25 years ago, two Yankees teammates went neck-and-neck for the American League batting title. It took until the very last lineup turn to determine if Don Mattingly or Dave Winfield would wear the crown. This year, DJ LeMahieu and Gio Urshela are in a similar position. Although there are still 39 more games on the schedule, it’s fun to think about the possibility of two teammates having some friendly competition until the very end of the regular season.
After last night, LeMahieu (.338) had a slight edge on Urshela (.337). Of course, Urshela doesn’t quite qualify for the batting title yet, though he will barring injury. In order to be eligible, the rules dictate that a batter must have 3.1 plate appearances per team game, or 502 over a 162 game season. Urshela is just short right now, at 364 in 123 games (2.96). If he averages 3.54 plate appearances per game the rest of the way, he’ll qualify.
Prior to the season, thinking that LeMahieu and Urshela could battle for the title was ludicrous. And yet, here we are. It’s no shock that LeMahieu is here; he’s a former batting champion after all. When he was with Colorado, LeMahieu won the 2016 crown with a .348 avareage. Meanwhile, Urshela being a good hitter is completely newfound ground. And really, he wasn’t even in the batting title conversation until a week or so ago.
Of course, LeMahieu and Urshela aren’t only competing against each other in the American League. Entering last night, Michael Brantley (.328) and Rafael Devers (.327) weren’t too far off. If one of LeMahieu or Urshela holds off the field, we could be in for the first all-New York batting crown season. The Mets’ Jeff McNeil currently sits atop of the National League race. That said, it wouldn’t be the first cross-city title.
The last time a Yankee won the batting title was in 1998, when Bernie Williams (.339) beat Mo Vaughn (.337). Before that, Paul O’Neill’s .359 mark in the strike shortened 1994 topped the junior circuit. And of course, prior to Williams and O’Neill, Mattingly topped the 1984 leadboard. A Yankee has topped the league six other times, but let’s reflect on the last day of the 1984 season for a moment.
Entering the last game of 1984, Winfield led Mattingly .341 to .340. Even though Mattingly recorded three hits to Winfield’s one through seven innings of play, Donnie Baseball hadn’t won the crown just yet. Both were due up in the eighth inning, and Winfield could have been the victor if he recorded a hit and Mattingly went down. Instead, Mattingly grounded a single to right (friendly hometown scoring, though) and Winfield was subsequently retired. The final: Mattingly .343, Winfield .340.
Could we see a redux of 1984 in 2019? The safe bet would be that Urshela cools off a bit while LeMahieu remains at or near the top of the leaderboard. After all, LeMahieu’s been here before and Urshela hasn’t. But it’s no fun to pour cold water on the idea of a photo finish! It’s not like Urshela hasn’t proven his doubters wrong time and time again this year.
Given the Yankees significant division lead, it’s nice to have a story line like this to follow as the long season winds down. That isn’t to say there’s nothing else to watch for – but we can only agonize over the postseason rotation and recovery of injured players for so long. At it’s core, baseball is a game and the point of it is to entertain us. Hopefully, LeMahieu and Urshela provide us with some excitement and go down to the wire for the batting crown.
On Tuesday, I began a two-part series on the 1999 Yankees, remembering the 98-99 offseason and the regular season that followed. Now, here’s part II on the dominant postseason.
For most championship runs, there’s a moment of doubt. Time stands still as fans collectively hold their breath in a key moment, realizing that their team of destiny might be quite the opposite.
The 1996 Yankees had that in at least the first five games of the World Series. The ’98 Yankees, the best team in living memory, were down in the ALCS to the Indians.
Somehow, the ’99 Yankees never went through that. The Rangers were an afterthought within a few days. The ALCS was closer than the 4-1 finish would indicate and the Fall Classic had a few nailbiters.
However, in running roughshod to a repeat, the Yankees went 11-1 in the postseason with just a single loss to the league’s best pitcher.
A Forgettable Sweep
The 1999 Rangers exemplified the high-offense era; They had six players with at least 20 home runs and three with 35 (Pudge, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro). At the same time, none of their five starters had an ERA below 4.79 (which was actually above-average). John Wetteland was their closer.
The Yankees took Game 1 of this ALDS in lopsided fashion as Orlando Herandez tossed eight two-hit innings. Ricky Ledee put the Yanks up with an RBI double in the second and the Bombers slowly extended the lead with Bernie Williams going deep.
Game 2 was the closest call with the Yankees trailing 1-0 through 4.5 innings. However, Scott Brosius and Ledee had RBI doubles over the next few innings to put the Yankees in front. Darryl Strawberry homered in the first inning of Game 1 as Roger Clemens shut down the Rangers in a 3-0 Game 3 win.
When I came up with ALDS MVPs at River Ave. Blues, I copped out and gave it to Royce Clayton for this series, as he went 0-for-10 for Texas. The Rangers had just three extra-base hits in 92 at-bats.
Pedro Martinez pitched the Red Sox into the ALCS, which pitted the long-time rivals against each other for the first time in postseason history. With Martinez unavailable until Game 3, the Yankees worked to the early advantage at home.
Fitting the rivalry, Game 1 was a nailbiter as Boston put up three runs in the first two innings. The Yankees tied it up on a Derek Jeter single in the seventh. After El Duque completed eight innings, Rivera took the ball through the 10th inning, where Bernie Williams came through as the hero on Rod Beck’s second pitch.
Williams, of course, had nearly signed with the Sox in the offseason, making his walk-off shot even more crushing for Boston.
The Sox rebounded in Game 2 as Ramon Martinez went toe-to-toe with David Cone. A Tino Martinez homer broke the tie before Nomar Garciaparra responded with a two-run homer off Cone to put Boston up.
The Yankees trailed with two outs in the seventh when Chuck Knoblaugh doubled home Ledee. Two batters later, Paul O’Neill smacked an RBI single as New York held on for a 3-2 win.
Game 3 belonged to Pedro and only Pedro. Martinez struck out 12 over seven scoreless innings at Fenway Park while the Red Sox beat up on Clemens and Hideki Irabu for a 13-1 victory, the only Yankee loss of the postseason.
While the Yankees won Game 4 by seven runs, it was close enough that Rivera got a five-out save in relief on Andy Pettitte. The Yankees went ahead for good on an error by Bret Saberhagen early and an error late led to a six-run ninth, capped by a Ledee grand slam.
Derek Jeter homered two batters into Game 5 while Hernandez tossed seven one-run innings en route to ALCS MVP. Ramiro Mendoza got out of a bases-loaded jam in the eighth inning and closed out the series, sending the Yankees to their second straight World Series.
Team of the Decade
For most of the 1990s, the Braves were the bandied-about dynasty. They reached back-to-back World Series and finally won in 1995. Up 2-1 in the ’96 Fall Classic, they had their grasp on the heart of a decade and, one Jim Leyritz homer later, it slipped from their hands.
Even with the 125-win ’98 Yankees, the Braves had a chance to wrest control back of the decade in the ’99 World Series. They had the same Big 3 in their rotation and had the NL MVP with Hall of Famer Chipper Jones.
Game 1 pitted Greg Maddux against Hernandez and the duo gave fans at Turner Field a duel to remember. Jones broke the ice with a solo shot in the fourth inning and Maddux made it stand up … until the eighth.
The series pivoted on that eighth inning with the Yankees putting two runners on right away. Knoblauch bunted, but defensive replacement Brian JordanBrian Hunter misplayed the ball and loaded the bases for Jeter. Jeter singled and knocked Maddux out, tying the game.
Paul O’Neill then singled against John Rocker and a drawn-in infield as the Yankees went on to win, 4-1.
Hernandez struck out 10 and brought his postseason record to 5-0 at the time.
Six of the first seven batters reached against Kevin Millwood in Game 2 as the Yankees blew out the Braves, 7-2, behind a marvelous start from Cone.
Back at Yankee Stadium, Pettitte was shelled and the Braves took a 5-1 lead through four innings. The Bombers slowly chipped away against Tom Glavine with convicted awful human Chad Curtis, who didn’t even play Game 2, hitting a solo shot. Then Tino added one.
Bobby Cox allowed Glavine to start the eighth, which was a mistake. Joe Girardi singled and Knoblauch came through with a game-tying two-run shot to the short porch (Read: Our blog title) that snuffed out the Braves’ title hopes.
Rivera tossed two scoreless frames to bring back up Curtis, who led off the bottom of the 10th inning with a walk-off homer.
A forgotten performer in Game 3? Jason Grimsley. The right-hander relieved Pettitte and worked around four baserunners to keep the Braves at five through the sixth, paving the way for Jeff Nelson and Rivera. Without his sterling long relief, the comeback wouldn’t have been possible.
From there, it was simply a matter of whether it’d be another sweep. After a tough first season in pinstripes and a bad ALCS start, there were plenty of doubters for the 36-year-old Clemens. He put those doubts to rest when he touched Babe Ruth’s plaque before Game 4 and proceeded to shut down the Atlanta, providing the perfect culmination to his first title.
Rocket held Atlanta scoreless for the first seven innings. Meanwhile, the Yankees got all the runs they needed in the third inning. They loaded the bases off John Smoltz and brought up Tino Martinez with one down. Martinez hit a grounder which could have been double play fodder. Instead, it went off Ryan Klesko’s glove and into right field for a two-run single. A Jorge Posada single made it 3-0, which it’d stay until a lone run crossed in the eighth.
Aided by an insurance run, Rivera closed down a four-out save without issue. He forced Keith Lockhart to fly out to Curtis, and the celebration was on in the Bronx.
Rivera tossed 4.2 scoreless innings and had two saves to go with a win, earning MVP honors. For the unanimous Hall of Famer, it was a plaque-worthy accomplishment.
The 1999 Yankees remain mostly a footnote to the ’98 team for many, but I hope my long diatribes have shown some of the value hidden in remembering this great and worthy champion.
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 …