The Yankees came in to Cleveland to kick off a set with the now-Guardians, who sat in first place in the AL Central to this point in the 1998 campaign. Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and David Justice all awaited, the backbone of a pretty formidable Cleveland lineup.
Facing them in the first game of the series: Orlando Hernandez. El Duque was making his third start of his career, and the results from the previous two were sparkling. Two runs in a combined 16 innings, with his most recent outing a complete game against Montreal. On this night, he was good enough to win in what turned out to be a preview of ALCS Game 4, and the Yankee offense came alive late to give the club the W.
June 18: Yankees 5, Cleveland 2 (box score)
Record: 49-16, .754 (9 GA)
Cleveland had its chances against Hernandez early. In each of the first two frames, he put a pair of runners on, via walks in the first and singles in the second. But each time, El Duque buckled down and escaped.
At least one run looked like a mere formality in the third. Lofton led off with a double and advanced to third on a sac bunt. But then Hernandez went into shutdown mode. First, he got Ramirez to flail wildly at a full-count slider that was nowhere near the strike zone. Then, he did likewise to Thome, getting the slugger to whiff on a changeup down and away. Lofton remained standing at third after Hernandez overpowered the heart of the Cleveland order.
Cleveland starter Charles Nagy held the Yankees down for quite a while. In fact, the club didn’t manage a baserunner until Paul O’Neill doubled in the fourth. But holding this New York offense down indefinitely was a tall task and, in the fifth, the bats broke through.
A walk, a double, and an intentional walk loaded the bases with only one out. Scott Brosius came to the plate and singled. Playing station-to-station, the Yankees scored their first run and kept the sacs full. Chuck Knoblauch did the same thing. Two runs in and the bases full of Yankees. Unfortunately, Luis Sojo ground into a 6-4-3 double play to end the threat, but New York was on the board.
El Duque kept Cleveland off the board through the sixth inning, but in the seventh, he finally cracked a little bit. With two on and two out, Lofton got ahold of a 2-2 pitch and singled in both Cleveland runners to knot the contest at two, but Hernandez held firm there. He came back out for the eighth and recorded the first two outs before Joe Torre went to the ‘pen with Thome up. After the slugger reached, he went to the ‘pen again to get the final out of the frame. Remember when relievers could come in to face one batter in the middle of an inning?
The game went to the ninth still deadlocked. Two singles and an intentional walk, with two strikeouts interspersed, loaded the bases for New York, specifically for Brosius. He got ahead in the count 3-1 after fouling a ball off himself that looked like it could have been a go-ahead infield single. And on a borderline call, he walked. The tie-breaking free pass put the Yankees up one. Up next, Knoblauch singled and brought home two more Yankee runs.
Three run lead with three outs to go? Everyone knows what’s next. Mariano came in for the ninth. And though the GOAT hit Mark Whiten with a pitch, he never really allowed Cleveland to put any kind of rally together. 5-2 was the final, as the Yankees won the opener against their fellow division leader.
Cleveland seemed impressed with El Duque. Asked about him following the game, Thome responded: “He threw me a 3-2 changeup, and a curve, and if you can do that, you’re going to win,” referring to his at-bat when Hernandez struck him out with a runner on third.
The Yankees were equally enamored with Hernandez. ‘’He’s one of the most poised pitchers I’ve ever been around,’’ David Cone said. ‘’I love watching him pitch. He knows what he wants to do. He knows the hitters. He may not know their names or their tendencies, but he knows what he wants to do ... I’m extremely impressed. How good could he be? I think he could be a front-line pitcher, easily.’’
The victory, New York’s 49th of the season, kept them well ahead of the second-place Red Sox, and put them in position to earn at least a series split with Cleveland with another victory. All for a club currently missing Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams. What a team.