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June 14, 2004

Miracles on Grass
by Larry Mahnken

I worked yesterday.

I worked 11:30-8, and didn't get home until about 9. And so I taped the game.

I came home, and first watch the Lakers go down to the Pistons once again. That made me happy. Seeing Boston win... not so much. And then I started watching the game.

The story early on was David Wells' return to the Bronx, and the uncertain reception he'd receive. He got a standing ovation and tipped his cap, but the story before the game usually doesn't end up being the story of the game, unless your team really stinks, in which case the story of the game often has nothing to do with the game. But I digress.

Boomer was fantastic in his return, pitching 7 scoreless innings, and outdeuling Javier Vazquez, who was pretty damn good himself. 8 innings, 2 runs, 8 strikeouts and no walks. His only mistakes were a homer by Khalil Greene in the 3rd and an RBI double by Terrence Long in the 7th. But those were two mistakes too many, and with one of the great relievers of all time, Trevor Hoffman, retiring the first two in the bottom of the ninth, it looked like it was over.

But if we've learned one thing from the Yankees this season, it's that baseball is the greatest game that's ever been invented, and you really can't turn the game off until the last out is recorded. Hideki Matsui--who hit all of 16 HRs last season--absolutely destroyed a 2-0 pitch, and hit it over the right-center field fence, halfway into the bleachers, and it was 2-1. And Kenny Lofton, pinch-hitting for the slumping Tony Clark, followed it with a game-tying homer into the right-field box seats. The improbable--the nearly impossible--had happened, and the Yankees were tied.

But with two outs, they couldn't generate anything else, and went into extra innings. The Padres got a runner to third with 2 outs in the tenth, but didn't score. The Yankees loaded the bases with two outs in the bottom of the inning, but they too were unable to score.

San Diego got two hits in the top of the 11th, but with a caught stealing following one of them, they couldn't generate a rally. The Yankees went down in order in the 11th.

And then in the 12th, Torre brought in Bret Prinz. Prinz had been outstanding for the Yankees so far this season, and had started to gain Joe Torre's confidence--but what happened yesterday afternoon had to shake that confidence a little bit. A single, a force out, a single, and then he lost the strike zone. He walked Sean Burroughs on 4 pitches, then went 3-1 to Mark Loretta before he hit a sacrifice fly to give San Diego the lead. And then he threw another ball to Brian Giles.

Then Joe Torre did something stupid; he brought in Felix Heredia, instead of Mariano Rivera. Rivera's been used probably far too often this season--9 out of 11 games at one point, 8 out of 10 at another--but having only pitched one of the previous three days, with Monday a scheduled off day, the Yankees should have been willing to use him Sunday. Instead they brought in the Human Gas Can, who gave up a line drive single to right, to score another run, and when the ball got behind Sheffield, a second one scored, and Giles went to third.

It was at this point that I stopped the playback, frustrated, and wondering whether the ninth-inning dramatic home runs had been worth it, as they merely had delayed the ultimate result.

But just in case you didn't learn the lesson already, the Yankees decided to teach us one more time: baseball is the greatest game that's ever been invented, and you really can't turn the game off until the last out is recorded.

After turning off the game, I went to the computer to check the final score, and how bad it was. It wasn't that bad.

It started with a walk to Bernie Williams, and Derek Jeter followed with a double to right, sending Bernie to third and bringing up Alex Rodriguez as the tying run. A-Rod couldn't tie it, but he did get Bernie home with a grounder to third.

And then Sheffield singled. And then Giambi singled, and the tying run was on third base, with one out. A line-drive double down the right-field line tied the game, and sent Giambi to third with the winning run. Matsui was intentionally walked, and Ruben Sierra hit a fly ball to deep center, scoring Giambi and winning the game. And giving Felix Heredia a win just as cheap as the one Tanyon Sturtze got in Baltimore.

It was an exciting game, and presumably an excruciating one for Padre fans. Overshadowed in the comebacks was the outstanding performance by Javier Vazquez, who has really eliminated all question about his quality. It was a dramatic return for Kenny Lofton, who, considering the slumps of Sierra and Clark, should be given regular starts in center against righties, relegating Bernie to DH. Not that it'll happen...

The Yankees are extremely overdue for a slump, but the way they've been playing lately, winning despite poor efforts, you have to wonder if it'll ever come. A playoff spot looks like a lock at this point, 100 wins probable, and a historic win total is, at this point, conceivable. Injuries will probably derail that last opportunity, and may be the only thing that sends the Yankees into a real slide--or perhaps another series in Boston, who is probably the only team talented enough to go toe-to-toe with a healthy Yankees team right now. But while they're not fading away, and probably won't, they're not uncomfortably close right now, and while it doesn't mean all that much, it still feels pretty good.