It was an uncommonly beautiful day in Boston yesterday. Not a single cloud could be found in the deep blue sky and the mid-day sun cast harsh shadows across the field at Fenway Park. In many ways, it was reminiscent of the afternoon 27 years ago today when Ron Guidry and Mike Torrez faced off to decide the American League's Eastern Division, and with the temperature a crisp 64 degrees, there was more than a hint of playoff baseball in the air.
After 160 games, it had come to this. The Yankees and Red Sox were tied atop the AL East. The winner of this game would clinch a tie for first place. More significantly, a win by the Yankees and a loss by the Indians in Cleveland would hand the division to New York outright. On the mound for the two teams were a pair of veteran aces. Forty two-year-old future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, 4-0 in five starts against the Red Sox this year was set to face 39-year-old Tim Wakefield, the pitcher who almost single-handedly defeated the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS only to, in a cruel twist of fate, surrender the series-ending home run in relief in Game Seven. Three weeks ago the two had matched up in a grueling 1-0 pitchers duel won by Johnson in the final match-up of the year between the two teams at Yankee Stadium.
On this day, things would be a little different. Wakefield's knuckler, which in that September 11 match-up was as good as it's ever been, resulting in a career-high twelve strikeouts for Wakefield, simply didn't have as much movement, and the Yankees, several of whom took batting practice against a former Yankee hurler who had learned the pitch from Wakefield himself, took advantage.
Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez lead off the game with a pair of singles to put runners on the corners. Jason Giambi, starting at DH after making a crucial throwing error the previous night, grounded a ball into the shift to score Rodriguez. Gary Sheffield then battled Wakefield for seven pitches, running the count full and fouling off a pair of third strikes. Wakefield then turned to his fastball, a pitch some ten miles per hour faster than his knuckler but nearly twenty miles per hour slower than Johnson's heater, and Sheffield blasted it into the seats above the Green Monster in left to give the Yankees a quick 3-0 lead.
Things didn't start all that much better for Johnson. Unable to get his slider called for strikes (home plate umpire Gary Darling refused to give Johnson strikes on the right-hand corner of the plate for most of the early part of the game), Johnson walked Johnny Damon on four pitches to start the bottom of the first. Damon then stole second and moved to third on an Edgar Renteria fly out to right. The big lefty recovered to strike out David Ortiz on four pitches and got ahead of Manny Ramirez 0-2, but Manny turned on Johnson's fourth offering and crushed it onto Lansdown Street to pull the Red Sox within one.
The Yankees responded in the second with a lead-off single by Tino Martinez, starting at first for Giambi, and a double by Bernie Williams that hit off Kevin Millar's glove at first base (the shadows creeping across home plate inhibited the reactions of the fielders on both sides). With runners at second and third and no outs, John Flaherty and Derek Jeter hit a pair of sacrifice flies to score both runners (the first going to center where Williams easily advanced on Johnny Damon).
Handed his second three-run lead of the day, Johnson again walked the lead-off batter on five pitches in the second. He then recovered to strike out Doug Mirabelli and Trot Nixon, but a single by Tony Graffanino and yet another walk to Damon loaded the bases for Edgar Renteria. Renteria battled Johnson, taking the first four pitches to go up 3-1, taking another to run the count full, then fouling off Johnson's sixth pitch only to go down swinging on the seventh, leaving the bases loaded.
Hideki Matsui added a two-out homer to dead center in the third to make it 6-2 and from there, Johnson began to settle down. David Ortiz lead off the bottom of the third with a double to center, but Johnson then retired the next five Red Sox, thanks in part to a pair of outstanding catches from Sheffield in right, one sliding to his right in the third and one diving toward the foul line in the fourth.
In the top of the fifth, Alex Rodriguez added a monster solo home run to left that echoes Ramirez's second-inning shot, putting the Yankees up 7-2, where it would stay until Tony Graffanino added a solo shot in the seventh that hit just above the red line atop the Monster. The Yanks and Sox exchanged that run two more times, with the Yankees picking it up in the eighth when Rodriguez's lead-off double was cashed in by a Matsui infield single and a Robinson Cano groundout that involved a disputed but ultimately irrelevant call by the umpires on Matsui running to second. After Johnson got Ortiz to groundout to start the bottom of the eighth, Tom Gordon came on and surrendered another tremendous home run to Ramirez, this one to dead center, but that was all there would be for the Red Sox.
After hearing that the Indians had indeed lost to the White Sox, Joe Torre turned to Mariano Rivera for the ninth inning. After a bloop single to shallow right by Jason Varitek that tipped off Robinson Cano's glove, Rivera set the Sox down in order to give the Yankees an 8-4 victory and their eighth straight AL East Championship.