The Yankees entered this series opener against the Devil Rays fresh off a victory against Cleveland, their 110th of the season, and Shane Spencer entered it after going 3-for-4 with a double and a dinger in the series finale against the now-Guardians.
With the 1998 campaign in its final week, could the Yankees notch a couple more wins versus Tampa Bay, tying and setting records in the process? And would Spencer continue his torrid hot streak? He came into this game boasting a .415/.458/.925 slash line. Luckily for the Bronx Bombers, he had something left for an encore.
September 24: Yankees 5, Devil Rays 2 (box score)
Record: 111-48, .698 (21 GA)
Boomer Wells got the ball for the Yankees, in search of his 19th win in a season that featured his iconic perfect game. And he was up to the task out of the gates. Randy Winn? Good morning. Quinton McCracken? Good afternoon. Bob Smith? Good night. Striking out the side in order in the opening frame is always a good way to start.
Unfortunately, Tampa got to Boomer in the second, and by the time the offense woke up, he was gone from the game, denying him that 19th victory. Two walks and a single loaded the bases with one out for Miguel Cairo. The future Yankee hit a groundball to the left side. But instead of finding a glove to perhaps start an inning-ending double play, it snuck through the hole, scoring the first two runs of the contest.
From there, Wells settled in and pitched three more scoreless innings, getting him through five on the day. But Devil Rays starter Wilson Alvarez was more than equal to Wells’ challenge. Through five, the Yankees had the old goose egg in the run column. Heck, New York didn’t manage a base hit until the bottom of the fifth when Scott Brosius doubled.
But baseball games generally go nine innings rather than five, and once this one got to the bottom of the sixth, it completely changed course. It’s of course not true that leadoff walks always score, but it sure seems like they disproportionately come back to haunt pitchers. This night was no exception.
Leading off the sixth, Chuck Knoblauch drew the four-pitch walk from Alvarez. Derek Jeter singled Knoblauch to third, then Bernie Williams brought him home to score the first Yankee run. A Chili Davis walk later and the bases were loaded in a one-run game with no one out.
Up to the plate stepped Spencer, 0-for-3 on the night. With the count 1-1, Alvarez threw Spencer a changeup off the plate away. No matter. Spencer covered the pitch away and drove it deep into the New York night.
In the blink of an eye, a one-run deficit was a three-run lead. Spencer had his second grand slam of the season, Alvarez’s night was over, and Yankee Stadium was euphoric.
Baseball games do go nine innings, but this one was basically over after Spencer’s slam. The Dveil Rays managed a base runner in each of the seventh and eighth innings, but they never really threated the Yankees after Spencer cleared the bases.
The win, the Yankees’ 111th of the season, moved them into rarified franchise and American League air. The 1927 Yankees won 110 games, a club record that stood for over 60 years, until this iteration did its thing. Moreover, the American League record for wins in a season stood at 111, accomplished by the 1954 Cleveland team. With three games to go, the Yankees needed one more W to stand alone in the AL record books.