The Yankees had been dead for about an hour, give or take a double play, and now was just the formality, the part where Roberto Osuna put the finishing touches on the ALCS.
DJ LeMahieu wasn’t playing that game. Fighting off pitch after pitch, he worked the count and got a pitch to drive. The result? The most important home run of his career, a game-tying two-run shot to knot ALCS Game 6 with the Yankees down to their final two outs.
Let’s rewatch it for old time’s sake:
Like many of you, I jumped up and down. Did that really happen, I thought. With new life for the Bombers, your mind instantly turns to what could be, a chance to actually topple the juggernaut Astros in their own building.
Here’s the thing: LeMahieu’s spot in history was robbed mere minutes later by Jose Altuve’s series-ending blast. Instead of a moment for the pantheon of Yankees’ history, LeMahieu instead will have to settle for a footnote to another team’s signature highlight.
It was just about the perfect homer, too. Not an elegant, no-doubt blast like Altuve. Instead, it was a ball teetering in your mind between whether it would stay in play in Houston’s diminutive right field.
LeMahieu’s reaction was muted, but the iconic photo would have been George Springer sprawled out over the fence while trying to steal the ball, coming juuuuust short of the crowd-hushing home run.
Yet the Yankees didn’t take the lead, merely tied it, and that left the door open for Altuve to finish things in style. That’s not LeMahieu’s fault; He was the Yankees’ most consistent hitter all regular season and into the postseason as well. The prototypical leadoff hitter.
Even in the positive moments we’ll remember from this postseason, LeMahieu gets overshadowed. His first home run in ALDS Game 1 came sandwiched between Gleyber Torres’ go-ahead double and Brett Gardner’s second-deck tater. LeMahieu’s solo shot to tie ALCS Game 5 was forgotten four batters later when Aaron Hicks hit one to the literal sticks.
LeMahieu has company in possessing an earth-shattering blast turned trivia question. Alfonso Soriano came through with two of the most clutch hits in Yankees history during the 2001 World Series. Soriano hit a walk-off single to end the Yankees Classic Game 5 and homered off Curt Schilling to put the Bombers ahead in Game 7.
Soriano’s place in history was all but assured — Roger Clemens had World Series MVP on lock, but the homer would live on — until fate, an errant throw and a bloop single conspired to erase that home run and give the D-backs the series.
After a replacement level 2001, Soriano broke out in 2002 as he nearly joined the 40-40 club and took over as one of the Yankees’ best hitters. LeMahieu doesn’t need to break out because 2019 was his moment, likely the peak season for the tight-lipped infielder who anchored the Bombers’ lineup.
LeMahieu’s season won’t be forgotten any time soon. The under-the-radar signing made himself indispensable and a borderline MVP candidate in the Bronx. He was clutch from the start with his impressive numbers with the bases loaded, as well as two walk-off hits during the season, and his unwavering focus steadied him for a strong October.
That being said, despite hitting one of the most dramatic home runs possible, LeMahieu’s standout moment was all for naught. Its memory will remain enclosed in the pain of watching Altuve blast an Aroldis Chapman slider into smithereens and thus can’t have the spotlight to itself. Baseball has room for only one victor and to that team goes both the spoils and the moments staked into history.
When we talk about the 1990s Yankees dynasty, we never mention the 1999 team.
By that, I mean we never formally mention them. They’re included when you talk about the three-peat of 1998-2000, but they’re in the middle somewhere. Their place becomes more nebulous in the 1996-2000 four-titles-in-five-years crew, just somewhere in the middle, but overshadowed still by ’98.
However, that 1999 team was special, just as any World Series champion has to be. They weren’t all-time special like the prior season, but they did something rare as well: Repeated. Growing up around that time, the Yankees’ championships were ubiquitous and repeating seemed simple. As evidenced by 19 years since any MLB team has pulled off the feat, it’s not.
Enough happened in ’99 that this will be a two-part article: One covering the 1998-99 offseason and subsequent regular season, and then another focusing on the 11-1 postseason run to the Yankees’ 25th title.
Let’s get into Part 1:
The 1998-99 offseason was the first full winter for Brian Cashman at the helm. The 31-year-old wunderkind wouldn’t have necessarily been wrong to just sit on his hands, reassemble the same team that has just won 114 of 162 and call it a day.
Instead, he was aggressive, not wanting to let himself or the team become complacent. The team’s lone major free agent was Bernie Williams, but Cashman sought a different outfielder, attempting to court Albert Belle. Belle was coming off a season where he had a league-leading 1.055 OPS with 49 home runs for the White Sox and was entering his age-32 season.
That led Bernie to consider the Red Sox. The unthinkable nearly happened as rumor has it Williams neared a seven-year deal with the Sox. However, Baltimore budged into negotiations with Belle and the Yankees snagged Williams at the last second.
“He was getting close to going to Boston,” Cashman told the New York Times. “We were getting close to losing him. At some point during today, both parties took a step backwards and reached out again one more time, and after that it just happened quickly.”
Still, the Yankees didn’t bring back the same team. Instead, they chose to trade the staff ace in 1998, David Wells, along with Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd for the reigning Cy Young winner, Roger Clemens. Clemens was entering his age-36 season yet he had just won back-to-back Cy Youngs in Toronto, perhaps fueled by a little something extra.
The Clemens deal was a classic Yankees move harkening back to the 1980s, getting an older pitcher when he value was at its peak, but it gave the roster a star player hungry for a title.
Great from the Start
Like the 1998 edition, the 1999 Yankees lost their first game. This team, however, got rolling quicker than their predecessors, reeling off seven straight wins to go 7-1. They had two winning streaks of at least six games in April.
They slipped as much as 2.5 games back of Boston on May 25, but that’s the farthest the Bombers would go out of first place all season. By June 9, they were back in first place and would never relinquish the reigns of the AL East afterward.
The team’s best player was a future Hall of Famer, Derek Jeter. Jeter had his finest season at the plate and was especially dominant in the first half, batting .371 at the break. In April, the soon-to-be captain hit five home runs and four triples with more walks than strikeouts, posting a 1.217 OPS.
Meanwhile, Williams showed no ill-effects from the tense offseason negotiations. After an April with just one home run, he turned into high gear with a .367 average and five homers in May. He’d eventually smack seven homers in both June and August, hitting a remarkable .384 in the latter month.
On the mound, Mariano Rivera was his same dominant self. In an era where starters went deep into contests, the Sandman gave the Yankees all they needed in his third year as closer. Rivera led baseball with 45 saves while posting a 1.83 ERA in 69 innings. That was a 257 ERA+ as he earned an All-Star appearance and finished third in Cy Young voting.
In the rotation, the breakout player was Orlando Herandez, better known as El Duque. His first full season in the Bronx meant he was going full tilt and he (leg) kicked his game into high gear. He’d toss 214.1 innings with a 4.12 ERA (114 ERA+). More than his strong year or two complete games, Hernandez’s regular season was immortalized by his glove toss to save a run against the Mets.
Meanwhile, a 36-year-old David Cone was the team’s best pitcher. An All-Star that season, he had a staff leading 3.44 ERA and struck out a team-high 177 batters over 193.1 innings. Of course, he’d have a shining moment, but more on that soon…
Another AL East crown
Though the Yankees never fell out of first place in the second half, the Red Sox remained on their heels for much of the season. Boston had missed out on the top free agents — they also lost Mo Vaughn to Anaheim — but they were buoyed one of the finest pitched season in baseball history from Pedro Martinez.
In the highest offensive eras ever, Martinez won the Cy Young with a 2.07 ERA and 313 strikeouts in 213.1 innings. His FIP was a ridiculous 1.39. His best outing came against the Yankees that September when he struck out 17 pinstripers in a one-hit complete game. That was in the midst of an eight start stretch where he struck out 107 batters.
Despite his Cy Young, Martinez wouldn’t have the best start among AL East pitchers. That belonged to Cone, who tossed a perfect game in his first start after the All-Star break. Bending the hapless Expos to his will, the wily veteran struck out 10 and was in disbelief in the iconic finish to the contest.
Cone was the rotation’s stalwart, though the pair of Texas natives expected to front the rotation were merely average. Clemens and Andy Pettite each had ERAs above 4.5 and were barely league average. Cashman’s big gamble flopped in the regular season, failing to live up to his back-to-back Cy Young prowess.
Re-signed in the offseason, Scott Brosius couldn’t maintain his 1998 pace. Still, the World Series MVP maintained aptitude for the dramatic with a walk-off home run against Arthur Rhodes.
In that regard, even if they weren’t winning 114 games, the team had an innate sense to play the hits from the dynasty. Throw a perfecto game. Take Arthur Rhodes deep. Cruise to the division lead. This wasn’t a time to break from tradition.
As the season wound down, some now-familiar faces debuted, months after Tony Tarasco made an ill-fated one-month stint in the Bronx. Then-top prospect D’Angelo Jimenez played seven games in the Bronx. The championship whisperer Clay Bellinger played in 16 games in September, as many as he had played all season after debuting at age 30.
However, Alfonso Soriano had the most memorable debut. What, after all, can be more memorable than a walk-off homer for a future All-Star? Better yet, Soriano’s first career hit clinched the division title for the Yankees.
After 162 games, the Yankees came in at 98-64, four games clear of the Red Sox and one game ahead for the AL’s best record. Tino Martinez led the team with 28 home runs while Jeter posted a career-high 8.0 WAR, one of the seasons where he rightfully could have claimed the MVP.
The MVP would instead go to Ivan Rodriguez of the AL West champion Rangers, the Yankees’ ALDS opponent. More on that still to come …