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December 20 2000 : Think Back to April 15th…

April 15th fell on a Saturday this year, giving every American two extra days to file income tax forms. Any Yankee fan who spent that afternoon doing taxes instead of listening to or watching the game, missed a nail-biter. Rain, cold mist, and 55 degree temperatures held the crowd to a mere 34,056 that day.

The Yankees had gotten off to a fitful start in 2000; they had posted a 6-3 record but often looked ragged while doing it, and several players were shelved with injuries, including third baseman Scott Brosius and starter Andy Pettitte. Pettitte would have pitched on the fifteenth, but instead, rubber-armed swingman Ramiro Mendoza was summoned from the bullpen to take the hill.

Mendoza would like to be a starter, and his fans in New York have long felt that he would excel in that role if only given a chance. Mendoza had been the team’s fifth starter several times in his career, but was displaced in the rotation by the arrivals of Hideki Irabu in 1997, Orlando Hernandez in 1998, and Roger Clemens in 1999. In 2000, Joe Torre had thought he wouldn’t need a fifth starter until May, by which time the Yanks hoped rookie Ed Yarnall would be ready. Yarnall had stumbled badly in spring training with a back injury and some truly miserable exhibition appearances. When Pettitte fell to a similar spasm, Mendoza got the call.

The young Royals had blown into Yankee Stadium the night before, having posted a four game winning streak, all walk-off wins (three on homers, one on a single), energized and ready to take on Roger Clemens. In the damp conditions, Clemens did not exactly dominate, giving up five runs, but earning the win as the Yankees were able to put seven runs on the board.

With their streak stopped, the Royals were probably still confident that they could do Mendoza some damage. After all, if they’d touched the Rocket for five runs, couldn’t they expect to have a field day with a number five replacement starter?

Mendoza always has a cool, inscrutable presence on the mound, so when he had a 1-2-3 first inning, striking out Carlos Beltran to end the inning, there was no telling what was going through his mind. No one at the Stadium probably thought much of it either–Mendoza could regularly come out of the pen and eat up an inning without trouble.

In the bottom of the first, the Yankees wasted no time in taking the wind out of the Royals’ sails. Knoblauch and Jeter singled, and though Bernie Williams flew out to right, Shane Spencer, batting cleanup and playing right field that day, cleared the bases with a three run homer off starter Jose Rosado. Tino Martinez singled, but the carnage ended with the next batter, Jorge Posada, who grounded into a double play.

In the second, Mendoza had another 1-2-3,and the Yankees tried to get back to the business of jumping all over Rosado. Unfortunately the bottom of the order was not as clockwork as the top, DH Jim Leyritz was caught looking, Roberto Kelly popped up, and then the number nine hitter, Clay Bellinger, was hit by a pitch. Knoblauch couldn’t move him over though, grounding out.

Maybe it was one of those strange baseball coincidences, but the Royals’ opened the third the same way the Yankees had begun the second, with their DH (Mark Quinn) striking out looking. The catcher Brian Johnson was sat down swinging. Rey Sanchez, one of the hitters whose walk-off homers had lifted his team that week, popped out to Jeter.

Any fan keeping careful score would have realized by now that not only was Mendoza perfect through three innings, he had only gone to a three ball count, once, to Beltran in the first, who had then struck out. Rosado, meanwhile, had settled down a bit after giving up those three runs in the first,if you can call hitting two batters settling down. After hitting lay in the second, he hit Bernie Williams in the third, but the Yankees weren’t able to manufacture anything out of the opportunity, as Bernie was picked off/caught stealing 1-3-6.

The fourth inning was another 1-2-3 for both pitchers, and Mendoza cruised through the fifth, as well. By this time, the crowd was well aware of what was going on, and with every pitch, they roared. Mendoza did not seem fazed on the outside, but he would later tell reporters through a translator that he was beginning to feel something “special” might happen.

In the bottom of the fifth, the Yankees resumed their trampling of Rosado. Roberto Kelly led off the inning with a home run. Bellinger then hit the ball a long way, but it was caught–it would turn out to be a day of ‘almosts’ for Clay. Knoblauch went ahead and took on over the wall as well, putting the Yankees up 5-0 on three homers.

In the sixth, Mendoza got Quinn looking again. Spectators wondered aloud if this was Mendoza’s way of showing the Yankees that he could be a starter. Two more quick outs were recorded, and Ramiro was perfect through six. Rosado meanwhile hit his third batter of the game, Tino Martinez, and then retired Posada, Leyritz and Kelly, the latter two on strikeouts.

The tension in the Stadium was at boiling point as the Yankees took the field for the seventh. Johnny Damon flew out to center. Up came Carlos Febles, who, like everyone in the Royal’s lineup, was 0-for-2 at that point. Febles hit a hot shot into the third base hole. Clay Bellinger leaped full out, a Superman dive that would result in his glove just nicking the ball. On some television replays it looked almost as if the ball passed right through his glove. It was scored a hit, and rightly so, for even with his heroic effort, it was beyond any reasonable fielder’s ability to haul it down. Some boos rained down on Bellinger’s head after that, but they were boos of general disappointment. Would Brosius have got to that ball? We’ll never know, but Scottie was quoted after the game as saying he didn’t think so.

To add insult to injury, Jermaine Dye doubled later in the inning, and Febles scored, so the perfect game, no hitter, and shut out were all erased. Mendoza had developed a blister on his middle finger. Now that the stakes were lowered, Torre got him out of there, and he left the mound to a standing ovation. Rookie Darrell Einertson came on to get the final out of the seventh as his major league debut.

The Yankee batters, perhaps annoyed that Mendoza’s perfecto had been squelched, or perhaps wary of how potent the Royals’ lineup could be, struck back against reliever Jose Santiago. In fact, Clay Bellinger was greeted with boos that turned to cheers as he led off the inning with his first hit of the day. Jeter singled and Clay scored. Jeter moved to third on a Shane Spencer single, and then crossed the plate when Tino reached base on a throwing error. The score was 7-1 Yanks, but the excitement was over.

“Chief” Einertson pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, helped by a diving catch by Bellinger, who got cheers this time, but the Yankee offense had used up their fight. Still facing Santiago in the eighth, Leyritz struck out for the third time, and Kelly for the second. Clay Bellinger took another one for the team with the fourth hit-by-pitch by the Royals that day. Knoblauch singled him to second, but Jeter was Santiago’s third strikeout victim that inning.

Allen Watson added a 1-2-3 ninth to make the game official, and then it was time to go home. The game took only two hours and thirty three minutes to play.

Mendoza would show his stuff again in 2000, once holding the Indians to one run (a Jim ThomŽ home run), and outdueling Pedro Martinez for 5 2/3 innings after starter Roger Clemens was pulled after only one inning. But all the pitching took a toll on more than just his blistered middle-finger. After posting a 7-4 record and starting nine games, Mendoza went on the DL with a sore shoulder. Just as he was beginning to throw again in rehab, the shoulder worsened and he had season-ending surgery.

During the winter offseason, Mendoza began throwing again, stirring hope in Yankees fans, and in himself, that in 2001 he might get another chance to do something “special.”

(Did you enjoy reading this blog entry? Please consider buying me a hot dog.)

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