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December 19 2000 : Think Back to April 3rd…

In the 1990s, the Yankees often opened the season on the West Coast, and 2000 followed that precedent. ESPN brought Opening Day at Edison International Field into homes all across America, so loyal Yankees fans everywhere could see one of the Bombers’ four “aces,” Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez face a potent Anaheim line-up. Pumped up for their season by new manager Mike Scioscia, the Angels would have some of the league’s best hitters in 2000, and Yankee-watchers were wondering if El Duque, plagued by back problems in Spring Training, would have the stuff to dominate as he had in the 1999 postseason. The last time he had faced the Angels, he had given up a career-high ten earned runs, and the Angels were the only team in the league with a winning record against the Yankees over the previous two seasons (12-10).

El Duque would also be the first foreign-born pitcher to take the hill on Opening Day for the Yankees. Meanwhile, Ken Hill, who spent much of 1999 injured, took the assignment for Anaheim, for the fourth Opening Day start of his career.

The Yankees line-up that day was the starting nine Joe Torre hoped to go with all season: Knoblauch-Jeter-O’Neill, Williams-Martinez-Ledee, Posada-Spencer-Brosius, but already there was tinkering, as Bernie DH’d that day (sore triceps), Ricky patrolled center, and Shane played left. It was the only time the starting nine would appear that month, as by the next day an injury benched Scott Brosius. By the end of the week Shane Spencer would join him (cut finger), and by the end of the month, Knoblauch would sprain his wrist, Roberto Kelly would have elbow problems, and O’Neill would leave a game with blurry vision in one eye.

Knoblauch led off the game with a single, the way he would many a game and many an inning in 2000. Unfortunately, he was gunned down at second base by catcher Bengie Molina, killing any Yankee rally, although Paul O’Neill did draw a walk. In the Angel’s half of the inning, leadoff hitter Darin Erstad also singled, but was scratched out in an unassisted double play when Adam Kennedy lined to Tino Martinez at first base.

Then came super-slugger Mo Vaughn. Vaughn is one of those hitters–you can tell by his facial expression, his stance, and his body armor–who can send the ball out of the park with one little swat. As Joe Torre likes to say, though, El Duque isn’t afraid of much, at least, not on the baseball field. Compared to Castro and shark-infested waters, Mo Vaughn must have seemed like a welcome challenge. Mo struck out to end the inning.

Ken Hill recorded three more ground outs in the second, though he did walk Jorge Posada, another occurrence which was to happen often in 2000. In fact, Posada would set a record for most walks by a Yankee catcher with 107, putting him 6th overall in the AL.

To lead off the bottom of the second, El Duque’s face twitched like he caught a whiff of something bad, as he gave up the home run he wouldn’t give to Mo Vaughn to Tim Salmon instead. Salmon, it turns out, has hit home runs on Opening Day twice before, and this was his 17th career homer against the Yankees. Garrett Anderson, also got the ball in the air, but Spencer caught it. Troy Glaus then singled, but was caught stealing on a Posada-Jeter rope. With two outs, DH Scott Spiezio walked, but was forced out at second on Bengie Molina’s ground ball.

Yankee fans looked for their team to get revenge for the Salmon home run in the top of the third, but they went down 1-2-3. El Duque tried to do the same, sitting down number 9 hitter Gary DiSarcina and Darin Erstad, but second baseman Adam Kennedy doubled, to bring up the menacing Mo Vaughn once again.

Orlando Hernandez’ game face doesn’t vary much. Once in a while he winces at himself. But facing Vaughn brought a determined squint to El Duque’s face, as well as good life to his arm. Vaughn struck out once again, to end the inning.

Paul O’Neill did his best Knoblauch imitation with a leadoff single in the fourth, but like Chuck he was unfortunately caught stealing, and Hill recorded two more quick outs. El Duque had settled in, though, and had a 1-2-3. The Yankees then had a momentary chance in the top of the 5th, as with two outs, Shane Spencer reached base on an error, and Scott Brosius worked a walk. Knoblauch was unable to get the ball through, though, and was beat 3-1 at the bag.

Now it was the Angel’s turn to threaten. Scott Spiezio lead off with a single. After the catcher Molina made out, Spiezio moved to second when DiSarcina singled. Then Darin Erstad singled and the bases were loaded. But El Duque wasn’t about to let that bother him. He got Adam Kennedy to pop up to the infield, and then, again, faced Mo Vaughn with two outs.

The first time the bases had been empty. The second time there had been a man on second. This time the bases were loaded, and the score was still 1-0 in favor of the Angels. The game was probably on the line with this at bat. Can you guess what happened?

Mo Vaughn struck out.

The Yankees are a team that excels at seizing momentum. As they rushed into the dugout while Vaughn trudged up the first base line to take his place in the field, one could almost feel the tide of the game turning. Derek Jeter, who among his many talents seems to have an uncanny knack for poking a seeing-eye single when one is really needed (see the 2000 All-Star Game for the ultimate display of this ability…), did exactly that in the sixth. Paul O’Neill then put his sweet left-handed swing on a ball for a 430 foot two-run homer. After recording an out, giving up a single to Tino Martinez, and taking his pitch count to the 101 mark, Ken Hill yielded to Kent Mercker, who got out of the inning with the score held at 2-1 Yanks.

El Duque struck out home-run hitter Tim Salmon this time around, and got Anderson to ground out, but became too careful with Glaus and Spiezio, to whom he issued back to back walks. This seemed a fine strategy, however, when the next hitter was Bengie Molina, who hadn’t hit the ball well yet that night, and in only one partial season in the majors didn’t seem like much of a threat. He wasn’t. He popped up again, and the sixth inning was over.

Shane Spencer came up first in the seventh and did something Yankees fans had come to expect in 1998, but didn’t know if they would see in 2000: Spencer homered, giving the Yankees a crucial insurance run. Crucial because Mercker and Mark Petkovsek recorded nine outs in a row after that.

In the seventh, El Duque was touched for a single by left fielder Darin Erstad, making Erstad 3-for-4 and well on his way to a .355 season average, which was good enough for second to Nomar Garciaparra in the race for the batting crown. To this point, Hernandez had given up eight hits, and although he had struggled with his slider all game, got Adam Kennedy to fly out and then, for the fourth time, faced Mo Vaughn with a man on and two outs.

This time Vaughn was determined to make contact with the ball, and he just barely did, grounding the ball to Tino and avoiding the Golden Sombrero. Jeff Nelson pitched a scoreless, hitless eighth, and on came a different Mo, Mariano Rivera, for the ninth.

Bengie Molina was again dispatched without trouble, striking out to go 0-for-4. (He would have a decent season, though, recording a .281 BA and 71 RBI.) DiSarcina then singled and Yankees fans had to wonder… had Mariano turned human during the offseason?

He walked Mr. 3-for-4 Erstad, moving DiSarcina into scoring position, but when Adam Kennedy flew out, it looked like Mo might again escape unscathed, and extend the scoreless innings streak that dated back to July 21st, 1999. But along came Mo Vaughn, 0 for 4, and itching to get revenge now that the baffling El Duque was out of the game.

Vaughn singled, DiSarcina scored, and Mariano’s scoreless streak was ended at 30 2/3 innings. Tim Salmon, however, had already had his big hit of the night, and he flew out to right to end the game and hand the Yankees their first West Coast Opening Day win in five years.

As it would turn out, it was one of 87 wins the Yankees would need to scratch out to lead the AL East, beating out Boston by a mere 2 1/2 games, and posting the worst record of any team to reach the postseason in 2000 in either league. But as they showed on Opening Day, and several times in the World Series, one run is all it takes to win a game, and the 2000 Yankees would do all it takes to win their third straight World Series title.

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