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1998 Yankees Diary, June 26: The Kings of Queens

The Yankees were triumphant in their first ever regular season Subway Series road game against the Mets.

New York Yankees v New York Mets

Over the last 26 years, interleague play has lost a bit of its luster. Once a brief stretch of games on the schedule in June and early July, it now takes place year-round and makes up roughly one-quarter of the 162-game schedule. The leagues now play under the same rules as well with the National League permanently adopting the DH in 2022. Despite interleague’s mundanity, however, certain matches nonetheless continue to capture the attention of at least a notable portion of the fans year in and year out—perhaps none more than showdowns between the Yankees and the Mets.

Today, the Yankees/Mets rivalry has a ton of history. The 2000 World Series obviously takes center stage, but there have been many epic matchups between the two teams in the regular season: Shawn Estes homering off Roger Clemens after trying and failing to drill him with a pitch, Mariano Rivera and Billy Wagner blowing leads in back-to-back games in 2006, Luis Castillo dropping the ball at the first Subway Series matchup in the new Yankee Stadium, Mariano Rivera walking with the bases loaded for his first career RBI, and much, much more.

Back in 1998, however, the regular-season Subway Series was only in its second season. The previous year, the Yankees won the season series, taking two out of three in the Bronx. The Bombers had played at Shea Stadium a few times in the past, but only as the home team and never against the Mets (outside of exhibition play). Now, for the first time, they’d face the Amazins in Queens in a game that counted.

June 26: Yankees 8, Mets 4 (box score)

Record: 54-19, .740 (10.0 game lead)

The 1998 New York Mets were, in many ways, victims of circumstance. In any other year, they would have been in a great position. At 42-33, they were on track to win 90 games, which would, even in the era of just one Wild Card team, typically put them in good position to challenge for a playoff spot. They were a strong ballclub, and after a decade in the wilderness, the rabid fanbase was more than ready to embrace this generation of Mets.

Al Leiter, acquired in an offseason trade from the defending champion Marlins, returned to New York after being dealt from the Yankees years ago to give the Mets a veteran ace to headline their staff, and a deep rotation and a veteran bullpen gave them a top-five pitching staff in the NL. Moreover, re-signed first baseman John Olerud and blockbuster midseason trade acquisition Mike Piazza gave them a lineup that, while struggling to score runs (they averaged just 4.36 runs/game), lacked consistency, not firepower.

Mike Piazza #31
The new leading battery in Queens: Mike Piazza and Al Leiter

Ultimately, a stacked Senior Circuit — the Braves finished with 106 wins, the Astros with 102, and the Padres with 98 — kept them on the outside looking in. There was even a Game 163 for the Wild Card, but the Mets finished one behind the Cubs and Giants.

Despite their disappointing end to the season, however, the Mets represented a tough series for the Yankees, in part due to their pitching prowess. Hideki Irabu got the ball for the Yankees. After a dominant start in April and May, the right-hander was coming off his worst start of the season to date; in his previous outing, he was knocked out after just three innings, having surrendered five runs on six hits during the team’s 11-0 loss to Cleveland on June 21st. On the other hand, the Mets were sending out their ace, Leiter, who had been the definition of electric throughout the first three months of the season.

Early on, this matchup looked like it was going to be a pitcher’s duel. Leiter set down the Yankees in order in the first, and while two walks and a single loaded the bases with nobody out in the first, Irabu got Olerud to bounce into a double play (scoring one run in the process) and getting Carlos Baerga to ground out to second to escape largely unscathed. Both pitchers then traded zeros in the second and third, before the offenses began to open up.

Paul O’Neill singled to lead off the fourth, advancing to second when Tim Raines grounded out to fist. Posada then laced an RBI single up the middle, tying the game. The following inning, Leiter plunked Joe Girardi to open the frame, and he would advance to second on a wild pitch. That allowed him to score when Chuck Knoblauch grounded a single up the middle into center field, giving the Yankees a 2-1 lead.

That lead would not last long, however. Brian McRae led off the bottom of the fifth with a solo home run to tie the game, and after Rey Ordóñez flew out and Leiter struck out, Edgardo Alfonzo added another solo shot to give the Mets a 3-2 lead.

In what was becoming a pattern, that lead would not last long. After Raines struck out to open the sixth, Jorge Posada doubled down the third base line; he would later come around to score on a line drive single up the middle by Scott Brosius to tie the game at three.

The Mets struck back in the bottom of the frame. Piazza led off with a double, advancing to third on an Olerud single. Baerga grounded into a 3-6 double play, stopping the big inning in its tracks but scoring Piazza to give the Mets a 4-3 lead. After Butch Huskey singled, the most exciting play in baseball, the double switch, occurred: Ramiro Mendoza came in to pitch, taking Joe Girardi’s spot in the lineup, while Jorge Posada, who started at first, moved to behind the plate; Tino Martinez came in and took Irabu’s spot in the lineup. The logistics were so exciting, the fans could hardly contain themselves.

Mendoza got the Yankees out of the inning, and the lineup immediately got back to work. After Tino struck out to open the inning, Knoblauch worked a walk and Derek Jeter singled to chase Leiter from the game. That would prove to be a mistake for the Mets, as O’Neill took the first pitch he saw from Mel Rojas and deposited it into the left-center field seats. Take it away, Ken Singleton:

Just like that, the Yankees had a 6-4 lead.

The Bombers would rally for two more in the eighth, bringing the score to 8-4 and prompting Joe Torre to keep Mendoza in and avoid using the team’s big bullpen arms. Unfortunately, while that worked in the seventh and the eighth, a one-out E5 and an infield single prompted Torre to summon Mariano from the bullpen to keep things from getting out of hand. And, Mo being Mo, that did the job.

From the start of interleague until Shea Stadium closed its doors alongside Old Yankee Stadium in 2008, the Yankees went 19-17 in Queens against their crosstown rivals, no doubt causing quite a bit of agony among the Amazin diehards. This was win No. 1.