The 1998 season was notable in a lot of ways. There’s, of course, the ‘98 Yankees’ exploits which these diary posts have been remembering. Even more notable than that to the general baseball watching public was the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, which saw McGwire surpass Roger Maris and set a new single-season record with 70 homers.
However, 1998 was also interesting for there being two new expansions teams making their debut. Out in Phoenix, the Arizona Diamondbacks debuted as members of the NL West. Meanwhile, the Yankees got new division mates in the form of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
While today, Tampa Bay — having long ago dropped the “Devil” part of their nickname — are massive thorns in the Yankees’ side, it took a while for them to get good. They definitely weren’t good yet in ‘98, and the Yankees dominated the season series, starting with a win in the teams’ first ever matchup on June 3, 1998, which featured another notable Bronx debut.
June 3: Yankees 7, Devil Rays 1 (box score)
Record: 40-13, .755 (8.5 GA)
In the midst of a long Yankees’ homestand, the Devil Rays came to town for a two-game set. While Tampa Bay’s lineup featured some notable names in Fred McGriff and Wade Boggs among others, they came in under .500 at 25-31, led by manager and future Yankees’ pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
However, there was someone else who was appearing on the Yankee Stadium field for the first time that day: Orlando Hernández, in his MLB debut. He was technically a rookie, but he was one of the most respected international pitchers in the world after starring for years with the Cuban national team and in its league, the National Series. Shortly after his half-brother, Liván Hernández, won the 1997 World Series MVP with the Marlins, Orlando defected with the intention of coming over to the US and playing in the majors.
It took awhile to sort everything out, but in March 1998, “El Duque” agreed to terms with the Yankees on a four-year, $6.6 million contract. After starting him in the minors, the Yankees eventually brought up “El Duque” in June and gave him his debut against the Devil Rays. The reason for his call-up was that they needed someone to start for David Cone, who had to miss some time after being bit by his mom’s dog.
Hernández started his major league career with a strikeout of Quinton McCracken and went on to retire 11 of the first 13 batters he faced. After getting two outs in the fourth, McGriff welcomed Hernández to the majors with a solo homer to get the Devils Rays on the board.
After that, the Yankees got him some run support. While Tampa Bay starter Tony Saunders had held the Yankees’ offense in check early, they came alive in the fourth. In total, the Yankees sent all nine batters to the plate in the fourth, as they put up five runs. RBI hits came courtesy of Paul O’Neill, Jorge Posada, and Scott Brosius as the Yankees opened up a nice lead.
Having led off that big inning with a triple, Derek Jeter was then due up again to start the fifth. During that at-bat, he strained an abdominal muscle on a swing and would exit the game. He would end up being placed on the 15-day IL and missed a couple weeks due to the injury.
After the McGriff homer, Hernández followed that up with three scoreless innings. He really only ran into trouble in the sixth, with Tampa Bay picking up two hits and having runners at second and third at one point. For the day, El Duque went seven innings, allowing one run on five hits and two walks, striking out seven.
The Yankees had picked up some insurance runs on a Brosius RBI double in the sixth and cruised from there. Mike Stanton retired six-straight batters in the eighth and ninth innings to seal the win.
There would be plenty more memorable moments to come from El Duque over the years, but it all started on June 3, 1998.