The Yankees finished the first half of the season at 61-20, a breathtaking 162-game pace if they could keep it up. Obviously we know they didn’t quite manage that, but still. What a magnificent opening half. Coming out of the All-Star Break, the club opened a set against Tampa at the Trop, looking to keep the train rolling.
Joe Torre handed the ball to Andy Pettitte to start the second half of the season. Andy had gone 10-5 in the first half, hurling 120 innings for the Yanks. In the opener against Tampa, it was more of the same. Behind eight shutout innings from Pettitte and a clutch dinger from future manager Joe Girardi, the Yankees started the second half of 1998 the same way they spent more of the first... winning.
July 9: Yankees 2, Devil Rays 0 (box score)
Record: 62-20, .756 (12 GA)
In front of a crowd of over 38,000, New York almost jumped all over Tampa in the very first inning of this one. With two out, a pair of hits and a walk loaded the bases but Devil Rays starter Bryan Rekar, in his first season with Tampa after coming over from the Rockies, managed to escape.
He wasn’t so lucky in the second stanza, however. Rekar plunked Scott Brosius to put a man on. Then Joe Girardi wrecked Rekar. A two-run oppo taco put the Bronx Bombers up by two, the only runs they ended up needing.
And it’s a good thing they managed those two because the lineup called it a day from there. After Girardi’s dinger, New York managed only one more hit, a sixth inning single by Tino Martinez. Otherwise, it was all quiet on the Western front so to speak.
But Andy was dealing, so those two runs were more than enough. Through seven frames, Tampa only managed to get a runner into scoring position once. Their best shot at victory came in the eighth.
With two out, future Yankee Miguel Cairo singled. Next up, another future Yankee Randy Winn reached on a fielding error by Scott Brosius at third. Pettitte then walked Quinton McCracken to load the bases. It looked like Andy had an easy escape though, when Tampa rookie Bob Smith hit an easy ground ball to second base.
What must have been a sense of calm likely turned to a moment of panic, however. Chuck Knoblauch, in an ominous signs of things to come, launched a wild throw to first. Tino managed to corral the errant toss, coming off the first base bag to do so. He kept his composure and managed to tag out Smith, who was trying to evade Tino to reach. In the end, no harm no foul. But that play was messier and scarier than it had any right to be. Poor Knoblauch.
With the Yankees up two headed to the ninth and Pettitte having thrown 121 pitches on the night, Torre did the thing. In came Mariano and down went Tampa. Though he walked Fred McGriff, who advanced to second on a bunt, Mo got a pair of groundballs to third and New York emerged with the win.
As Buster Olney noted in the next day’s New York Times, New York’s 62-20 start tied them with the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates for the best 82-game record in major league history. Pettitte’s day was emblematic of the team’s success. In their previous 32 games, their starting pitcher threw a quality start 26 times, and the club boasted a 2.90 ERA over that stretch.
For context, the league average ERA at the end of 1998 was 4.42. Great pitching. To paraphrase Girardi, who of course went on to a notable tenure as Yankee manager years later, “it’s what you want.” The ‘98 Yankees were out of the gates with the wind at their backs to start the second half.