Finishing the season off against Tampa Bay gave New York an excellent opportunity to stack wins as they headed into the playoffs. Through the first two games of this series, they’d done exactly that. For game 161, they sent David Cone to the mound.
Coney was sitting at 19 wins on the season, so if he could manage to hold up his end of the bargain there was a solid chance he’d get to 20 wins for the first time in a decade, since he’d done so for the crosstown Mets in 1988. He delivered and, thanks in large part to another chapter in the Legend of Shane Spencer, he got to 20 and the Yankees got to 113.
September 26: Yankees 3, Devil Rays 1 (box score)
Record: 113-48, .702 (22 GA)
If a possible 20th win was on Cone’s mind, he certainly didn’t let it affect him negatively. Tampa had little chance against the Yankee right-hander. The Devil Rays didn’t manage to even get a man on base until a Miguel Cairo bloop double in the third with one out. Unbothered, Cone induced a couple of easy fly balls and stranded the future Yankee at second.
In the bottom half of the third, New York started the scoring. Shane Spencer continued his incandescent streak for the Yankees with a leadoff bomb to left center. The dinger was his ninth of the season and Cone now had a lead with which to work.
After a shutdown inning from Cone, Tino Martinez chipped in. His solo shot in the bottom of the fourth doubled the Yankee lead and it ultimately proved to be the winning run. Cone worked himself out of a first-and-third, one-out jam in the fifth and then Derek Jeter doubled in the third Yankee run of the game.
Cone continued his yeoman’s work, now with a three-run cushion. He followed a three up, three down sixth by pitching around a one-out single in the seventh, ultimately retiring Cairo to finish the frame, and Cone’s outing. Coney headed to the Yankee dugout having tossed seven innings of shutout ball, striking out eight and putting himself in excellent position for his 20th win of the season.
The game did get interesting when it hit the ninth inning, however. After Mike Stanton struck out Fred McGriff, Joe Torre turned to Mariano Rivera. This was not the GOAT’s finest hour though and very quickly, the Yankee lead was in serious jeopardy. A double, a single, and a walk loaded the bases with two out.
Then Rivera walked in the first Tampa Bay run of the game, serving up a full-count free pass to Mike Kelly. Quinton McCracken stepped to the plate, needing only a ground ball with eyes to hang the blown save around Mo’s neck and make this a brand new ball game. Inexplicably, given Rivera’s command issues in the frame, McCracken swung at the first pitch and hit a ground ball to third. Flying down the line, he put pressure on Scott Brosius to make a tough play. Brosius fired a strike to first, barely beating out McCracken. Ball game over. Yankees win.
The club’s 113th win on the season, and Cone’s 20th, had emotional resonance for the starting pitcher and his teammates. Jack Curry described it thusly in the next day’s New York Times:
“The pitcher’s dry throat turned into wet eyes after catcher Joe Girardi handed him the game ball, hugged him and congratulated him. Soon the Yankees needed a box of tissues for the players. Cone cried then, he cried during a television interview and he cried again when newspapers reporters asked him about the memorable day.”
Take that, Jimmy Dugan. There is so crying in baseball.