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April 4 2000: A Battle of Heroes, Old Versus New

So, last night the Yanks opened their season with a night game against the Anaheim Angels. The national anthem featured a giant American flag that covered the outfield, red rockets shot their glare out of center, and a bald eagle flew down into the stadium to a trainer on the pitchers mound. A friend (whose tv and cable system we were borrowing) said “Damn, when did baseball get so… produced?” We reminded her it was Opening Day, and therefore, exceptional. Aha.

So, to set the stage. The Yankees had El Duque, Orlando Hernandez, on the mound. This is the fella who pitched game one of the Division series last year, the American League Championship Series, and the World Series. And won them all, I suppose I should add. The Angels put up Ken Hill, a ground all pitcher with decent statistics, though he pitched only 128 innings last year (about half what El Duque pitched, for comparison).

And, at first glance, the game looks like a pitchers duel, with El Duque and the Hill pitching five innings of shut-out ball… well, except for that one homer Tim Salmon got off El Duque. How many times did we see that last year? Orlando would pitch what was essentially a shut-out, a two-hitter, or something like that, but that one hit would be a home run? They say he beats himself up about it, that one “bad pitch.” But with the normal Yankee offense, one home run is surmountable.

And it was. Because the real battle heroes in the game were two sluggers, the aging but extremely formidable Mo Vaughn, and the Yanks young, eternally fresh-faced Shane Spencer, to whom the Designated Hitter’s baton has been passed by the now-retired Chili Davis and the now-back-in-rehab Darryl Strawberry (suspended for the entire year for cocaine infractions). Mo Vaughn, who could break the game open at any time with a mighty swing. Shane Spencer, who had a terrible spring, and had a lot of people worried about whether he can actually become a true slugger.

On this night, Spencer actually wasn’t the DH. Bernie Williams was, as they took him out of the field to rest his sore throwing arm. So Spencer took left field and Ricky Ledee took center. Early in the game, Spencer made an incredible catch, sprinting across the grass to grab the ball, and rob the Angels of a base hit. But then later in the game, as the Angels were threatening, Spencer and Shortstop Derek Jeter had a near collision where it looked like Jeter had a bead on the ball, but then at the last second he turned away as if Spencer had called him off… but then didn’t catch it. It’s hard to tell what exactly happened, but the ball dropped for a base hit. You figure the kid couldn’t have been feeling too good about that, no matter what.

Meanwhile, Mo Vaughn had been having a tough game. El Duque struck him out on a slow curve ball to end the first. Struck him out on a change up to end the third. And in the top of the fifth got charged with a throwing error when he threw the ball too high and pulled pitcher ken Hill off the bag to let… you guessed it… Shane Spencer get on base.

Bottom of the fifth came then, and El Duque got into hot water. Scott Spiezio led off the inning with a single. Bengie Molina popped out, but then Gary DiSarcina hit another single. Then Darin Erstad hit ANOTHER single. Bases Loaded. Adam Kennedy popped out to the infield so the runners held. Two out. And here comes Mo Vaughn.

Now, Mo’s hot under the collar about the two previous strikeouts, and about the error. And right here, he connects with one, it’ll be a grand slam, Angels will be up 5-0, and well, I don’t have to tell you that would be very good for the Angels. He’s now seen all of El Duque’s pitches, as he’s worked him deep into the count on the previous two strikeouts. I remarked to another friend in the room that this was the turning point of the game.

And it was. Would Mo be a hero? No. El Duque struck him out for a third time, on that change up. And the Yanks, now all fired up from getting out of the bases loaded jam, came in, Jeter hit a single, and Paul O’Neill hammered one into the seats for two RBI. The tide was turned because of that strikeout. 2-1 Yanks. And the next inning, after El Duque held the Angels hitless again, Shane Spencer was the first man up. Kent Mercker was now pitching. And Spencer, our baby-faced DH to be, took him deep for a home run. 3-1 Yanks. Which is not a huge lead… would it be enough?

Mo would get one more crack at El Duque in the seventh. For the fourth time, now, facing him with two outs. A man on first. A home run ties it up. But no. Mo didn’t strike out, he did get the bat on the ball, finally, but it was a weak grounder to first and Tino Martinez took it back to the bag himself.

Let’s go now to the bottom of the ninth, and in comes Mariano Rivera, “Mr. Automatic,” who has not been scored on since last July. He strikes out Bengie Molina, who just about spins around and falls down. But DiSarcina gets on with a single, and then Darin Erstad, doing a good job as a leadoff hitter, worked a deep count and walked. Kennedy flied out. And here comes Mo Vaughn.

This is Mo’s last chance to draw blood. Here again, he could be the hero. A home run now, and the Angels would win it, 4-3. A solid base hit, even, could even the score and send the game to extra innings.

He didn’t work a deep count this time. He wasn’t going to give Rivera a chance to get ahead in the count. So on the second or third pitch, he just reached out and chopped a shot into the gap for a single, scoring DiSarcina. Sorry, Mariano (who Yanks fans also affectionately call Mo…), your scoreless inning record was the casualty, the sacrifice taken by Mo Vaughn in his to-the-last battle in the game.

In the end, it wasn’t enough, as Tim Salmon, who had looked like a hero in the second with his home run, flied out to Paul O’Neill in right. The Yanks won it 3-2. And if Spencer hadn’t hit that home run, it would have been tied. And if Spencer hadn’t beat out that error throw at first (the replay showed he might have been a fraction of a second too late actually) Ken Hill wouldn’t have gotten rattled. And if Spencer hadn’t made those two fabulous catches in left (one later that definitely redeemed the time he and Jeter let the ball drop), the Angels probably would have gotten on the board at least once more.

So, Shane Spencer was the hero of the game. And Mo Vaughn, who had not one but two chances to win it all for the Angels, was not.

If you want to get all mystical about it, you could say that Shane Spencer picked up some of Mo’s slugger juju last night. If you don’t, you gotta admit, the kid did alright.

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