Bronx, N.Y., June 15, 2003 — Mike Mussina used a simple strategy in besting the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday. He threw his best stuff, right from the very beginning, and went after the St. Louis hitters, whom we all had to fear were about to break out with a string of line drives.
Held strongly in check for two days by Roger’s momentous performance on Friday night, and Andy’s workmanlike manner in moving a blowout toward fruition Saturday, players and fans alike had to be forgiven if they feared an offensive explosion, not only because Tony LaRussa’s team has too many dangerous hitters, but also because they would be playing this grownup kids’ game on a field of grass on a hot and sunny day.
And the Cardinals, to their credit, tried to do just that. Sure, Mike set them down 1, 2, 3 in the first, but Palmeiro, Drew and Pujols all battled back from 0-1 counts to keep Mike out there for 15 pitches, and Pujols, perhaps in an omen about things to come, fouled off three straight offerings before flying out to Mondesi to end the frame.
But Mussina had all his pitches working, and he was dealing. So even though Tino Martinez lined his first pitch of the second to right for a single, Mike got through it economically and, by the time he struck out J. D. Drew leading off the fourth, he had 10 of 27 outs on a mere 35 pitches and had thrown first-pitch strikes to 11 of the first 13 Cardinals batters.
Woody Williams, meanwhile, was having a relatively easy time of readjusting to playing against the American League East, and pitching in Yankee Stadium. His problem was that he was having a tougher time than Mussina with Larry Vanover’s minuscule outside corner. Woody compiled a 26-36 record with the Blue Jays from 1993 until his trade to San Diego after the 1998 season, so although he wasn’t greeted quite like Tino Martinez or Joe Girardi, Bronx heroes of the past, he at least was not new to the Stadium experience, and even knew where the visiting clubhouse was and where the best showers in it were.
Woody dispatched the Yanks in the first inning on a mere five pitches, but he needed a Matsui double play grounder to escape damage in the second, as he walked both Posada and Sierra, sandwiched around a Robin Ventura single and Hideki’s 1-6-3. He wasn’t as lucky in the third. Rookie Juan Rivera singled leading off, but Woody looked to be escaping after a Soriano popup and a Jeter force. But Derek then stole second on the 2-2 pitch ball to Jason Giambi, and the rejuvenated first baseman plated his teammate with a short line single to left center on the next Williams offering. Woody’s pitch totals in the second and third zoomed him past Mussina, and by the time he retired Posada to end the third, he had thrown only five first-pitch strikes in 13.
The weakness, hopefully a small one, in Mussina’s go-for-the-throat plan was that by the time the overwhelmed but very talented hitters in the Cardinals’ lineup started reacting a little more effectively to his assortment of speed and offspeed pitches, the Yanks were to have a clear lead, but it stood at only 1-0 Yanks when superstar hitter (outfielder, first baseman, whatever) Albert Pujols strode to the plate with one out in the fourth. Perhaps reflecting on the stubborn fouls Albert had struck in the first, Mike got careful, fell behind 2-0 and the major league’s leading hitter smashed the third-pitch fast ball into the screen over the retired numbers in left center. Mike then fell behind Tino Martinez and walked him on five pitches, and Renteria beat out a two-out infield single. Rookie center fielder Kerry Robinson (in for the rested Jim Edmonds — Kerry played left earlier in the series) fooled us all with a hard single to the right field gap on the 1-0 pitch, and it was 2-1, Cardinals.
Williams was continuing to struggle with the strike zone meanwhile, but despite falling behind to the first three Yankees in the fourth, and walking Matsui, the Yanks wouldn’t follow Giambi’s rbi single with another hit for the next 11 batters. But Mussina was surviving, with fits of brilliance. He retired the side in order in both the fifth and the seventh despite two hard liners and a hard grounder to short in each, with both his own stab of a 1-2 Miguel Cairo liner and Jeter’s throw from the hole on Palmeiro in the fifth being the defensive gems.
Surprisingly, if there was one inning where you would most have feared the outcome of an emerging Cardinal offense vs. a tiring Moose it would have been the Pujols, Martinez, Rolen grouping in the sixth, but they went meekly on a called third strike, a grounder to third and a pop to second. In the seventh, Renteria lined to Mondesi and the rookie Robinson put a charge into one toward the right-center bleachers, but the baseball-instinctual Matsui made a bead for the exact right spot and tracked it down on a fine play. Because Mike was able to dispose of the nine batters in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings on 37 pitches, there was plenty left in the tank for the 10 pitches it took to finish the Cards in the eighth, with thanks to Jeter on another fine play on Palmeiro with one out.
Woody Williams, on the other hand, ran out of luck in the sixth. Despite a swinging strike from Giambi on the frame’s first pitch, he was facing two on and no out after walking Jason and Jorge on the next 10 balls thrown. But he got a called strike to an obviously poised to swing Ventura. The crowd seated near me pulled for a sac bunt like the beaut Robin had delivered on Thursday, aware that the struggling third baseman had gone one for eight Friday and Saturday with three strike outs until he singled back in the second. But Vanover’s right arm signaled a strike and 0-2 on the next pitch. Ball one, a foul, then another foul. Ball two. Robin swung hard and missed, but no, there was the ball, a foul tip into the dirt, and he was alive after seven pitches. The eighth pitch was Ball three.
The Father’s Day 55,000 had been an attentive crowd, and filled with fans ready for baseball action. Spectators with gloves ringed the field, and one fan with a hot dog in his right hand and a glove in the left in Row A of Box 618 reached through the rail and grabbed a hot shot back off Scott Rolen’s bat on an 0-2 foul in the fourth, somehow finishing the hot dog at the same moment. Not to be outdone, another front row guy (right behind the plate in Tier Box 604) reached out, over and down past the rail to nab a Tino Martinez 3-2 foul in the sixth. And then here during the pivotal at bat of the game, Robin Ventura fouled another shot on the at bat’s ninth pitch, squarely into the middle of Box 620, but this ball caromed off at least six different fans before it settled into one’s lap many rows from the spot the ball had first struck.
And then Woody Williams delivered his 94th pitch of the day, and 10th of the at bat, and Robin drove it deep and hard to right center. Running but after a bit of a delay, Giambi and Posada scored on the double, and it was 3-2, Yanks. Matsui singled Ventura in, and scored on Sierra’s double to the left-center field gap. We had a 5-2 lead and Moose looked up to retaining it. The score held through eight, and Mariano Rivera came on for the save. The game would end in three pitches, as Mariano hit Pujols with his first, got Tino on the 6-4-3 with the next, and then the pinch-hitting Jim Edmonds on a hard bouncer, flagged down by Soriano at second and converted into a 4-3.
Just a couple of other notes on the day. Holding the dual interests in both history and baseball, I like to look at player birthdays. We can go for days with the birth of no Yankees to celebrate, but June 15 we come up with a bonanza, including three old timers (pitchers Al Closter and Bud Stewart, first baseman Babe Dahlgren), ex-Yank reliever Ramiro Mendoza, and current Yankee and Saturday’s starter and winner Andy Pettitte. But there’s another one too, a lefty hitting third baseman who toiled for a bitter rival immediately before his arrival in the Bronx. Perhaps it was fitting that Robin Ventura would get the day’s big hit on Wade Boggs’s 45th birthday.
I also took a look at a couple of earlier Woody Williams efforts against the Yanks. Pitching for the Blue Jays against the Yanks in Skydome on May 29, 1997, Woody took the loss in a 4-1 game where one Yankee delivered three of the runs on a single and a homer. And then in the last Blue Jays/Yanks game of that season, on September 22, and perhaps in Woody’s last appearance on the Yankee Stadium mound, the Blue Jays lost in 10 innings with neither Williams nor Yankee starter Andy Pettitte getting a decision. The Yanks won it on a walk-off home run hit by the same guy who had done the damage earlier that May. It was the beloved Tino Martinez who homered off ex-Blue Jay (and Yankee) Carlos Almanzar on the one-out 2-0 pitch, and it was he who beat Woody’s team on both 1997 occasions.