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1998 Yankees Diary, May 21: Pettitte owns the mound

The Yankees’ reliable lefty gets his season back on track.

Sports Contributor Archive 2019 Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After a sensational 1997 campaign that followed up a breakout Cy Young runner-up finish in 1996, Andy Pettitte didn’t exactly get off to the right start in 1998. Looking to sweep the Orioles on this day 25 years ago, the lefty had one of his best outings of the whole year, throwing eight innings of one-run ball, finally getting his walks under control for at least one day.

May 21: Yankees 3, Orioles 1 (Box Score)

Record: 31-9, .775 (5.0 GA)

To credit Scott Erickson, he had himself a strong start in the midst of a tough season as well. The 30-year-old right-hander struck out nine, including getting Paul O’Neill to end the first inning. The two starters traded zeroes for the first three innings before Pettitte made one of his only mistakes of the game, as All-Star Rafael Palmeiro took him to deep right and put the Orioles up 1-0.

Pettitte got into a little more trouble in the next inning too, loading the bases after recording the first two outs in succession. Two walks and a single put the O’s in a position to do more damage, but a short groundout to Pettitte himself ended the inning. Fortunately, the next three frames were cruise control for the lefty, striking out four before handing the ball to Mariano Rivera. You can probably guess what happened from there.

As we’ve seen over and over in this series, all the staff needed to do was buy time for the lineup to claw back. The Yankees took advantage of two errors in the fifth, one a misthrow from Cal Ripken Jr., to tie the game up before O’Neill bounced into a bases-loaded fielder’s choice in the eighth to take the lead.

This kind of relentless pressure, getting two of the team’s three runs without the benefit of a hit, encapsulates so much about what made this club great. It wasn’t just that they put the ball in play; more importantly it’s that they constantly had runners on second and third base. Both O’Neill and Chuck Knoblauch’s grounders mean nothing without runners standing on third base. As a whole, the team went 1-for-7 with RISP, but the combo of men 90 feet away and that ability to put the ball in play creates the kind of pressure that scores runs.

This win finished off a sweep of the Orioles, who had briefly led the division at the beginning of the year. The loss dropped Baltimore to 20-26, and while they would crawl back over the course of the season, playing 59-57 down the stretch, they wouldn’t come close to threatening the division again. This year, in fact, was the start of 14 consecutive losing seasons in the Charm City, and after coming two wins shy of the AL pennant in 1997, the O’s didn’t make it back to the playoffs until 2012.