Fresh off a sweep of the Twins, the Yankees entered this series against Texas in the Bronx. On paper, it was a match-up of first place teams. In reality though, the Rangers entered this one with a record that would have been good for third place in the AL East, 24 games back of the Yankees.
Joe Torre handed the ball to Orlando Hernández to start the series off on the right foot. And when the 27th out was recorded, the Yankees had drawn first blood, thanks to a masterful performance from El Duque.
August 13: Yankees 2, Rangers 0 (box score)
Record: 88-29, .752 (18.5 GA)
No one knew it but, when Tino Martinez drove in Paul O’Neill in the bottom of the first inning, this one was over. The Yankees could have done more damage in the frame but future Yankee (for a hot minute, at least) Ivan Rodriguez gunned down Derek Jeter trying to steal third prior to Tino’s ribbie knock.
With that one-run lead in his pocket, El Duque went out in the second and hurled a frame emblematic of his night writ large. Juan Gonzalez, the major league RBI leader coming into this one: down swinging at the Hernandez slider. Will Clark: down swinging at the hook. Pudge: frozen by the heater. El Duque carved through the heart of the Texas order, striking out the side on a night when he whiffed 13 Rangers, a Yankee rookie single-game strikeout record.
The New York offense gave him a little more breathing room in the bottom of the third, in a textbook case of small ball. Scott Brosius led off the frame with a single and then advanced to second on a wild pitch. Chuck Knoblauch hit a groundball to the right side and moved Brosius to third. Finally, Jeter drove a ball to right field and brought Brosius home on the sacrifice fly.
The fourth was Texas’ best chance to touch home plate. A double and two walks loaded the bases with two outs. But Hernández buckled down and punched out Pudge Rodriguez to end the threat and keep the Rangers scoreless.
To be fair to Texas, their starter was darn near keeping pace with El Duque. Rick Helling hurled a heck of a game. After Brosius’ leadoff single in the third, Helling did not allow another Yankee hit. Moreover, he retired 14 Yankees in a row before issuing a couple of free passes in the seventh. All told, it was a good day at the office considering he was facing a juggernaut.
But in the end, Hernández was too much. Joe Torre let him pitch into the ninth. But after a walk to Juan Gonzalez brought the tying run to the plate with one out, El Duque’s night was done. Why mess with a two-run lead when your starter has thrown 136 pitches? Mariano Rivera came into the contest and did what he so often did: closed this one out.
Hernandez’s final line: 8 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 5 BB, 13 K. He struck out every Ranger except for two, and hung hat tricks from the necks of Juan Gonzalez and Mike Simms. Not bad at all. A crowd of just under 54,000 at Yankee Stadium showed its appreciation and gave El Duque the curtain call after Torre lifted him for Rivera.
With their eighth-straight victory, the Yankees moved to 18.5 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox, and looked unstoppable. Buster Olney noted in the next day’s New York Times that New York had only trailed in five of the club’s previous 72 innings. Insane. Lord, the ‘98 team was great.