The Yankees entered their final series of the 1998 season knowing they couldn’t set the all-time record for wins. They did know that they could at least secure second on that list and set the American League record by taking two or more from the lowly Devil Rays, who were limping to the finish in their first year of existence. New York took the first of the four-game set without much trouble, and in game two, they again cruised to secure a comfortable spot in history.
September 25: Yankees 6, Devil Rays 1 (box score)
Record: 112-48, .690 (21 game lead)
In terms of storylines at the time, other than the club’s pursuit the most wins in AL history, the concern was who would possibly take the ball as a fourth starter in the playoffs, behind the Davids Cone and Wells, and Andy Pettitte. While the likes of Hideki Irabu and Ramiro Mendoza looked shaky, Orlando Hernández made his case at the end of the campaign.
El Duque had been coming off an excellent two-start stretch, tossing a three-hit shutout against the Red Sox and working six innings of one-ball in a win over Baltimore. He would ultimately close his case for postseason work with five more solid innings here against the Devil Rays.
Hernández was never really in a jam against Tampa, and they were only able to damage him in the third. Quinton McCracken singled with two down, stole second, and then scored on a Miguel Cairo single. Other than that, Hernández was clean. He only struck out two, but only allowed four hits over five innings with one run. He closed his rookie season at 12-4 with a 3.13 ERA (good for a 142 ERA+) in 141 innings. The Yankees appeared to have their fourth starter for October.
The Yankee lineup easily made Hernández’s work stand up. Derek Jeter doubled in the first off Dave Eiland (that’s the same Eiland that would work as the Yankees’ pitching coach from 2008 to 2010), and scored on Bernie Williams’ single. Jeter’s double was his 200th hit of the year, marking the first of eight times he would cross the prestigious threshold in his career. The Devil Rays would tie things up at 1-1 in the third on Cairo’s knock, but the Yankees broke it open in the bottom half.
Jeter led things off with a single, and Paul O’Neill and Williams set things up about as well as you can with back-to-back walks, loading the bases with nobody out. Tino Martinez could only manage an RBI groundout to put the Yankees back in front, but Tim Raines followed with an RBI single to make it 3-1.
After a Darryl Strawberry groundout, Jorge Posada doubled home another to end Eiland’s night. With Rick White on in relief, Scott Brosius piled on, singling home two more. Chuck Knoblauch struck out to finally end the third, but when the dust settled New York led 6-1.
The Yankees went quiet from there, as Tampa pitching allowed just two hits over the final five innings. It was no matter, as the Yankees actually sent Andy Pettitte out in relief. In his first appearance out of the bullpen in two years, Pettitte shut out the Devil Rays over three, allowing just two singles in the process. Pettitte’s outing would be his last tune-up before October, and would bring an end to a somewhat shaky regular season for him, clocking in at a 4.24 ERA in 216.1 innings. Mariano Rivera came on for the ninth with a five-run lead, and though he put two on, he navigated a scoreless frame to bring the game to its close.
With the finishing touches now placed on their 112th win, AL record in hand, the Yankees had accomplished just about all a team can accomplish in a single regular season. All that was left was to finish the job.