The Yankees entered the day fresh off a victory against Tampa Bay the night before led by the MLB debut of Orlando Hernández, but that win was a tad pyrrhic. Derek Jeter, in the middle of an outstanding first half, strained an abdominal muscle swinging the bat in that contest. Accordingly, New York placed him on the 15-day injured list, meaning the club would miss its star shortstop for a couple of weeks.
However, his absence didn’t immediately turn this lineup into a bunch of pumpkins. Luis Sojo slid in at shortstop and hit ninth, but overall, the batting order still looked formidable. In its first test without Jeter, they passed with flying colors.
June 4: Yankees 6, Devil Rays 1 (box score)
Record: 41-13, .759 (8.5 GA)
After an inning and a half of scoreless ball, the Yankees drew first blood in the bottom of the second. First, Darryl Strawberry doubled and drove in Tino Martinez to get the Yankees on the board. Two batters later, Joe Girardi stepped to the dish with the sacks juiced. He hit into a double play, but a second run crossed the plate, ultimately the final run the Yankees would actually need.
Tampa got one back in the third. An RBI groundout from Quinton McCracken brought Mike Difelice in. But that was all the damage Hideki Irabu allowed on the day. Irabu entered the day pitching as well as anyone could have imagined, sporting a quite tidy 1.48 ERA through the first couple months of the season, and he was 10 days removed from tossing a complete game shutout against the White Sox.
Just in case Tampa thought they were clawing their way back into this one, the Yankee bats put the Devil Rays to bed in the next couple of innings. In the bottom of the third, New York loaded the bases again. No double play this time — instead, Bernie Williams unloaded a single off the right field wall, missing a grand slam by a couple of feet. Two runs scored and extended the Yankee lead to 4-1.
The next frame, the Yankees tacked on another run, this time via a Chuck Knoblauch sacrifice fly. At 5-1, with the way Irabu was shutting Tampa down, it probably felt like 15-1. But the bats kept the pressure on. In the bottom of the seventh, Paul O’Neill came to the plate and clubbed a solo shot out to right field, scoring the Yankees sixth and final run.
Irabu came back out for the eighth, but after retiring the leadoff man he walked Randy Winn. That was enough for Joe Torre, and he went to the pen. Graeme Lloyd came in to navigate the final five outs of the contest. Hideki’s final line: 7.1 IP, 1 ER, 6 K. It’s tough to bring a 1.48 ERA down, but he managed. After Lloyd escaped the inning without allowing the inherited runner to score, Irabu left the game with a 1.45 ERA. That’ll get the job done.
Meanwhile, Jeter spent the game sitting in the Yankee dugout, telling Torre: “You’re killing me. You’re killing me.” The 23-year-old future captain, though he understood the reasoning for the IL placement, was half-joking, according to Buster Olney at the New York Times. Undoubtedly though, Jeets was already dying to get back on the field. Especially in light of his spectacular first half of the season.
Despite Jeter’s absence, the Yankees did what they were supposed to and throttled the hapless Devil Rays. The win officially put them on a 123-win pace one-third of the way through the season, and kept them 8.5 games ahead of second-place Boston. It’s crazy that they didn’t finish that far off their pace through 54 games. What a team.