Bronx, N.Y., August 16, 2003 — Ladies and Gentlemen. The Circus has come to town!
And that’s exactly the mindset required to enjoy and appreciate Saturday night’s 5-4 Yankees win over the Orioles. It was a game that started with the usually abysmal Sterling Hitchcock giving up a first-inning run on a sac fly to Tony Batista, a player who was batting out of order, but then if neither manager Mike Hargrove nor Joe Torre are going to pay attention, why should the players?
The Orioles took the lead in the very first inning during that batting order snafu, and failed to tie it 11 innings later when rookie Jack Cust fell down twice between third base and home plate. And this, despite the fact that the home plate toward which he was headed when he stumbled was totally uncovered by a defensive player.
Of course, I’m only half serious with my dismissive tone here, as there was plenty to like about this game. And the aforementioned Sterling Hitchcock is the first and most deserving player when listing the positives. Despite giving up the single, double, sac fly in the first and two singleton homers by nonpower hitters, Hitch was much better than anyone expected.
The late Alfred Hitchcock would have been 104 three days ago and, despite the insanity that was unfolding around him, Sterling Hitchcock emulated the master director in some of his finest fims by keeping this game under control and within the Yankees’ reach while he toed the rubber. Perhaps the only numbers that stand out is that he gave the Yanks a six-inning quality start that few expected, and that he managed it by restricting his total to 80 pitches (by my count) while he was in there. He threw only threw 10 of 23 first pitches for strikes, but his strikes/balls ratio was an acceptable 49/31, as were the three runs allowed through six on only five hits, no walks and three strike outs. Even though it would be overstating the case to compare the outing to that of rival Boston’s Pedro Martinez in Seattle this day, despite the fact that they both fell behind in the first to a sac fly, had they given out stars to the Yankee players, Sterling would undoubtedly have earned the first.
Friday hero Aaron Boone followed up his game-winning homer by tying this game on a booming double in the second, chipped in with a single and a sac bunt that could have been huge, and made a fine grab of a Deivi Cruz hot shot to close the threatening Orioles out in the eighth. Backup catcher John Flaherty accounted for both runs to close a 3-1 deficit with back-to-back homers to left. Right fielder Dave Dellucci contributed another eye-popping diving catch on shortstop Morban’s one-out liner to right center in the fifth despite his struggling offense that so concerned Manager Joe Torre that he replaced him in the 11th with runners on second and third with one out precisely because he feared that they would pitch to him.
Alfonso Soriano, who struggled at the plate all game, made a fabulous play on Bigbie’s second-inning grounder up the middle, even if the Oriole outfielder was actually safe. (First base ump Fichter had a tough night, falling asleep on Fordyce’s fourth-inning homer and punching out a clearly safe Matsui on an eighth-inning pick off.) Dellucci’s right field replacement Karim Garcia made a strong throw to second on the utterly bizarre play that would end the game. Antonio Osuna and Chris Hammond made rare appearances in the spotlight with matching one-hit, two-inning stints (with Hammond getting the win), while Rivera and Nelson struggled. Jason Giambi closed strong after a bad two-strike-out, one-pop-up beginning, and Hideki Matsui cashed in another run with two outs and a Yankee in scoring position.
On the opposition side, Pat Hentgen battled gamely through 120 pitches and six innings and left the game with a lead, rookie shortstop Morban had two hits with a homer and was robbed of another, Batista chipped in with a fine grab on a Boone one-hopper for a 5-4-3 and his sac fly (despite batting out of order) and young Luis Matos homered off Mariano Rivera leading off the ninth to deny him the save, and the Yankees the win in regulation.
But despite all the heroics that took place during 12 innings and three hours and 50 minutes of baseball in Camden Yards, had there been musical accompaniment for this game, it would have been played on a calliope, to a carousel beat. Not only did Mike Hargrove sit silent while his guys batted out of order, he then switched them in such a way that the Yankees could have won a protest (again!) if either Gibbons or Batista had contributed to another run anytime during the rest of the contest. And of course, Joe Torre allowed the first-inning Oriole run to stand rather than instantly filing what would have been a successful challenge.
Continuing that theme, Yankee hero Mariano Rivera blew another save on the first batter he faced. Jeff Nelson survived for a lucky save after having the Orioles down to two outs with no one on with an 0-2 count on the batter. Joe Torre used three right fielders in the 11th while batting his only remaining catcher (really) in an inning where the Yankee offense amounted to three walks. The Yankee offense struggled through 12 innings with only nine hits and five runs. And when Aaron Boone sprinted down the third base line in pursuit of rookie Jack Cust with two outs in the 12th, it was, as reported earlier, toward a totally undefended home plate.
Robert Ringling, renowned baritone and son of the Ringling family so famous for its efforts in, and association with, the circus, was born on August 16, 1897. I can only smile when I think what he probably would have said had he seen Jack Cust trip off third after Larry Bigbie’s double, and then stumble and go sprawling into the dirt of the third baseline a mere 10 feet or so from tying the game before Aaron Boone reached him and tagged him for the game’s final out.
“Step right up, ladies and gentleman, and children of all ages!”