knoblauch — and five different players notched an RBI, with zero home runs. Navigating the lineup that season was like being a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Things got off to the right start, with the Yankees going up 1-0 before Cone had to throw a pitch. Paul O’Neill smacked a two-out double before Bernie Williams brought him around with a single. The Tigers threatened to respond in the home half, working two walks, before Tino Martinez worked the front and back half of a 3-6-3 double play to get Coney out of trouble.
As good as Cone’s final line looked, he struggled to miss bats early, not striking out a Tiger until the bottom of the third. By that point the score was tied, with Detroit pushing a run across in the second and Greg Keagle managing to work out of trouble in two straight frames. The Tigers actually went up in the bottom of the fourth, in a very ‘98 Yankees way, with a two-out liner up the middle to bring Frank Catalanotto around and take the lead, however briefly.
I say briefly because, well, this is the ‘98 Yankees. Derek Jeter singled to lead off the fifth, advanced to second on a wild pitch, and came home on another Bernie RBI single. A stolen base and Darryl Strawberry base hit brought Williams around to give the Yankees the lead, a lead they would not relinquish. Needing a shutdown inning, Cone threw 12 pitches in the home half to get his boys back to the plate and qualify for the win, his first of the year.
After that it was academic. The Yankees added a trio of insurance runs in the sixth, Jeff Nelson and Mike Stanton pitched scoreless eighth and ninth innings, and the Yankees had another win. With Mariano Rivera nearly back from his season-opening injury, Stanton and Nelson, both with ERAs in the twos, would become the best middle-relief pairing in baseball before long.
One of the things that keeps popping up in this series, and we’re only in the first month of the season, is just how relentless the lineup is. The closest comps are probably the modern-day Astros or Atlanta, but both squads feature multiple MVP, best-in-the-world caliber hitters. Bernie Williams was the only regular bat in the lineup with a wRC+ over 130, but five other players received at least 300 PAs with a wRC+ between 120 and 130. There was just no place for pitchers to go, no “lanes” where they could repeat sequences or get away with a mistake.
The winning streak wouldn’t last, but that’s a story for another day — the next day, in fact.