When you’re a team that had already clinched everything like the late-September 1998 Yankees, you’re just mainly hoping to make it through the last couple games of the season unscathed. Going into the regular-season finale against the Devil Rays, the Yankees had already long sewed up a playoff spot, the AL East, home field through the ALCS, and the most regular season wins in franchise and AL history. However this time, there were still incentives to be had for individual accomplishment.
On the final day of the 1998 season, the Yankees got pretty much everything they could’ve wanted and went into the playoffs on a high note.
September 27: Yankees 8, Devil Rays 3 (box score)
Record: 114-48, .704 (22 GA)
With the Yankees not really needing a win that day, one of the big stories going into the day was Bernie Williams and his pursuit of the batting title. He went into the day with a .336 batting average, which was even with Boston’s Mo Vaughn. While occasionally over the year, players in the batting title fight have sat out the final day of the season, Williams couldn’t afford to do that considering how close things were. He got things off to a perfect start in that regard, leading off the second inning with a single.
Williams would also be involved when the Yankees got on the board an inning later. Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter got things started with a one-out walk and single respectively. After Paul O’Neill plated Knoblauch with a single, it was time for Williams again. He only mustered a deep fly out, but luckily, it was deep enough for Jeter to tag up and score. That meant the plate appearance went down as a sacrifice fly, meaning it didn’t count against Williams’ batting average. It also doubled the lead.
On this final day of the season, the Yankees understandably didn’t go with anyone on the mound who would factor into their postseason rotation. Veteran Jim Bruske — acquired just a month prior from the Padres — got the start and began with three scoreless innings, working out of some trouble in the second. In the fourth, the Devil Rays did get something off him. A Mike Kelly groundout was enough to score Fred McGriff from third to get Tampa Bay on the board.
The Yankees would add to their lead in a big way in the fifth. Devil Rays reliever Esteban Yan got a little wild in the fifth, issuing two walks. However one of them came to Knoblauch, who he later picked off second. That brought the order back around to Williams. Holding a very slim lead over Vaughn, he came up with a single to raise his batting average again.
The hit also kept the inning moving along. After him was Luis Sojo, who added an RBI single. Following a Chili Davis walk, Shane Spencer stepped into the batters’ box. Spencer’s remarkable prior couple weeks have been well noted, and he only added to the lore. He took a Albie Lopez pitch over the wall in left field for a grand slam.
Spencer added even more to his growing legend by setting a new rookie record for grand slams in a season with three, and he did it all in nine days. Alexei Ramirez (2008) and Royce Lewis (2023) have since broken that mark with four rookie slams, but Spencer remains the record-holder for a single month.
Possibly getting him ready for a postseason bullpen role, the Yankees brought in Hideki Irabu as a reliever in the sixth. He would allow two runs in that frame, both coming on a Rich Butler single.
Meanwhile in Boston, Mo Vaughn ended his day with a 2-for-4 batting line. It was good, but it wasn’t enough to catch Williams and his two hits on the day. With the batting title clinched, Joe Torre would pull Williams and sent up Ricky Ledee as a pinch-hitter. With his crown confirmed, Bernie got a nice hand from the Yankee Stadium crowd.
The Yankees added one more run on a Chad Curtis single in the sixth, and wrapped up the victory after that. The win took them to 114 on the season, finish off an absolutely remarkable.
While 114 wins is obviously incredible, it still would’ve felt somewhat hollow if they fell short in the playoffs. I guess we’ll have to see what they do in the coming weeks, I say while doing a big wink.