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February 3 2001 : Think Back to May 28 : The Duel

Uncountable acres have been deforested to print all that has been written regarding one of the greatest rivalries in sports history, the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox. Fortunately, with publishing in the electronic medium, no more trees need share that fate in order for me to chronicle the historic meeting that took place on the 28th of May, 2000.

It was always going to be a special game, as all Yanks/Sox battles are, but it was also a rare Sunday night game, on a three-day weekend, and slated to air nationally on ESPN. As the day of the game neared, though, it became obvious to all observers that the pitching rotation would pit former Red Sox ace Roger Clemens against the current man of that title, Pedro Martinez. Cy Young winner versus Cy Young winner. New generation versus old. Hope for the Red Sox Nation versus their cast-out champion. Not only that, the Red Sox and Yankees were see-sawing the lead in the AL East. In might have been May, but the game was as important as October.

Think back for a moment what the world would be like if the Red Sox had kept Roger Clemens, instead of driving him to Toronto. They can’t pin that one on Harry Frazee, the notorious team owner who sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. In fact, to fans of the Yankees, whose owner for many years went on shopping sprees for high priced free agent “stars,” it seems downright backwards that so many of the great players to wear the Red Sox uniform in recent decades have all had such–what’s the word?–productive post-Sox careers. Who was that catcher they still talk about? Fisk, Carlton Fisk. And what about Mo Vaughn? I’m sure some New Yorkers try to imagine a 1999 or 2000 Boston team with Vaughn and Clemens and realize what a threat such a team could have been. I’m sure an equal number of New Englanders dream about the same thing. Well, that’s why they call it “fantasy baseball.”

Back in the real world, Clemens had been having a Jekyll & Hyde year with the Yankees. His previous start he had earned six runs in only four innings. Earlier in the month the Tigers had lit him up for six runs in 4 2/3. But he’d also posted some wins that month, one with 9 strikeouts, one giving up only one run. No one knew which Roger Clemens would be on the mound that night–the seething mass of aggression who challenged every hitter, or the psyched-out pitcher who had been driven from the Fenway mound when facing Pedro in last year’s American League Championship Series.

Meanwhile, you could be sure which Pedro you were going to get. Pedro saves his Jekyll/Hyde act for the days he is or is not going to pitch. On his off days, he’s a jokester, always making his teammates laugh and goofing around in the dugout. But on the days he pitches, Pedro is all business.

The sun began to set over the ballfields outside Yankee Stadium as game time drew near. The later star time than usual had not deterred any of the crowd as every ticket was sold and 55,339 turned out to witness the matchup. The excitement in the air felt much like a postseason game, as did the explosion of flashbulbs that went off at the first pitch. Thousands of flashes went off on the first several pitches, in fact, of EACH pitcher.

It looked from the very first inning like the seething-mass Clemens had decided to make an appearance. Jeff Frye lead off the game with a comebacker right to Clemens who leaped from the mound to get it. Right fielder Trot Nixon came next and after looking at a ball, had a heated verbal exchange with Clemens. Clemens gesticulated and yelled–it was later reported that he shouted “Get the bat off your shoulder, kid!” Nixon didn’t take kindly to the remark, but let the record show that he actually did look at strike three, so perhaps Clemens was merely trying to give a rookie some helpful advice. Yeah, right. Daubach popped up to Jeter to end the top of the inning.

Now, the riddle for the Yankees became, how to solve Pedro Martinez? It appeared the Yankees wanted to keep it simple–just try to hit the damn ball. Knoblauch did so, but back to the first baseman. Jeter had more success, poking a single in that way of his that makes it look like it’s easy for him. (Best example of Jeter doing it: watch that tape of the 2000 All-Star Game again…) O’Neill also hit the ball hard, but, sadly, into a 6-4-3 DP. Score 0-0.

The Rocket got back on the mound to face the heart of the Red Sox order. With every pitch, the roar of the crowd got louder as he struck out Nomar Garciaparra. Carl Everett did a Jeter then, poking a single through the infield and the boos rained down. Everett was not well-liked in New York, and had made many disparaging comments about the Yankees prior to the season which we will not dignify by repeating here. Nor will I bring up the whole thing about the dinosaurs or the moon walk. To sum up: Everett’s despised, and Clemens hates any baserunner because he doesn’t pitch so well out of the stretch. He threw to first, Everett dove back. He looked in for the sign. Threw to first, Everett dove back. Clemens was determined to screw with the baserunner and not the other way around. Again he threw over. Now, my scorecard doesn’t give the pitch-by-pitch summary, but if my memory serves me right, Clemens didn’t even throw a pitch to former Yankee Mike Stanley standing in the batter’s box until after he had thrown five times to first. That’s because on the fifth throw to first, he picked Everett off.

The explosion of sound in the stadium made the upper deck reverberate like a giant drum. I’ve never heard a louder moment in all the times I’ve been to the stadium. Everett lay in the dirt a moment, and then shook his head once. Two outs. Clemens then struck out Stanley, giving him 3 K’s and Pedro none.

Pedro notched one in the bottom half, popping up Bernie Williams, striking out Jorge Posada, and getting Tino on a long fly to center field. The crowd hung on every pitch. Neither pitcher was working on a no-hitter, but the way every spectator in the place held a laser-like focus on the mound, you would have thought they were both Don Larsen in the World Series that night.

Top of the third. Troy O’Leary flew out to right. John Valentin grounded to short. And Jason Varitek struck out. K#4 for Clemens. Bottom of the third: Shane Spencer proved that Pedro an make mistakes. He worked a walk. Ricky Ledee brought Pedro’s strikeout total to two, though, and neither Brosius nor Knoblauch could advance Shane. No runs, no hits, no errors and one man left at the end of three. The teams were “tied” with one single apiece.

Now, you’d think that having been through the order once, that the Red Sox hitters would have a slight edge on Clemens the second time through. But the box score makes it look the other way around. Clemens struck out Jeff Frye. The came Trot Nixon again, who this time took Clemens advice and swung… at strike three. And in my scorecard Clemens struck out Brian Daubach as well, but Posada couldn’t hold onto the foul tip and had to put him out 2-3 at first. Some box scores of the game disputed this, but hey, I call ’em like I see ’em, and I saw a strikeout.

Derek Jeter led off the bottom of the fourth with a double. He really did make it look easy. Unfortunately, the other guys couldn’t follow his example, and Pedro turned up the juice to match the Rocket’s heat. He struck out O’Neill, popped Bernie up to short a second time, and struck out Jorge for the second time as well.

Clemens kept mowing them down. Nomar struck out again, as if the force of the shouting in the stadium were so strong it held his bat back like a mast in the wind. To the crowd’s glee, Everett followed with a strikeout of his own. Stanley got a bat on the ball and flew out to center.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were continuing their “just hit the ball” at bats. This time it was starting to work. Tino took another one into center,and then Shane Spencer did the same.

Ricky Ledee then came to the plate, and one of the more frightening moments of the game took place. Ledee fouled a pitch off and either the pitch, or his bat, his home plate umpire Ed Rapuano, who went down to the ground in obvious agony. No one was sure whether he took it on the knee, or on somewhere less mentionable. After he went down, he was in such pain he groped at the ground, helpless against the intense hurt. After a long visit from the trainer, Rapuano was able to straighten up, and finish the inning.

Ledee then singled, and stole second to keep the pressure on Pedro. But Pedro put that pressure right back on Brosius, who lined to second for the third out. The Yankees had three hits and walk in the game, but scattered over five innings it wasn’t much to brag about.

There was a delay while third base umpire Brian Runge changed into the home plate armor to replace Rapuano, who took himself out of the game. But the delay hardly mattered to Roger. Clemens struck out O’Leary, then had to contend with his second baserunner of the game when third baseman John Valentin singled. Valentin was erased when he tried to steal second, though, and Posada gunned him down. By this time most of the audience was hoarse from screaming on every strike, but they still managed to roar as the umpire’s fist pumped at second. Clemens then caught Varitek looking, making his strikeout total eleven.

Pedro did his best to catch up. Knoblauch hit the ball hard but lined to first–he was robbed of a hit, really, by a great snag by Mike Stanley. Pedro finally solved Jeter and struck him out swinging. Paul O’Neill was caught looking. The score was Clemens 11, Pedro 6. Still no runs for either team, though, and three innings to go. The bullpens were quiet. No one expected to see much action in them with these two warriors on the mound.

Jeff Frye hit another comebacker to Clemens. Then came Nixon, still steamed about the yelling match. Clemens challenged him and this time Nixon caught up, dropping the ball in no man’s land and landing on third with a triple. All Daubach had to do was hit a long fly ball, or a grounder to the right side of the infield, and Nixon would have come home easily. But Clemens bore down, and Daubach was fooled, looking at strike three. Then came Nomar. Nomar was having another of his “I can hit anything” seasons, where he would flirt with .400 and generally was a one man hitting squad. Did I mention, though, that Clemens had struck him out twice already? Nomar took Clemens to a full count. You should have heard the roar that went up when he swung and missed. Nixon was stranded at third.

The Yankees kept hitting the ball, but without success. This time Bernie took the ball into center, and it seemed like you should get points for that off Pedro. Posada grounded out. And Tino hit another one a long way, into right field, for the final out.

Carl Everett came up for his third and final at bat to lead off the eighth. I don’t mind telling you: he struck out. Mike Stanley and Troy O’Leary both hit pop ups, and it was time for the Yankees to try to get to Pedro again. Pedro didn’t look tired, though, as he struck out Shane Spencer, got Ledee to fly to left, and struck out Scott Brosius. Clemens 13, Martinez 8. And still no score, with one inning left. We began to think we would see the bullpens in action if it went to 10 innings at 0-0.

John Valentin grounded out. Jason Varitek grounded out. Clemens was one out away from pitching nine shut out innings with 3 hits given up all night. But Jeff Frye finally got lucky, and although he hit his third comebacker of the night, this one whacked Clemens on the hip and rolled away–it was rightly scored a single. And this time the runner was not picked off, caught stealing, nor stranded. Because Trot Nixon came to the plate, steamed over the shouting match, his two strikeouts, and being left on third. So he decided to do the one thing that wouldn’t leave him standing on third, or anywhere. On a 2-1 count, he waited for the fastball that would challenge him, got it, and deposited the ball in the seats.

Two run home run. I wish I could tell you Yankee Stadium fell silent, but no, it was just as loud as the thousands of Sox fans cheered their luck, and fifty thousand Yankee loyalists heaped abuse on Nixon for having the cheek to take Clemens deep. Besides, we had last licks. And once Brian Daubach grounded out, Yankees fans were sure a miracle was in the making.

If the wind had been blowing a little more out that night, or if the temperature had been a little warmer, this might have gone down in history as one of the greatest victories in Yankees history. As it turns out, though, the ending was a bit weirder than the usual Sox/Yanks story.

Knoblauch led off the inning, and you could tell Pedro wanted blood, now that he had the lead. The high pitch count and the overexcitement were a little much for the tough Dominican, though, and he hit Knoblauch. Derek Jeter handled it with his usual aplomb, and went three for four by poking another single. Paul O’Neill was Pedro’s ninth strikeout victim, but with two men on, one out, and Pedro tiring, things still looked good for the Yankees. Bernie hit the ball high, he hit the ball far… but that pesky Trot Nixon hauled the ball in on the warning track. It could have been a three run homer, but instead it was the sac fly that moved Chuck to third. Jeter then stole second. Jorge Posada came up and Yankees fans had to rub our eyes in disbelief as Pedro, with two strikes on the batter, hit him with a pitch and loaded the bases.

Tino Martinez came to the plate. Two outs. Bottom of the ninth. Bases loaded. Down 2-0. Pedro on the mound. The nation watching, unable to leave their seats through the entire, unbelievable pitcher’s duel. Before the game, during batting practice, Tino had walloped a ball over the wall in left center, into Monument Park. I know because I happened to be standing there when it sailed over. I held that ball in my hands and prayed that he could do it again. Grand slam. One of the greatest Yankee victories in Yankees Red Sox history…

But it was not to be. Tino grounded to second, as the wily Pedro escaped from the jam with a 2-0 win. The crowd was stunned. Red Sox fans were hugging each other, not believing that they had, for once, managed to hang onto victory even as the jaws of defeat were closing in around them. Yankees fans stumbled home, consoled only by the fact that, even if the Yanks had lost, they had just witnessed one of the greatest games in the history of baseball.

As we now know, the Yankees and Red Sox would not replay this matchup in the postseason. The Yankees would sweep a three game set at Fenway in early September (including one game won by a three run homer off, you guessed it, Pedro Martinez, and another in which Roger Clemens pitched eight innings of shut out ball), extinguishing the always-fragile hopes of the Red Sox nation, despite the fact that — ultimately — the Yankees would finish only two games ahead in the division.

Roger Clemens would go on to pitch a one-hitter against the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS, rack up his 3500th strikeout of his career, and earn his second World Series Ring.

Trot Nixon would finish the year with 12 home runs and a long vacation starting October 1st.

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