September 29, 1998 marked the day that the previous six months of toil and triumph had been building toward — the playoffs. The Yankees soared into the playoffs on a tidal wave of momentum from their historic regular season, and it was hard to imagine any team halting the juggernaut.
Eleven more wins stood between Joe Torre’s team and their goal, starting with a perfect fall night in the Bronx against the AL West Division champion Rangers. The Yankees took down Texas in a four-game ALDS in 1996, and this club was once again spearheaded by AL MVP Juan Gonzalez (sorry, A-Rod), future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and six-time All-Star Will Clark. They somehow managed to hit enough to override the dismal starting staff and their AL-worst 5.46 collective ERA.
Playoffs: Up 1-0 in ALDS (115-48 overall)
Taking the mound in the top of the first was none other than Todd Stottlemyre, son of the Yankees’ pitching coach, Mel. Drafted by the Yankees in the fifth round of the 1983 amateur draft, the 33-year-old righty was toward the end of his career, pitching for his fourth team, but still a two-time World Series winner in his own right, going back-to-back with the Blue Jays in 1992 and 1993. It was a reunion night in more than one respect, with Stottlemyre taking on David Wells, his former teammate in Toronto.
Early on, the Yankees looked like they would have no trouble against Stottlemyre. He hit Chuck Knoblauch with the second pitch he threw, followed by a Paul O’Neill double down the third base line that unfortunately saw Knoblauch thrown out at home. A passed ball to Bernie Williams allowed O’Neill to take third and a walk put runners on the corners, and although the Yankees were unable to capitalize in the first, it already felt like a matter of time that they would cash in their runners.
That breakthrough came an inning later, with Jorge Posada drawing a one-out walk. Chad Curtis doubled to right to put two men in scoring position for Scott Brosius, who singled through the right hand side to plate Posada as the first run of the contest and advance Curtis to third. The Yankees attempted a double steal with Knoblauch facing a full count, and fortunately Curtis was able to touch home before Brosius was tagged out at second in a rather rare run-scoring strike ‘em out throw ‘em out double play to end the inning.
From there, the Bombers’ bats could never build any momentum against the veteran starter. An O’Neill walk in the third was erased by a double play. They’d waste a Tino Martinez double to lead off the fourth, Posada and Curtis striking out swinging to end the frame. Derek Jeter walked in the fifth without advancing farther. Curtis singled in the seventh but was caught stealing. Knoblauch led off the eighth with a single and advanced to second on a sac bunt but was stranded there. All in all, Stottlemyre compiled a complete game allowing two runs on six hits and four walks with eight strikeouts on 121 pitches, with the Yankees leaving five on base while going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position.
Wells, meanwhile, came flying out of the starting gate, navigating around a leadoff walk of Mark McLemore in the first to then retire 10 straight batters including four strikeouts, all swinging. That streak ended with a one-out single from Rusty Greer in the fourth, but Wells responded by striking out Gonzalez looking and Clark swinging.
From the Greer single in the fourth until the seventh inning, Wells retired nine of the next 10 batters he faced, the only blemish a Mike Simms two-out single in the fifth. Boomer would face his sternest test in the seventh, with a pair of singles by Clark and Todd Zeile bookending a Pudge groundout. However, Wells struck out Simms swinging to strand the pair, and outside of a McLemore double with one out in the eighth, the Rangers never again looked like threatening. Wells exited the contest after eight brilliant scoreless innings, allowing five hits and a walk with nine strikeouts on 135 pitches.
Most importantly, neither Gonzalez nor Rodriguez could get anything going, with the to-be-crowned MVP and future first-ballot Cooperstown honoree going a combined 0-for-8 with three strikeouts.
Mariano Rivera came in for the ninth and performed his usual Sandman routine against the fearsome trio at the heart of Texas’ lineup. Gonzalez flew out to left, Clark blooped out on a broken bat popup, and Pudge struck out swinging on a perfectly located cutter darting off the outside edge as the Yankees completed the first step of their postseason saga.