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1998 Yankees Diary, April 19: Hideki Irabu loses tight pitchers’ duel

The Yankees offense couldn’t get anything going against Tigers righty Brian Moehler.

BBA-TIGERS-YANKEES-3-IRABU Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Owners of an eight-game winning streak, the Yankees were riding high, their 1-4 start to the season a distant memory. They entered the day with a chance to sweep the Tigers to reach nine in a row after resounding victories in the first two contests of the series. However, Brian Moehler had other ideas, holding down New York’s potent offense and out-dueling Hideki Irabu.

April 19: Yankees 1, Tigers 2 (box score)

Record: 9-5, .643 (0.5 GB)

Hideki Irabu was easily one of the most misunderstood Yankees players of the last quarter-decade. Made infamous by the derogatory comments hurled at him by George Steinbrenner in spring training of 1999, Irabu was portrayed as selfish and slovenly, no doubt amplified by the at-the-time sizable contract he signed to join the Yankees from the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1997. However, not many understood the extent of his struggles — his feelings as an imposter and as an outsider both in the US and his native Japan — until he tragically took his own life in 2011.

Because of Irabu’s less-than-stellar debut season (7.09 ERA in 13 appearances) and all this extraneous noise surrounding the pitcher, people forget just how dominant he was to open the 1998 season. He surrendered three or fewer runs across his first eleven starts — seven of which were scoreless or one-run outings — pitching to a 1.68 ERA while averaging just under seven innings per start.

Anyway, enough on Irabu and onto the game at hand. Coming off his first start against the Mariners when he allowed a run on four hits against seven strikeouts, the Yankees had to feel comfortable handing Irabu the ball. He certainly delivered, again with a one-run, seven-strikeout performance, this time surrendering just three hits over six innings. His opposite number Moehler meanwhile entered the contest with a 7.82 ERA having allowed 12 runs across his first three starts, but it was the Tigers righty who had the upper hand on this day.

Moehler was perfect through the first four innings, striking out five of the first 12 batters he faced. The Yankees hitters didn’t exactly make him work for it either, with the 26-year-old requiring just 49 pitches to make it through those frames.

While not quite perfect, Irabu matched Moehler step for step, walking a pair in the first but then settling down to face the minimum in each of the three following frames. He managed to navigate around a single in each of the fifth and sixth to give him six scoreless with seven punchouts. New York meanwhile threatened with two outs in the fifth, Darryl Strawberry walking followed by a Chad Curtis single, but Scott Brosius grounded out to strand the pair.

The Tigers opened the scoring in the seventh, when future MLBPA director Tony Clark led off with a home run to drive Irabu from the game. Darren Holmes came on in relief and retired the next three hitters he faced. The Yankees responded in the top of the eighth, Curtis and Brosius singling with one out to put runners on the corners for Jorge Posada, pinch-hitting for Joe Girardi. The move by Torre paid off, with Posada dribbling an RBI groundout to level the scores and absolve Irabu of being the pitcher of record.

Holmes wasn’t nearly as effective in his second inning of work, yielding a leadoff single and one out walk followed by a wild pitch to put runners on the corners for Damion Easley. The Tigers shortstop lifted a medium fly ball to center, deep enough to score pinch-runner Kimera Bartee from third for the decisive run of the contest.

Detroit closer Todd Jones retired Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, and Bernie Williams on 11 pitches to seal the 2-1 victory for the Tigers. The eight-game winning streak was over, but another stellar run was just around the corner.