Heading into the month of September, the 1998 Yankees stood at 98-37, and they were chasing history. If the team played to an 18-9 record in September, they would end with 116 wins and tie the 1906 Cubs for the most wins in a season in baseball history. While the Cubs did that in nine fewer games, as the 2001 Mariners would show, it was still a record people cared about.
Unfortunately for the Yankees, they began the month on a 6-9 stretch, their worst 15-game period of the season, leaving them with absolutely no wiggle room. And while the Bombers kept history alive for a few more days, on September 19th, the dream of 116 ended.
September 19: Orioles 5, Yankees 3 (box score)
Record: 106-47, .693 (20.0 game lead)
Getting the ball for the Baltimore Orioles in this one was one of the most random players I have firm memories of from my childhood, Sidney Ponson. A mainstay of the O’s pitching staff from 1998 to 2005 — aside from a 10-game stretch with the San Francisco Giants after the 2003 trade deadline, that is — he managed to put together a 12-year major league career despite a 5.03 ERA (89 ERA+), 1.484 WHIP. Over the course of his career, Yankee batters posted a .274/.339/.432 slash line against him, which in the grand scheme of things was actually pretty good (11 teams who faced him at least 10 times had a higher OPS against him).
On this particular night, however, Ponson absolutely stifled the Yankees offense. Across 7.1 innings, he allowed six hits and walked two batters but did not surrender a run. It was not until the fifth inning, when Joe Girardi reached on an infield single with Scott Brosius at first, that the Yankees put a runner in scoring position against him. In the sixth, Derek Jeter led off with a single and stole second, but was stranded there. Outside these two instances, the Yankees were unable to seriously threaten against Ponson.
Searching for the second 20-win season of his career, David Cone struggled to keep the Orioles lineup in check all game. Roberto Alomar led off the first with a single to right. Brady Anderson followed that up with a single to center that put runners on the corners and nobody out. Eric Davis grounded a single through the middle that scored Alomar. Rafael Palmiero drove a line drive down the right field line for an RBI single, recording the first out of the inning by getting thrown out stretching it into a double. Calvin Pickering and Cal Ripken Jr. each grounded out to end the frame, but the damage was done, and Baltimore had a 2-0 lead.
After keeping the O’s at bay for three innings, Baltimore’s bats struck again in the fifth. Anderson and Davis led off the frame with a pair of doubles, the second of which brought Anderson around to score; a Palmiero single brought in Davis. While Pickering grounded into a 6-6-3 double play and Ripken Jr. grounded out to third, once again, the middle of the order had come through for Baltimore, extending the lead to 4-0. Pickering would add a solo shot in the seventh to make it 5-0.
For their part, the offense finally came alive in the ninth off Arthur Rhodes. Bernie Williams led off the inning with a double — the Yankees’ first extra-base hit of the day. Tino Martinez followed that with a home run own the right field line, and Chili Davis went back-to-back to pull the Yankees within two with nobody out in the ninth. The Orioles summoned Alan Mills from the bullpen, however, and although he allowed Brosius to reach on a single, he slammed the door shut for his second save of the season.