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September 2, 2004

The Empire Strikes Back
by Larry Mahnken

There have been a lot of must-win games for the Yankees in the past ten years. They've won a lot of them, they've lost some of them. But I don't think that they've had a single must-win during the regular season.

Last night was a must-win game. Losing would not have knocked them out of first place, it would have knocked them out of the playoffs, it would not even have brought them closer to being knocked out of the playoffs.

But a good effort in defeat would not have been enough last night. Of course they were going to do better than they had done Tuesday, the Clippers would have done better than the Yanks had done Tuesday. No, the Yankees had to win so everyone could move past Tuesday's loss.

The nearest the Yankees have come to a regular season must-win in the past decade is the Sunday afternoon game against the Red Sox almost exactly a year ago, when David Wells brought the Yankees back from two humiliating losses and shut down the Red Sox. Last night, that task fell to a man who had succeeded in that role previously, Orlando Hernandez.

If there was an emotional turning point for me last night, it wasn't Jorge Posada's two-run homer that gave the Yankees the lead, it was Coco Crisp's groundout.

With the Yankees trailing 1-0 in the top of the third, El Duque fell behind Crisp 2-1, and Crisp hit the ball softly up the first base line. Hernandez raced to grab the ball, and then cut Crisp off in the baseline. Crisp faked going outside the line, tried to go inside, all the while leaning around to elude Hernandez's tag. Finally, with his feet firmly planted on either side of the baseline, Hernadez held his arms out on either side of his body, as if to say, "come on". Crisp conceded defeat, turned and walked away -- without ever being tagged, and as he walked back to the dugout, El Duque remained standing in the baseline in front of first, stood up straight, and crossed his arms. He then turned, stepped on the bag, and went back to the mound.

It was just an out -- and El Duque quickly fell behind Omar Vizquel 3-0 -- but as the crowd cheered, the announcers chuckled, and Crisp laughed in the dugout, all the weight from Tuesday was lifted. This was a new game, and if they hadn't figured it out already, El Duque showed the team that all they could do about Tuesday was move on, play baseball, and have fun. From that point on, I was confident that the Yankees would win.

Of course, there was the whole matter of winning the ballgame to take care of, and it wasn't exactly easy. The Yanks had blown a golden opportunity in the first, failing to score with runners on second and third with nobody out, and it wasn't until the fourth that they finally broke through, when Jorge Posada smacked a two-run homer to put them up 2-1, and John Olerud hit another to make it 3-1. A Miguel Cairo homer in the the 7th made it 4-1, and with El Duque putting together a brilliant start, it seemed like that would be enough.

But Tom Gordon came in for the eighth, and after retiring the first two batters in the inning, he reverted to the troubling form he's shown the past couple of weeks, and gave up two runs, allowing the tying run to get to second. Enter Sandman.

Now, I didn't have any worries about Rivera getting smacked around, but a broken bat blooper to the wrong spot could mean a tied game, but Rivera got Hafner to ground out to second, and the threat was ended. The Yanks tacked on an insurance run in the eighth, and while Cleveland got a runner to third in the ninth, Rivera didn't give up a run, and the Yankees had won 5-3.

Anaheim rolled over for Boston again, sort of, and the Yanks couldn't up their lead, but they did move a little closer to clinching their playoff berth. At least the pitching matchups look more favorable tomorrow.