As the 1998 Yankees headed to Cleveland for a quick two-game set against the AL Central’s top team and defending league champions, they did so riding the coattails of a very, very long period where they did nothing but win. Between a 10-game winning streak, a three-day All-Star Break, and a day off here and there, the Bombers had not lost a game since the Mets beat them 2-1 on June 28th! Alas, all good things must come to an end, and in the marathon that is a 162-game season, defeats happen to the best of ballclubs.
July 13: Cleveland 4, Yankees 1 (box score)
Record: 65-21, .756 (14.0 game lead)
Rookie pitcher Orlando Hernández got the ball for the Yankees in this matchup, making his seventh start of the season. El Duque had demonstrated early why New York inked him to a four-year contract after his defection from Cuba, posting a 2.08 ERA (2.89 FIP) and limiting opposing hitters to a .200/.294/.267 slash line. In each of his previous two outings, he had gone eight innings, including in the Yankees’ most recent loss, to the Mets.
Opposing him was Jaret Wright. Primarily known in the tri-state area for his two less-than-stellar seasons in the Bronx in 2005 and 2006 — acquired at the same time as Carl Pavano and Randy Johnson as part of the organization’s attempt to rebuild the starting rotation after the 2004 disaster — Wright was at the time a promising young pitcher. The 22-year-old right-hander had earned AL Rookie of the Year votes the season prior, and made his mark on the national spotlight by beating New York twice in their Division Series loss to Cleveland. Wright was making his third start against the Yankees in less than a month, and in their previous two matchups, the Yankees lineup had scored 7 runs in 12 innings, slashing a solid .283/.404/.391.
On paper, the matchup heavily favored the Yankees. Baseball can be funny sometimes, however. Wright stifled the Bombers, working around eight hits and two walks to allow just one run. Besides a Darryl Strawberry solo shot in the fourth, they managed to get just three runners in scoring position, and none of them reached third. Meanwhile, two ground-ball double plays — one in the first, one in the sixth — erased leadoff baserunners and stopped potential rallies before they could even get off the mat.
Hernández, for his part, did not exactly have a bad day himself. He was tasked with an astronomically difficult job of shutting down a Cleveland lineup that had leadoff man Kenny Lofton (.372 OBP, 54 SB at the end of the year), and a middle-of-the-order of David Justice (21 HR, 114 OPS+), Jim Thome (30 HR, 153 OPS+), Manny Ramirez (45 HR, 146 OPS+), and Brian Giles (120 OPS+). All told, he did admirably, gutting his way through 6.2 innings despite constantly dealing with baserunners.
After the Yankees got the scoring going with Strawberry’s solo shot in the top of the fourth, Cleveland struck back in the bottom of the frame. Thome drilled the first pitch he saw into the left field seats for a solo homer to tie it up. Manny walked, Giles doubled, and another 1997 nemesis, Sandy Alomar Jr., singled in the go-ahead run to make it 2-1, Cleveland. While El Duque would get Travis Fryman to ground out and future Reds skipper David Bell to fly out to stem the bleeding and keep the Bombers in the game, it turned out that this would was all that Mike Hargrove’s ballclub needed.
Cleveland would add on a pair of insurance runs later in the game, though. Thome led off the sixth with a triple, scoring on a Ramirez sacrifice fly. The next inning, Lofton homered, chasing Hernández from the game. The score was now 4-1, and there it would stay.
In the end, it just more of a 1997 Yankees night than a 1998 Yankees edition. Although the pitching staff did an admirable job of keeping the game close, at the end of the day, you have to score runs to win ballgames. That typically wasn’t a problem for the 1998 squad, whose 965 runs are tenth in franchise history and second since 1940 behind 2007’s 968 runs; on a mid-July night in Cleveland, though, it was. That’s baseball for you.