For the first time since the opening week of the season, the 1998 Yankees were going through a rough patch in the latter half of June. After starting the month on a nine-game winning streak, they lost five of their next nine. To the Bronx came the Atlanta Braves, the pride of the National League East, for a rematch of the ‘96 World Series (and, although nobody knew it at the time, a preview of the ‘99 Fall Classic).
Having won the ‘95 World Series, the ‘96 National League pennant, and advancing to the NLCS in ‘97, the Atlanta Braves entered the 1998 with a mountain of expectations. As would become the norm in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, Atlanta did not disappoint early on, as they, alongside the Yankees and eventual NL champion San Diego Padres, were one of the first three teams to reach the half-century mark (they went on to set a franchise record with 106 victories). Even though they, like the Yankees, were in a bit of a mid-June slump — they came to New York having lost three of their previous four — they represented a major test for the Bronx Bombers.
June 22: Yankees 6, Braves 4 (box score)
Record: 51-18, .739 (9.0 game lead)
As pitching matchups go, this was one of the must-see showdowns of the year. The Yankees sent to the mound young lefty Andy Pettitte, who, coming off consecutive top-five finishes in the Cy Young vote (including runner-up in ‘96), was poised to anchor the Yankees rotation for years to come. On the opposite side stood Greg Maddux, the future Hall of Famer who won four straight Cy Youngs (1992-95) and who had finished in the top five of the vote seven times in his first ten full seasons. This was the ‘98 equivalent of a Spencer Strider/Gerrit Cole showdown.
All too often, when a pitching matchup gets hyped like this, it inevitably becomes an unanticipated blowout, and when you look at the final score — Yankees 6, Braves 4 — you might think that’s what happened here. Both starters completed six innings, with Pettitte recording two outs in the seventh, while surrendering just three earned runs apiece (a fourth unearned run was charged to Pettitte’s line in the sixth). Considering they were up against two of the league’s most prolific offenses — the Yankees finished the year with a league-best 116 OPS+, while the Braves’ 107 was third in the NL and tied for sixth overall — these represented strong outings for both pitchers. Although both lineups managed to put baserunners on consistently, Pettitte and Maddux consistently worked in and out of trouble.
Atlanta got the ball rolling first, with former Yankee Gerald Williams knocking in a two-run double with two outs in the top of the third; the Yankees countered in the bottom of the frame with four straight singles from the top of the order to tie it. Three innings later, Javy López plated Williams with a single up the middle, an unearned run because he reached third on an E1. Once again, the Bombers struck back in the bottom frame, with Darryl Strawberry doubling in Tim Raines with one out to tie the game at three apiece.
The top of the seventh saw Atlanta put together a rally that ultimately chased Pettitte from the game. Danny Bautista led off the inning with an infield single down the third base line, advancing to second when Ozzie Guillen bunted him over. After Tony Graffanino went down looking, Williams worked a walk to put runners on first and second, and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones singled in Bautista. Brought on in relief, Jeff Nelson plunked longtime slugger Andrés Galarraga to load the bases. Atlanta, however, proved unable to cash in on the situation, as López grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning with the Braves ahead, 4-3.
Here, Atlanta turned to their bullpen, bringing on 23-year veteran Dennis Martinez in relief. The Yankees took advantage immediately against the man who once faced the likes of Thurman Munson and Roy White. Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O’Neill sandwiched a Derek Jeter strikeout with a pair of walks, and after Tino Martinez popped out to second, Raines doubled them both in. Joe Torre’s ballclub was back in front.
Soon-to-be City nemesis John Rocker was brought on in relief to face Strawberry, prompting the Yankees to send up Jorge Posada as a pinch-hitter; one wild pitch and a walk put runners on first and third, and Atlanta went back to the bullpen. Mike Cather battled Chad Curtis to a 3-2 count, but ultimately lost the battle, as Raines came in to score on a grounder through the infield. Just like that, the 4-3 deficit turned into a 6-4 lead.
And there it would stay. The Yankees lineup couldn’t do anything else against Cather, but then again, neither could Atlanta against either Mike Stanton or Mariano Rivera over the final two frames. The Yankees were back in the win column.