There was a party atmosphere in the Bronx prior to ALCS Game 6, as fans psyched themselves up to hopefully see their Yankees punch a ticket to the World Series for the first time in six years. “Tonight’s the night!” “Please let Pettitte have his stuff. Just let him have his stuff.” “The real fans are here tonight! The real Yankee people are here tonight!”
We arrived early to the game, two full days early, actually, given that Saturday night was a washout. We were a few blocks from the Stadium and just starting to look for a place to park when the announcement came over XM that the game had been called. We took a friend out to dinner instead, while torrential rains and lightning dominated the skies, and then this morning dawned clear and dry. There was a beautiful sunset just before we headed into El Molino Rojo, a Dominican Restaurant a few blocks from the Stadium, and by the time we came out, night had fallen and the crowds were thick on the streets heading for the game. There was no wind to speak of on a perfect autumn night.
“The real Yankee people” were chanting and cheering before the game even began. I’d never heard umpire introductions so lustily booed.
I was tickled to see Chuck Mangione play the National Anthem. After all, the last time I saw him play the anthem before a Yankees game, Dave Righetti went and pitched a no-hitter.
Pettitte did not pitch a no-hitter tonight, but he did go to 0-2 on all three batters in the first inning and retired them all. The crowd was in full voice, on its feet every time he went to two strikes, not just in the first but through the whole game. There was a brief moment of deflation when the Angels scored first, but when they settled for one run, and then the crowd was right back into it as soon as the Yankees came to bat. Between the two of us, corwin and I went through nine cough drops, and everyone else in our section of the upper deck were equally hoarse by the time we were chanting at Vladimir Guerrero when he tried to take a walk to first base on Ball Three in the eighth inning. (I’ll give you one guess what we were chanting. I have to wonder what it’s like to have fifty thousand people calling you a dirty name.)
That first Angels run, by the way, was keyed by Mathis again with a leadoff double, that man that they just can’t get out. I think the stat was he’d had seven hits in the ALCS, despite not starting every game, and of those seven, five were doubles. You have to wonder if anything would have gone differently if Mathis had played more.
There were some non-home runs. Damon hit one just a few feet foul in the first. Posada had a shot that was caught right at the wall. Ultimately, the Yankees had to do it the Angels’ way, with each run scratched and clawed onto the board. After stranding five runners in the first three innings, they took the lead in the fourth when Cano led off the inning with a walk. “Oh, that’s good,” said the guy next to me to his 13-year-old son. “Leadoff walks usually score.” But up next was Nick Swisher, who has been struggling.
Swish cut his hair, though, going back to the “Swish-hawk,” to see if changing his hair would change his luck. “My father said the haircut is good for at least one hit,” he told reporters after the game. Well, his dad was right, and he singled, moving Cano to second. Melky Cabrera sacrificed them to second and third on the first pitch he saw, bringing up Derek Jeter. Jeter had a battle of an at bat and ended up working a walk to load the bases, bringing Johnny Damon to the plate.
Damon had looked weak against Joe Saunders to that point, other than the loud foul, with two soft ground outs. But on Saunders’ 74th pitch of the night, Damon lined a base hit and brought in two runs. Teixeira followed with a slow roller to deep short, and busted an infield hit out of it, re-loading the bases.
Which meant Alex Rodriguez was at the plate again. The Angels never got him out tonight. They barely gave him any pitches to hit. After a brief meeting on the mound, Joe Saunders appeared to give A-Rod the intentional unintentional walk, forcing in a third run, but perhaps at that moment, it seemed preferable to the grand slam. The walk ended Saunders’ night, and Darren Oliver came in to face Jorge Posada.
Joe Girardi moved Posada up in the batting order, to the five hole, but he didn’t do much outside of out deep drive that was caught with a leap at the wall. He ended the rally with a double play, but the damage had been done, and the Yankees were up 3-1.
As it would turn out, that would be all the runs they would need, but at the time it felt like nowhere near enough, with the pesky Angels never giving up. Pettitte gave up a few more hits but was always able to shut the door again. In the seventh, Howie Kendrick greeted him with a line drive to right that Nick Swisher slid on one knee to glove it. Juan Rivera followed on the 99th pitch of Pettitte’s night with a base hit, and Pettitte departed to a thunderous ovation. 6.1 innings, six strikeouts.
Enough cannot be said about Nick Swisher’s defense. Although the guy has struggled at the plate, his heads up plays in the outfield have been big. He was the one who threw the ball to Jeter to catch Carlos Gomez off second, for example. The two of them teamed up on a big out in the ALDS clincher in the Metrodome, too. In this game he also had the assist in doubling off Vlad Guerrero in the second inning, keeping the Angels from having any significant uprising.
On came Joba Chamberlain, who induced two ground balls, one for a force at second, one routine grounder to Jeter. Another Posada GIDP in the bottom of the inning, though, snuffed another nascent rally, and so the game moved to the eighth. to Six Outs Away.
Joe Girardi decided not to mess around. In came Mariano Rivera. It was sort of like closer by committee, except it’s a committee of one.
Mo actually gave up a run. I’m in the car driving back to Boston (well, corwin’s driving and I’m typing), and a commentator on sports radio just said it was the very first earned run that Mo has given up at home in postseason play. Is that possible? Another guy earlier said it was his first earned run since 2000, when he earned one in some other park. Amazing.
The run he gave up was on a typical Mariano hit. Chone Figgins blooped one in to left to lead off the inning, and then after a stellar play by Teixeira retired Abreu, and Torii Hunter grounded harmlessly to second, Vlad Guerrero came up. Mariano nearly sank him several times, and the count was at 3-2, but Vlad managed to smack an RBI hit. That made the score 3-2, but Mariano wasn’t rattled, and neither were the fans.
A firefighter named Frank Pizarro sang “God Bless America.” Once again corwin found himself in a men’s room at the time, and once again he reports that as in Old Yankee Stadium, everyone sings along, even while standing shoulder to shoulder at the urinals. When Pizarro hit the final chorus of “Home Sweet Home” we began to think that maybe the new Stadium might soon be considered a home, too. A pennant is a good start on decorating the place, certainly…
We demanded an insurance run. We got two, courtesy of the Angels. Cano again led off the inning with a walk. Swisher followed, trying to bunt, but Scott Kazmir kept throwing him balls. Then he finally laid one down, but the Angels bobbled the ball and he was called safe, while Cano went second. Melky came up looking at the identical situation as the fourth inning, when they’d scored three. He did the same thing again, bunted, and this time Kazmir fielded the ball himself, and then threw it right over Kendry Morales’ head. Cano scored from second on the play, and pinch runner Brett Gardner went to third. This was sweet to see, that the bunt had been so vital to both scoring rallies, while the Angels, who are known for their bunting prowess, were burned by it when Chone Figgins tried to bunt in the sixth to lead off the inning and ended up kicking the batted ball while in fair territory, getting himself out.
Up came Derek Jeter, who hit a Kazmir pitch up the middle, but Kazmir grabbed it and threw to first for the out. Gardner had to hold at third. Johnny Damon worked a walk, though, to load the bases once again, and then Teixeira smashed a ball deep into center field. It looked like it was going to go, carrying and carrying, and then just dying on the warning track, but the sac fly was plenty deep to score Gardner with the second insurance run.
So then it was three outs to get for Mariano Rivera. A ground out, a can of corn to right, and then pinch hitter Gary Matthews Jr. was the last man standing between the Yankees and the World Series.
The flash bulbs were intense on every pitch of the at bat, as Yankees fans sensed that every one could have been the last. No one sat down for any of the last two innings anyway. Mo went to two strikes on Matthews. We screamed and cheered and willed it to happen.
Matthews swung and missed and the Yankees had their 40th pennant.
Apparently it’s true that everyone raises their game with each successive level of playoffs. The chorus of “New York, New York” was even louder than it had been in the ALDS.
I can’t wait to hear what it sounds like in the World Series.
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