A day after officially clinching the AL East, the Yankees didn’t suffer any hangover, overcoming an early deficit to take their series-opening contest with the Blue Jays in the Bronx. On the next night, however, even with relatively little at stake (Toronto was a distant third in the division and clinging to fading Wild Card hopes), tempers flared in a wacky mid-September game.
September 11: Yankees 4, Blue Jays 5 (box score)
Record: 103-42, .713 (20.0 game lead)
Hideki Irabu was on the mound for the Yankees for this one, with his second-half struggles in full swing at this point. Irabu’s ERA sat at 1.68 after a seven-inning start in Baltimore on June 16, but in the intervening 2.5 months, that figure had inflated to 4.29. His last two starts had been particularly disastrous, seeing the right-hander yield a ghastly 14 runs in 5.2 combined innings. With the Jays countering with Roger Clemens, en route to his second Cy Young Award in as many seasons with the club, it wasn’t a great matchup on paper for the Bombers.
Indeed, Toronto got to Irabu quickly to establish an early lead. Irabu issued a one-out walk in the second, and the slap-hitting Tony Fernandez followed with his seventh homer of the year to put the Jays up 2-0.
Clemens held the Yankee lineup down for the first three innings, but it wasn’t without incident. Oddly, Clemens twice went to make a play on a batted ball using his pitching hand. In the first instance, he actually made one of the prettier defensive players you’ll see from a pitcher, cleanly bare-handing a Joe Girardi groundball before throwing to second to start a double play in the third:
On the very next batter, Chuck Knoblauch grounded another straight up the middle, and again Clemens tried to make a play, this time knocking it down before firing late to first base. This time, Clemens wouldn’t get away with the effort, as the impact from the ball would cause swelling in his throwing hand that would impact the rest of his outing.
The Jays would expand their lead in the next frame, with Irabu surrendering a second homer to a more fitting culprit, slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado. In the bottom of the fourth, the Yankees would get back into it. With Clemens staying in the game despite the blow to his right hand, Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams opened the inning with singles to put two on with none out.
Tino Martinez doubled one home, making it 3-1 and putting the Yankees in perfect position to tie things up. That’s just what they did, albeit on a pair of outs, with a run-scoring groundout from Jorge Posada and a sac fly from Ricky Ledee evening the game at three.
That’s where things started to get very interesting. Clemens, perhaps fuming after hurting his hand and fumbling a lead, nailed the next batter, Scott Brosius, in the back. It’s not obvious whether it was intentional, but the Yankees clearly took issue, with Joe Torre protesting when the umpiring crew declined to issue Clemens a warning. Torre would end up getting ejected for the first time all year (I guess you don’t have many chances to be irate when managing a 114-win team):
The Yankees wouldn’t score off Clemens there, and with his first pitch in the top of the fifth, Irabu retaliated. Irabu hit Shannon Stewart with a pitch, then ran towards the plate after Stewart barked towards the mound. The dugouts and bullpens emptied, with a few blows exchanged in the fracas:
Things eventually settled down, and Irabu was able to navigate the inning without further incident. But he would allow another homer to lead off an inning, this time to José Cruz Jr. in the sixth to put the Jays back up 4-3.
By this point, Clemens’ hand had swelled up, and he had to be replaced in the bottom of the sixth by Carlos Almanzar. The Yankees quickly got to work on him, with Posada singling and Brosius doubling Posada to the plate to tie the game once again.
Irabu stayed in the game for the seventh, and let up yet another dinger to start the frame. This time, it was Stewart, who got his revenge with the go-ahead fly:
Graeme Lloyd at last came on for Irabu, whose line stood at five runs in six innings, and could have been much worse had his four homers allowed come with more runners on base.
Lloyd and Mike Stanton shut down the Jays over the last three innings, but the Yankees couldn’t muster one last rally. Three relievers combined to retire the last 11 Yankees in order, as the Bombers went down quietly on a night that was pretty loud for the most part.
A game like this does go to show how deep the competitive nature runs in most of these athletes. The Yankees could be in put-their-feet-up mode, and the Jays could be in play-out-the-string-mode. Instead, the two division rivals saw their tempers flare in a game that meant relatively little.