Riding another winning streak, this one of the five-game variety, the Yankees headed to Boston for their first matchup of 1998 with the Red Sox. Truthfully, it seemed as though the red-hot rivalry had a cooled a bit at this moment in time. In the decade after losing Game 6 (and subsequently Game 7) of the 1986 World Series, the Red Sox hadn’t won a single playoff game. The Yankees, of course, suffered through their own struggles in the late 80’s and early 90’s. While there was surely still plenty of bad blood on both sides, the two teams hadn’t played all that many meaningful clashes over the preceding several years.
That would soon change, with the Yankees in the midst of what would become a dynastic cycle, and the Red Sox at the beginning of a run of success that would ultimately stretch for decades. A thrilling, tight affair, like the one they played on May 22nd, would be a fitting way to kick off this new era of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry.
Record: 31-10, .756 (up 4.0)
The Yankees went up against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield that day, with the 31-year-old still relatively early in his long career. The knuckler had the Yankees befuddled initially, with Wakefield facing the minimum over the first three frames, with the only hit, a Tim Raines single in the third, quickly erased by a Jorge Posada GIDP.
Yankees starter Ramiro Mendoza seemed up to the challenge, though, shutting the Red Sox out over the first five innings. Coming off a two-start stretch in which he’d allowed just one earned run over 17 combined innings, including a five-hit shutout of the Twins on May 10th, it looked like Mendoza was set to continue his hot streak.
Mendoza’s initial excellence gave the Yankees time to establish a lead, which is exactly what they did in the fourth. Wakefield had a less successful time navigating the order a second time through, allowing back-to-back singles to Paul O’Neill and Tino Martinez in the fourth to put two on for Bernie Williams. Bernie responded by doing what prime Bernie was prone to do, driving both in with a mammoth three-run shot to left:
(Tangential note: I always enjoy the times when a switch-hitter forgoes the platoon advantage, as Williams does here facing a knuckler. Williams’ career OPS as a righty beat his OPS as a lefty by 61 points, so it would seem his decision was prudent enough).
As Mendoza cruised, the Yankees picked up another run in the sixth. O’Neill doubled with one out, and Martinez scored him with his first and only triple of 1998. With a 4-0 lead in tow, and their starter apparently in total command, the Yankees looked poised to extend their winning streak to six.
But cracks appeared in the façade in the home half of the sixth. Mendoza allowed a leadoff double to Lou Merloni, and a single to Darren Lewis, putting two on with none out. The righty responded well to the jam, allowing just a run-scoring groundout before retiring the next two batters to escape with a 4-1 lead still intact.
A common theme of this series is the contrast in managerial styles between then and now. Here, it’s fair to wonder how a modern manager would have played the scenario. Mendoza came out for the seventh, because of course he did; he’d thrown fewer than 80 pitches across six strong innings. In today’s game, would a back-of-the-rotation starter be asked to face the middle of the opposing order a third time, with a three-run lead on the road? The answer would depend on the particulars of the team and the manager, but I think it’s safe to say a good number of today’s skippers would have proceeded with caution.
In this case, the situation went south immediately for Mendoza, who allowed a leadoff homer to Troy O’Leary. John Valentin followed with a single, and advanced on a wild pitch. Jason Varitek doubled Valentin home, and in the blink of an eye, the Red Sox had the tying runner on second in a 4-3 game.
Joe Torre went to Jeff Nelson with the game on the line, but Nelson quickly gave up a single to Merloni and walked Darren Lewis, so in came Mike Stanton. With the bases loaded and one out, Stanton laid a first-pitch fastball right down the pipe to Darren Bragg, who laced it to center for a go-ahead single:
Suddenly down 5-4, the Yankees had a chance to strike right back in the eighth, when Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter drew walks with none out. However, O’Neill, Martinez, and Williams went down in order without doing damage, a rare sight in 1998.
There would be no drama in the ninth, with Boston closer (and future Yankee setup ace) Tom Gordon on the mound. Gordon would ultimately finish his season, his first as a primary reliver, with a league-leading 46 saves and a sparkling 2.72 ERA. As was common for him that year, he retired the Yankees 1-2-3 to close out the game.
Obviously, this was not a highlight of the season from a Yankees perspective, but it was a good game, and it was heartening to see a spark in the New York-Boston rivalry. And though the loss allowed the Red Sox to draw within four games of the Yankees in the division, a surprisingly small margin given New York’s dominance, it would thankfully be the closest Boston would get for the rest of the year.