With fewer than 20 games remaining in a surreal 1998 campaign, the Yankees started a series with the Toronto Blue Jays in the Bronx, coming off clinching the AL East with weeks to spare. The Jays were a good club themselves, entering play 78-67, which left them a ludicrous 25 games back of New York.
In the series opener, New York turned to southpaw Andy Pettitte to keep the Blue Jay offense in check. And outside of one awful inning, he did that. Luckily, the offense was on point and stormed back, leaving the Jays in the dust.
September 10: Yankees 8, Blue Jays 5 (box score)
Record: 103-41, .715, 21 GA
This one could have started off very differently. Shannon Stewart and Shawn Green ambushed Pettitte in the first, putting men on the corners with no one out. But Andy turned to a weapon that served him extremely well throughout his long career. The pickoff. Green became one of 98 victims of Pettitte’s lethal move, recording the first out of the frame. Jose Canseco then went down swinging and Pettitte ultimately escaped with no damage done.
New York made the most of its own scoring opportunity in the bottom half. With Chuck Knoblauch standing on second, Paul O’Neill clobbered an 0-1 offering from Pat Hentgen out to right-center. Before everyone was likely even in their seats, the Yanks were up 2-0.
In the second, Toronto made up for its lost opportunity the inning prior. Five hits, capped off by a three-run blast from Canseco, his 42nd of the season, hung a five-spot on Andy and put the Yankees down by a field goal early.
The ‘98 team did not go gently into any night though, and the Bombers immediately got one of those runs back. This time, it was Knoblauch. With two runners on, the Yankee second baseman knocked a single that scored one, cutting the Toronto lead to 5-3.
The Yankees took the lead for good in the third. Like Toronto in the second, New York hung five hits on the opposing starter. Four runs crossed the plate before Hentgen managed to escape the inning. 7-5 Yankees and the Blue Jay starter was done for the night.
The game’s final run scored in the bottom of the fourth. Facing Jays legend Dave Stieb, O’Neill went yard for the second time, this time a solo shot. 8-5 Yankees as the two clubs combined for 13 runs in the first four frames of the contest.
And then they combined for none in the final five innings. Pettitte rebounded from the ugly second inning to go six, turning the game over to the Yankee bullpen for the final nine outs. Meanwhile, Stieb and the collection of Toronto relievers who succeeded him managed to keep the Yankees off the board.
It’s hard to complain when you’re 103-41, but there were definitely reasons to be nervous for the Yankees. Specifically, the state of the starting rotation other than David Wells and David Cone. In the September 11 edition of the New York Times, beat writer Buster Olney summarized the situation:
with the post-season less than three weeks away, Torre, the Yankee manager, may find himself settling, or hoping, for mediocrity from his third starter. Hideki Irabu and Orlando Hernandez each turned in hugely disappointing starts this week, and last night Andy Pettitte struggled mightily while battling for six innings... His command was awful. Pettitte needed 97 pitches to get through the first five innings, and he fell behind in the count to 16 of the 27 batters he faced, reaching three-ball counts with 11 batters
We of course know how this story turned out. But it’s easy to imagine in the moment that there was a touch of angst about the rotation, with October baseball looming for a team that would have viewed anything other than a championship as a massive disappointment.