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August 22, 2006

Smack My Bitch Up
by Larry Mahnken

On June 21st, 1996, the Cleveland Indians had the best record in baseball, and the Yankees were clinging to a 2½ game lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East. On that Friday, as the Orioles opened up a weekend series with the last place Royals, the Yankees came into a Jacobs Field for a doubleheader that would start a crucial four game series.

The Yankees were facing 11-1 Charles Nagy in the first game, the amazingly great Indians lineup in both games (averaging almost 6 R/G through June 20th), and were throwing two rookies -- Brian Boehringer (0-4, 13.10 career ERA) and Ramiro Mendoza (1-3, 8.10) out there in the first and second games.

But the Yankees overcame a 5-1 deficit in the eighth inning of the first game, tying the game when Tino Martinez barely beat out a bases-loaded double play ball that would have ended the game, and won in extra innings. Then, even more amazingly, they pounded the Indians 9-3 in the second game, and won the doubleheader. They went on to sweep the series.

Three weeks later the Yankees went into Baltimore with a 6 game lead coming out of the All-Star Break -- you have to remember that at this time the Orioles were seen as the preseason favorites to win the AL East, and this series was to be where they'd turn it around and put the Yankees in their place -- but as George Costanza related to his deceased fiancee, they swept the O's out of Camden Yards, winning the first game 4-2 on an eighth inning Jeter two-run homer, the second (and first game of a doubleheader) by scoring two runs in the ninth inning off of David Wells (who was 13-4 career against the Yankees with a 2.70 ERA before that ninth inning), the third game behind new (and much criticized) accquisition Darryl Strawberry's two home runs, including the game-winner in the fifth, and the fourth behind a dominating pitching performance by Andy Pettitte.

These are the series' I think of when I think of this past weekend. But this was sweeter. It wasn't just because this series was more of a romp than those other two, in which the games had been decided quite dramatically, and it wasn't just because these games were against the Red Sox.

It was because these games were bigger than just the 2006 AL East race. These games were, to a degree, payback. Payback for 2004, and payback for the last three years where the Red Sox were the biggest thorn in the Yankees' sides -- challenged perhaps only by the Angels.

You see, on July 25th, 2003, the Yankees came into Fenway Park with a 2½ game lead and a chance to put some breathing room between them and the Sox. Since losing a 4 game series at Fenway 3-1 early in the 2001 season the Yankees had gone 28-15 against the Sox, and 12-2 in games after the All Star Break. The Yanks had Boston's number -- especially when it counted.

On this night, the Yankees and Red Sox played a glorious game. The Red Sox came back in the eighth with a game-tying single off of Mariano Rivera, the Yankees took the lead back in the ninth, and the Red Sox almost rallied to tie or win it again in the bottom of the ninth before Jeremy Giambi softly lined a 3-1 pitch to Alfonso Soriano. 29-15. 13-2 after the Midsummer Classic.

Saturday, things changed. After the Yankees rallied from a 4-0 deficit with 2 runs in the seventh and the eighth, Armando Benitez lost it in the bottom of the ninth with a walkoff single to... David Ortiz. The Yankees lost the next day, too, and the balance began to shift. They had to come back in the eighth inning of Game 7 to win the pennant that year, they lost the season series 11-8 the next, and blew a 3-0 ALCS lead to lose the pennant to Boston, and finished with the same record as Boston last year, winning the division by winning the season series 10-9.

From that Saturday afternoon game in 2003 through May 22nd of this year, the Red Sox had a 36-29 head-to-head record against the Yankees. They had outscored the Yankees 386-318 (a Pythagorean Record of 39-26), scoring nearly 6 runs a game while holding the Yankees' offense to less than five. They were beating the Yankees badly, and when they weren't, they were still scary.

For a little while, some Yankees fans could wrap themselves in "Mystique and Aura" and "The Curse", but 2004 erased that bullshit, and the hard fact needed to be faced: Boston was at least as good as New York, maybe better. And that stung. Badly.

The Yanks had won 4 of the last five against Boston since May 22nd, but it still didn't seem like they had the BoSox. Even when they won big, it seemed almost flukish, and the next game was a battle to the end again.

This series relieved that feeling. Suddenly, the Yankees seem to have Boston's number again. I guess we'll see if that holds up next month, but the Yanks have won nine of ten from Boston, won the season series, and have beaten them badly. It's the first time in a few years I can look at the Red Sox and think, "Yanks are better than them. Clearly." And to any die-hard Yankees fan, that means a lot.

* * *

Now to the bloodbath.

See, what was probably the best thing about this series was that, for me at least, there were only six innings of stress, though I guess there were a good 24 hours of stress going into it.

I figured they'd lose this series. The bullpen was shot, their offense had crapped out last week against two lousy pitchers, and Sidney Ponson was starting Friday night. I was worried that if Chien-Ming Wang didn't pitch well, they could get swept.

Well, Wang didn't really pitch that well, but Boston kept letting him off the hook, which was a damned good thing, because for 4? innings on Friday Jason Johnson looked like Adam Loewen and Rodrigo Lopez had the previous two days. Oh great, here we go again.

But Johnny Damon broke a 1-1 tie with a 2-run shot to right, Jason Giambi drove in the fourth run, and in the seventh they broke it open against Kyle Snyder and Manny Delcarmen, capping it off with four in the ninth against Rudy Seanez.

The nightcap was completely unstressful, because I knew they would lose. I KNEW they would lose, Ponson was starting, and no matter how bad Lester might be (and I didn't expect him to actually be bad), Ponson would be worse. With the Yanks leading 5-1 in the second as I followed the score on my phone at work, I said to a co-worker that at that moment, the Yankees had ZERO chance to win. Less than zero, if that was possible. My coworker being an Orioles fan, he knew I was right.

But I was wrong. Sure, Ponson was horrid, but Lester was nearly as awful, and the Yankees went into the late innings still within striking distance. And with two outs in the seventh, Derek Jeter erased a 2-run deficit with a bases loaded double to put the Yanks up 11-10. And then Terry Francona disrespected A-Rod like he's never been disrespected before, intentionally walking Bobby Abreu to get to him.

A-Rod ripped a double, which ended up driving in the winning run, and Robby Cano drove A-Rod and Abreu home to make it 14-10. A meaningless Ortiz homer in the ninth (which, had A-Rod hit, he would have been criticized endlessly for) made it 14-11, and ended an amazing sweep of the doubleheader.

And at this point, everything else was gravy. The Yankees were going to end the weekend in first place. They had a great chance to win the series and extend their lead, they had made Boston's bullpen work and balanced the scales a bit, and they had humiliated the Red Sox in front of their home fans. I couldn't imagine it would be better. But oh, how it did.

I think every true Yankees fan has a special hatred for Josh Beckett. Really, Beckett wasn't the one who won the 2003 World Series for the Marlins -- Pavano and Penny were more reponsible for that -- but he was the guy who was so untouchable in Game Six that they just couldn't get to Game Seven, where you just knew that Moose would win it for them.

So beating Josh Beckett is always going to feel good, especially now that he's on the Red Sox. But they didn't just beat him, they made him look like... well, like Brian Boehringer. It was only 6-5 when he left, but they ended up saddling him with 9 runs in just 5? innings, and getting into the Sox bullpen early. It ended up another romp, 13-5, and suddenly the last two days were gravy.

They had won the series, they had kept first place, they had added at least one game between them and Boston, and they had humiliated the Red Sox. I had already gotten everything I had dreamed of from this series, and while it would be great to win four of five, or even, maybe, sweep -- it would be enough even if they lost the last two, so long as nobody got badly hurt.

And then came the best win of the series. Falling behind to Curt Schilling 2-0 early, they came back after a long rain delay to take the lead on a Giambi 3-run homer, before Boston tied it and then took the lead on an Ortiz homer. They added to the lead in the seventh, and Terry Francona made what was then, and in hinsight remains, an odd decision.

Needing a win, he chose to bring in Mike Timlin instead of the untouchable Jonathan Papelbon. Had Timlin been pitching at his best, that might make some degree of sense, but Timlin had been struggling for weeks, and had played a huge role in Friday night's seventh inning blowup. Two baserunners and zero outs later, Francona brought in Javier Lopez to try to get Abreu out, and instead was forced to bring in Papelbon -- only now with the bases loaded and nobody out.

But Papelbon didn't simply luck his way into a .84 ERA, and after getting Giambi to hit a deep sac fly and walked A-Rod, he struck out Cano and Posada to preserve the 1-run lead.

In the ninth, Melky Cabrera did exactly what was needed, leading off with a double, moving to third on a wild pitch. But Papelbon struck out Bernie, and he struck out Damon, and he got ahead of Jeter, then jammed him inside.

But Jeter was able to get it over the infield and barely in front of Gabe Kapler in right, and suddenly, amazingly, the game was tied (and Papelbon's ERA was over 1.00). David Ortiz led off the bottom of the ninth with a hard hit ball that was misplayed by Giambi and got to second off of defensive replacement Bernie Williams' cannon arm somehow. But while the world fell to its knees to fellate Ortiz for his clutchness, the Yankees intentionally walked Manny "8 for 11 in the series" Ramirez. Nobody noticed that if Ortiz had stayed at first, Ramirez would have batted, and the Red Sox probably would have been better off. As it was, Ortiz was erased on a botched sac bunt, and Rivera worked out of the jam with a strikeout and comebacker.

The Yankees didn't allow the Sox to hang on any longer. Jason Giambi hit his second homer, Jorge Posada ripped a two-run shot after nearly getting hit by Craig Hansen, and Boston's season was basically over.

Normally I get pissed off at Joe Torre for playing his "House Money" lineup when the Yankees have won a series. It seems he plays that lineup when they're losing a series a lot, too, but yesterday, I didn't mind. Sure, I wanted to see the best lineup out there pound on David Wells, to complete the sweep and leave no doubt... but four of five was enough.

But five of five was better. Cory Lidle was utterly brilliant, and the Yankees won a rather uneventful 2-1 game, notable only for it's significance in that it more or less ended the AL East race.

Four days changed the season. Four days mean that Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui don't need to be be rushed, that they can take all the PAs they need when they do come back to get ready for the playoffs. Four days mean that maybe Joe Torre will give Scott Proctor a break, and get some use out of him in October, and not ruin his career. Four days mean... that the Yankees are once again a much better team than the Red Sox. 1918 is gone forever, but the important thing is, it appears, back to the way it once was.