Bronx, N.Y., August 5, 2003 — Although it would be overstating the case to say that the Yanks prevailed over the Rangers in the Bronx solely because of another dominating Roger Clemens performance, it’s not really far off. True, Roger didn’t answer the bell for the eighth inning, while in his last game he went the distance, and threw a shutout.
And we in the stands found out as quickly as the Yankees did that there would be no shutout this night, and probably no complete game either. Roger retired second baseman Matt Young on a lazy fly to center on a 2-1 pitch to start the game under threatening skies, but he quickly fell behind third baseman (and All Star Game hero) Hank Blalock, 2-0, and the lefty-swinging slugger swung hard and did not miss. The liner struck several rows deep in the right field bleachers and the Rangers had a 1-0 lead.
To make matters worse, Clemens got ahead of Alex Rodriguez, 1-2, and then walked him. The Rangers did no more damage, as Roger struck Raffy Palmeiro out swinging at an off-speed breaking pitch and popped rookie first baseman Teixera to second, but the inning cost him 22 pitches, and the complete games back-to-back dream was all but gone.
Then team captain Derek Jeter took over, and the Bombers did their thing. Leading off the bottom of the first, the star shortstop fouled off three pitches and extended Rangers righty Colby Lewis to a full count before lining his seventh pitch hard to right. Rookie right fielder Nix rushed to the wall, but not in time to plant and leap, so he pulled up and awaited a carom off the top of the wall that never came. The ball appeared to strike the rail (in Jeffrey Maier territory) in front of the first row of seats and bounced several rows back into a lucky fan’s hands. Both teams had homered on the respective seventh pitch of their half of the first inning, and we had a 1-1 tie.
Not for long. Bernie Williams bounced back to the box, but Jason Giambi, who would have a shot at hitting for the cycle before the game was over (he hit a booming homer to the upper deck in right for the Yanks’ last run in the fifth), doubled into the right field corner. Posada bounced out but Hideki Matsui hit a no-doubt-about-it shot to the right field bleachers, and the Yankee were up, 3-1. Then Aaron Boone, playing his first game in the Bronx, struck out after thinking he had walked on the 3-1 pitch. Boone went 0 for 4 (I think the last plate appearance counted as an at bat?), but reached on catcher’s interference in the eighth and stole a base.
Clemens, meanwhile, quieted the Texas bats through the next two frames on 19 pitches. Rookie center fielder Nivar reached on a swinging bunt with two outs in the second but Posada nailed him trying to steal, and Roger retired the Rangers himself in the third, on three consecutive grounders to the box, each one a slightly better play than the last. The fourth inning would be a different story, though one that would end the same way.
Jeter came to bat with two outs in the second, after a Soriano single extended the inning. Not knowing what Torre may be saying, let me just say that I was only slightly surprised that the shortstop was still leading off and that our young second baseman had not reclaimed that spot. In my opinion the reason for the switch was at least twofold to start with, and that Alfonso was left batting eighth this night with Derek leading off despite some recent good at bats and hits because the manager feels that batting second will give Bernie Williams the greatest opportunity to snap out of his batting malaise (his back-to-back bounces to the box in the first two frames were disappointing). Whatever Joe’s reasoning, it rang out as brilliant when Jeter lined another pitch over the wall in right, several rows deeper this time, and the Yanks were up, 5-1.
Except for a scare in the fourth and a mini-eruption against the bullpen that resulted in one run in the eighth, the game was over then, though it would be played out to its full two hours and fifty-eight minutes despite the early inclement weather. It threatened and then did rain in spurts during the contest’s first three innings, but it became a fairly pleasant evening in the Bronx after all.
I noticed that the precipitation was drifting in from the west across home plate and traveling out toward left field. Once we had been rained on, therefore, the clouds drifted into the twilight sky over the outfield and beyond the fence, giving the grand old Stadium the look of a medieval castle shrouded in mist and fog. I half expected a cackling, broom-riding witch to appear at any moment. The Stadium is a nice place at any time, and on this night Bob Sheppard told us before the game that it was Westchester Night, so I felt particularly welcome, having relocated to that county in the last few years.
It’s always interesting to watch the pregame warmups, but particularly so after some player transactions have altered the team’s makeup. Aaron Boone and David Dellucci, the new kids on the block (and in the starting lineup) soft tossed with one another as Jeter threw to Soriano as is his practice, and I thought it good that the two new guys had each other to work with.
Only four foul balls into the stands stick out in my memory. A young man wearing a glove in the first row of Box 626 to my left, above the visiting dugout, speared a hard 2-2 liner off Posada’s bat in the first, and Ranger second baseman Mike Young struck an almost impossible slice on a 1-2 pitch in the fifth, lining the ball back and to the right, almost directly at the front row seats adjacent to the Yankee dugout in which Rudy Guiliani often sat when he was Mayor. And perhaps a half moon is an unlucky apparition? I’m not sure, but when I looked back over home plate at a Blalock foul into the tier in the eighth, it was the first time I noticed that a half moon had appeared back there in the Western sky hovering above the ballpark. Hank boomed the next pitch over Bernie’s head for a run-scoring double. And last, young Nivar’s just foul blast past the left field foul pole into the tier in the seventh was remarkable for its length and height, and for the stubborn way the young player insisted on circling the bases, or at least two of them, before relenting to the umpire’s foul call.
I thought Boone and Dellucci acquitted themselves well in their first games in the Bronx as Yanks (Dellucci played here for the Orioles in 1996 or 97), though Dave’s single was their only hit. I was impressed with Boone’s preparation and focus when I noticed him asking second base ump Larry Young, who was standing in the baseline just left of second base, to move so he would have a clear throw to second, once Nivar had singled in the second, and I was impressed with Aaron’s speed in stealing second once he reached in the eighth, a nice thing to see as well.
But enough of the ambience and the peripherals. Roger Clemens won this game by surviving the Rangers’ biggest threat of the evening, in the fourth inning. Alex Rodriguez doubled to the wall in right on the 0-1 pitch to lead off, and then Roger bore down, but got unlucky. He had struck Palmeriro out in the first with a wiggle pitch, and he quickly got him to 0-2. But Raffy topped the next pitch with an off-balance swing, and he reached on the resulting slow roller in the infield grass. Roger got ahead of Teixera too, but he walked him on six pitches (though I felt home plate ump Mike Everitt missed the call and should have pumped him out on the 1-2 pitch), and the Rangers had the bases loaded with no one out, and Shane Spencer striding to the plate as the tying run.
It took 11 pitches to get into this mess, and it would take Clemens 18 more to escape it. It was August 5, 1864, during the Battle of Mobile Bay that Admiral Farragut first uttered the fighting words, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”, and Clemens copied that approach to extricate himself. He pounded Spencer inside and coaxed a pop to Soriano on four pitches. Clemens then worked right fielder Nix to a 2-2 count, became frustrated when he fouled off strike three twice, and blew something hard and dirty past his flailing swing. And then when he faced Nivar, who had lined hard and deep to Matsui in the second, all the guile was out of him, and he just fired one hard strike after another. Call strike, foul back, foul down first, foul back, foul popped down toward the right field foul pole. And when Nivar bounced the sixth pitch sharply just to the right field side, Roger reached out and grabbed it, making his fourth 1-3 play of the night the best and the most pivotal. Clemens spent time visiting troops in the offseason, and obviously has some interest in what they do. And he was throwing smoke in the pivotal fourth inning during this 6-2 Yankee win, as if to say,
“Full Speed Ahead!”