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1998 Yankees Diary, June 5: Andy smokes Fish at the Stadium

Pettitte twirled a complete game against the defending champion Florida Marlins—an impressive feat at first glance, but not nearly as impressive as it should’ve been.

World Series - New York Yankees v San Diego Padres - Game Three

After bidding the Tampa Bay Devil Rays adieu with a quick two-game sweep, the New York Yankees welcomed the defending World Series champions, the Florida Marlins, to the Bronx for a three-game set. When the schedule was first announced, this series might have been circled as an exciting matchup between two franchises whose only real connection was that they had won the two most recent Fall Classics. The Yankees were one of the oldest franchises in the game, the Marlins just in their sixth season. It could have been a matchup between two playoff-bound teams, a possible World Series preview.

The Yankees held up their end of the bargain. The Marlins? Not so much, as they entered the series with just 17 wins—a total the Yankees had reached back on April 30th!

June 5: Yankees 5, Marlins 1 (box score)

Record: 42-13, .745 (9.5 game lead)

In what would become a pattern for the Marlins franchise, Florida’s lack of success in 1998 was no accident. Rather than doubling down and building on what had been a very successful first five years of existence (their record had improved in every year of existence, from 64 wins in 1993 to 92 in 1997), owner Wayne Huizenga demanded that the Fish hold arguably the biggest fire sale in sports history to slash payroll.

To that end, GM Dave Dombrowski reluctantly got to work in the offseason, dealing away ace Kevin Brown, Game 7 starter Al Leiter, closer Robb Nen, first baseman Jeff Conine, and key outfielders Moises Alou and Devon White. Then, in early May, they sent right fielder Gary Sheffield, third baseman Bobby Bonilla, catcher Charles Johnson, and utilityman Jim Eisenreich to the Dodgers for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile. Just a week later, they flipped Piazza to the Mets.

Because of all these moves, the Florida lineup that Yankees starter Andy Pettitte had to face was one of the worst in the National League. Look at the difference between the starting nines that the Fish deployed in Game 7 of the World Series and on this day in June:

Baseball Reference

A trio of 22-year-olds—shortstop Edgar Rentería, first baseman Derrek Lee, and right fielder Mark Kotsay—plus 25-year-old left fielder Cliff Floyd would go on to have long, productive MLB careers, but in 1998, they were all young players still trying to firmly establish their place in The Show. Even October hero Rentería had a below-league-average wRC+ across his first 317 career games.

Not surprisingly, Pettitte put forth one of his best outings of the season, allowing just one run on five hits to secure the complete-game W. Only in the seventh inning did the Marlins lineup even threaten at all, and even then, they only scored due to an E4 that botched a surefire 1-4-3 double play that would have stranded Zeile on third base. Baseball Reference pegged his Game Score at 78, tied for his second-highest total behind his complete game against Toronto in April and beyond only his eight scoreless innings against Tampa Bay in July, which had a Game Score of 79.

Meanwhile, the Yankees lineup didn’t exactly tee off against rookie pitcher Joe Fontenot, who ended the year with a 6.33 ERA in eight starts. Over the first five innings, they recorded just a pair of hits and recorded a pair of walks. After Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Brosius struck out to open the sixth, however, they scratched off the first run of the ballgame for either team. Paul O’Neill grounded a single up the middle, then advanced to second on a wild pitch, before eventually coming around to score when Tino Martinez drilled a 2-2 pitch up the middle.

The Marlins tied it up in the top of the seventh, but that didn’t last long, as Darryl Strawberry deposited the first pitch of the bottom frame in the right-center field seats. Joe Girardi followed that up with a one-out double, coming around to score on a Chuck Knoblauch two-out single to extend the Yankees lead to 3-1. They would extend that lead to 5-1 on an eighth inning “rally” that went: lineout, walk, stolen base, strikeout, walk, walk, walk, hit by pitch, groundout. Two runs, no hits, bases left loaded. Normally, not putting up more runs in an inning with four free passes and a plunking would be a major missed opportunity, but for the 1998 Yankees, things just always seemed to work out.

With a four-run lead, Petttite slammed the door shut in the top of the ninth, sending the Yankees faithful home with their fifth straight win. Although the Yankees famously went on to win 114 games in the regular season that year, the Marlins lost 108—the worst-ever mark for a defending champion.