May 4th: JJ Putz gets Derek Jeter to ground out with the bases loaded to put the finishing touches on a 15-11 mutual blitzkrieg in the Bronx.
Eight-run innings aren't supposed to be part and parcel of a back-and-forth rally. They're supposed to be the final word. A death knell, if you will, for an opponent that you have with such conviction put out of its misery. If you score eight runs in a single inning, you do so in order to remove all doubt from an outcome once in question.
No one told the Yankees.
New York took a 5-0 lead right out of the gate, and was clinging to an 8-6 advantage when, in the top of the fifth, the Mariners erupted for one of the biggest collections of nickels and dimes in team history. Seven singles, a double, and two walks later, the score was 14-8 Seattle, and 49,519 chinstrap-bearded Yankee fans groaned so loud in unison that Kei Igawa got uglier somehow. That was a total thrashing, and it was nice to have a little cushion.
But this wasn't Chicago or Kansas City. This was New York, and New York had the kind of lineup that you could quite literally never count out of a game. Ever. A couple weeks earlier, the Yankees trailed the Indians 6-2 with two out and none on in the bottom of the ninth, and they went on to score six runs in the inning to win. Their offense was absolutely, positively staggering. "Breathing room" is a nice idea and all, but against the Yankees, there were no conditions under which it ever existed. No lead was comfortable until the 27th out was popped up in the infield.
And so we sat and waited and chewed on our nails. The lead stayed intact for a few innings, and an RBI double by Sexson in the seventh even extended it further, but a three-run bomb by Johnny Damon in the bottom half served to remind us that smiling was verboten and punishable by agony. Even with a Win Expectancy around 96%, we still felt like we were awaiting the results of an AIDS test.
Brandon Morrow was able to keep the Yankees under control in the 8th, and minutes later, as we headed to what we could only hope would be the final half-inning of the game, all we wanted was ease. Just this once. The human heart only has so many beats before it gives up and knocks off, and we didn't really feel like using up many more, as we were already well above our recommended daily quota. Most of us wanted to live to see the next morning.
The inning started off well enough, as Jorge Posada led off with a groundout, but then we were greeted by the Brandon Morrow so prominently featured in many of my nightmares. A walk to the .683 OPS'ing Robinson Cano. A walk to the .519 OPS'ing Melky Cabrera (a really annoying walk at that, with three consecutive full count foul balls). This spelled trouble, and Mike Hargrove had to call on the still-unsettling JJ Putz to close things out. We so didn't need this.
Jason Giambi pinch-hit for Josh Phelps and, on a 2-1 count, pulled a groundball single into right to load the bases. Suddenly Yankee Stadium was as alive as we thought we wouldn't be ten minutes later. The lineup turned over and we were back to the top, and with JJ's seeming hittability, a small vacuum was created in the Northwest when everybody in Seattle simultaneously inhaled and held their breath.
Damon took a ball, and if at the time we didn't think JJ threw enough splitters before, he certainly wasn't about to throw one when he was behind. This called for another fastball. Fortunately, though, Damon took too long of a swing and popped it up to first. Sexson made the catch, and there were two down.
It wasn't over yet, though. Not by a long shot. Up came - who else? - Derek Jeter, he of the 20-game hitting streak. So far on the day he was 0-5, but that only meant that he was due to make us doubly infuriated by both extending his streak and extending the game. We knew how this worked.
There was such buildup as Jeter took his time stepping into the box. The most annoying thing about the whole "clutch Jeter" idea is that as much as we can analyze all the numbers and show that it's demonstrably false, it still lingers in the back of our heads, imprinted in our brains from having heard it so much. When you're told something so often, it's difficult for any amount of evidence to the contrary to erase it from your mind. And so we sat there, knowing that Jeter isn't clutch, but feeling like he is, and fearing what would happen.
He very anticlimactically grounded the first pitch to short.
The Mariners escaped. The only player on either side to go without a hit was the 0-6 Jeter, who didn't even last long enough in his final at bat to make us pass out from anxiety. JJ pumped his fist, and finally - after 209 minutes and 36 hits - one of the wildest Mariner games I can remember had come to a close. Easy? Of course not. They never are. But the more you worry about a game, the better it feels when you win it.