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1998 Yankees Diary, June 7: Coney authors a masterpiece

The veteran righty filleted the floundering Marlins in front of a capacity Yankee Stadium crowd.

Sports Contributor Archive 2019 Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Through the first week of June, the Yankees were flying high. Following a series split with the Red Sox, the Bombers had rattled off six straight wins against the White Sox, Devil Rays, and Marlins, with one final game against the fish to make it three sweeps in a row. While the offense was front and center in May, it was the pitching that stole center stage during this latest run. New York held opponents to one run in three out of those six contests, a trend that would continue in emphatic style in the finale of the series against Florida.

June 7: Yankees 4, Marlins 1 (box score)

Record: 44-13, .772 (up 10.5)

Two months into David Cone’s 1998 season, the first tendrils of age-related decline appeared to be creeping into a pitcher who had recently entered the second act of his 30s. Entering the night’s contest, Cone had a 5.59 ERA in 10 starts totaling 58 innings with only one double-digit strikeout effort to his name.

However, the calendar turning over into the warmer months brought with it an Indian summer for a pitcher in the autumn of his career. He would string together a ten-start run in which he would surrender two or fewer earned runs in outings lasting at least seven innings in all but one of those games, tallying four double-digit strikeout performances. In doing so, he would firmly cement his name on Cy Young shortlists, a race in which he would eventually finish fourth.

It was clear from the very first pitch that Cone was in a decidedly ruthless mode. Armed with pinpoint command of fastball, slider, and splitter and aided by a particularly generous East-West strike zone from home plate umpire Tim Welke, Cone struck out the side in the first. He got Todd Dunwoody late swinging under a fastball, Edgar Rentaria waving at a slider away off the plate, and froze Mark Kotsay on a backdoor slider that, if we’re being honest, never came close to touching the zone.

Across the diamond, Ryan Dempster — making only his second big league start after a disastrous outing giving up five runs in 1.1 innings to the Cubs — was far less effective despite facing a lineup missing Derek Jeter to injury. Paul O’Neill opened the scoring with a solo shot, but it could’ve been a lot worse as Dempster issued three free passes in the inning.

Cone blitzed through the second inning on nine pitches, opening the frame by striking out Todd Zeile swinging. He allowed his first baserunner in the third — a single by Gregg Zaun — but induced two straight pop flies to strand him at first.

Dempster appeared to have settled by the third inning, striking out Luis Sojo and O’Neill, but that just meant he had to face the meat of the Yankees lineup with two outs. That would prove too tall a task for the rookie righty, as he served up back-to-back bombs to Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams, which given the way Cone was dealing must have looked like an insurmountable deficit for the visitors.

Cone was on cruise control by the time the fourth rolled around. He retired the side in order in that frame and the following one, requiring just 22 pitches to tally a pair of strikeouts and four lazy flyballs. He even got an additional insurance run in the fifth, with Chad Curtis lining an RBI double down the third base line after O’Neill led off with a walk and Darryl Strawberry was hit by a pitch. The two-bagger put the Yankees up, 4-0, and knocked Dempster from the game.

He ran into his first spot of bother in the sixth, hitting Dunwoody with an 0-1 pitch. The Marlins centerfielder would steal second before taking third when Joe Girardi threw the ball into center, followed by a Renteria walk to put runners on the corners with two outs. A foul popout by Kotsay would strand the pair.

The Marlins pen steadied the ship following Dempster’s departure in the fifth with Antonio Alfonseca and Vic Darensbourg combining to face the minimum in the sixth and seventh. Cone meanwhile found a second wind in the strikeout department, tallying a pair in a one-two-three seventh and opening the eighth with another pair. The only blemish on his line came in that eighth as Craig Counsell battled back to work a walk after falling behind in the count, followed by a Dunwoody double to center to push across the visitors’ only run. They would go quietly in the ninth, Cone collecting his 14th and final strikeout by punching out Kotsay looking for the second time. This game would prove just the spark Cone needed to power what would end up as one of the finest seasons of his distinguished 17-year career.