As the calendar flipped from April to May, the 1998 Yankees had finally secured first place in the division, holding a half-game lead over the rival Boston Red Sox. After finishing off a homestead in which they went 5-1 against the Tigers and Blue Jays, the Bombers headed out west for an eight-game road trip through the Central Time Zone. The first stop: Kansas City.
May 1: Yankees 2, Royals 1 (box score)
Record: 18-6, .750 (0.5 game lead)
The late Hideki Irabu’s career as a member of the New York Yankees is often considered disappointing, as he never quite lived up to the (perhaps unfair) ace-like expectations that followed him upon his arrival in the United States. That said, throughout the 1998 season, he consisted reminded everybody why much of the league was so eager to reel in the right-hander when the Chiba Lotte Marines put his contract for sale prior to the 1997 season. In May, Irabu would earn AL Pitcher of the Month honors, courtesy of a 4-1 record across six starts, over which time he posted a 1.44 ERA and allowed opposing hitters to slash just .167/.276/.273 against him.
Arguably Irabu’s most dominant start came on the first day of the month. The 1998 Royals contained a number of players that would have long Major League careers: Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Jeremy Giambi, and Carlos Beltrán would all make at least cameo appearances, with Damon and Dye serving as regulars for decent chunks of the season. As a whole, however, the Royals lineup ranked near the bottom of the American League, making them an attractive opponent for any pitcher.
Irabu did not disappoint, twirling 7.1 two-hit innings in which he struck out eight and walked only two. The Royals put runners on first and second in the bottom of the first, courtesy of a Damon walk and a Hal Morris single to left. In the bottom of the eighth, they put runners on second and third with nobody out because of an E1 when future captain Mike Sweeney attempted to bunt Ernie Young, who walked, over to second. Between these two instances, however, Irabu kept Kansas City hitters out of scoring position, with the only damage coming off a solo shot by Damon with one out in the bottom of the third.
For his part, Irabu’s KC counterpart, Pat Rapp, also put together an electric outing, as the 30-year-old right-hander limited the Yankees to just six hits across 7.1 innings. Unfortunately for him, the Yankees made those hits count. Down 1-0 due to Damon’s homer, Paul O’Neill got a mini rally going in the sixth with a one-out walk; he would then go to second when Tino Martinez bounced out to the pitcher, putting him in position to score on a Bernie Williams single to center field.
Two innings later, history would repeat itself...sort of. Chuck Knoblauch led off the eighth with a single through the left side of the infield. O’Neill and Tino walked to load the bases after Derek Jeter struck out, and Bernie brought home Knoblauch with a sacrifice fly to break the tie. Although the team still threatened with runners on the corners, Tim Raines popped out to second to end the inning.
As mentioned above, Irabu — now holding a 2-1 lead — put himself in a little bit of trouble to start the bottom of the eighth. He got Terry Pendleton, who was pinch hitting for shortstop Felix Martinez, to ground out to third base for the first out of the inning before handing the ball over to the bullpen. Mike Stanton got Damon to line out to Scott Brosius, who stepped on the bag for the unassisted double play to escape the jam.
While the Yankees were unable to add insurance runs in the ninth, that did not matter, as Mariano Rivera came in and did, well, Mariano Rivera things: on seven pitches, he retired Jose Offerman, Hal Morris, and Dean Palmer to slam the door. With the victory, the Yankees secured their 17th win in 19 games, and although they still had yet to pull away from the pack, they had begun to show signs of the dominance that would define the year.