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1998 Yankees Diary, June 19: Jim Thome blasts Cone and the Yanks

The Yankees fell 25 years ago today thanks to a huge performance from a legendary slugger.

American League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Four

After coming unusually close to getting swept by the Orioles earlier in the week, the 1998 Yankees looked to be starting another streak, salvaging the series finale against Baltimore and taking the series opener over Cleveland. With David Cone on the mound and pitching out of his mind lately, the club seemed poised to start ripping off wins yet again. Cone had won his previous four starts with a 1.50 ERA in that span, with a 14-strikeout game and a 12-strikeout performance highlighting the run.

But just as Cone seemed to be locking in, he took another step back in Cleveland. The Yankees would have to wait again to begin another winning stretch.

June 16: Yankees 4, Cleveland 3 (Box Score)

Record: 49-17, .742 (Up 8.0)

Cone was opposed by future Yankee Jaret Wright, then just 22 years old and in his second season. Wright would eventually be known in New York for his frustratingly short starts, as he almost exactly exemplified the ideal of the five-and-dive starter, averaging just below five innings per start as a Yankee. In 1998, though, Wright was coming off a solid rookie campaign that saw him earn a few Rookie of the Year votes, and stood as an intriguing foe for the veteran Cone.

Wright held the Yankees scoreless for the first two innings, and Jim Thome got things started in the bottom of the second. The legendary slugger lined one out to right off Cone to put Cleveland up 1-0. The Yankees struck back quickly though, as they were wont to do those days, with Scott Brosius evening the score the next inning with a solo shot of his own.

Cleveland retook the lead in the bottom of the fourth, though not without some controversy. Young outfielder Manny Ramirez would come to the plate with the bases loaded and no one out, and he drove one home with a single, though David Justice was thrown out at the plate trying to score. Cone then threw a pitch in the dirt that appeared to hit batter Mark Whiten, but the pitch was originally called a wild pitch, and in the initial confusion, catcher Joe Girardi was slow to retrieve the ball, allowing both runners on to score:

Yet in the times before instant replay, the umpires managed to get the call right, convening and then ruling the ball hit Whiten and loading the bases yet again. Cone partially took advantage of this reversal; he uncorked an actual wild pitch to let a run to score, but escaped from there, with Cleveland leading 3-1.

Again, this being the 1998 Yankees, they came right back, attacking Wright in the top of the fifth. Chad Curtis, Ricky Ledee, and Brosius went single, single, double to lead off the frame, immediately knotting things up at three. Derek Jeter, in his first game back off the IL, chipped in a run-scoring grounder, and the Yankees suddenly had their first lead at 4-3.

The Yankees had followed this script to victory many times in 1998, surviving an early blow before delivering a few furious counterpunches and eventually overpowering their opponents. They just couldn’t quite keep in character in this one, though. In the bottom of the fifth, it was Cleveland that had the quick answer, with Kenny Lofton homering to give Cleveland a 5-4 lead:

Cone would come out for the sixth, but was removed after allowing two singles and a walk. Graeme Lloyd came on to extinguish the threat and keep Cone’s line from getting uglier, but it still wasn’t the right-hander’s finest work: eight hits, five runs, and three walks over 5.1 innings.

Putting the finishing touches on for Cleveland was Thome, who took Lloyd deep for his second homer of the game, a two-run job that extended the lead to 7-4 in the seventh:

The Yankees didn’t much threaten in the final innings, with Cleveland closer Michael Jackson pitching a clean ninth to record the save. Truly, this was a pretty unremarkable loss for the Yankees, as they were just slightly outplayed from beginning to finish. What’s remarkable is how rarely this really happened across the entirety of 1998.