How many games can you win in the bottom of the ninth inning?
To paraphrase Dr. Strangelove, the subtitle of my 2004 Yankee season could well be "How I Learned to Stop Worrying, and Love the Ninth Inning Bomb".
The clincher comes in the wake of a condensed series sweep of the Minnesota Twins, the joy of which is somewhat mitigated by two factors: 1) the "tired shoulder" of El Duque, which has limited our confidence in the Yankees' best starter (Will Carroll over at BP assures us that this isn't cause for mass ritual suicide ... yet), and 2) the fact that the Twins are overtly in tuneup mode, not seeming to have any preference of which AL East team they face in the Division Series. In game 1 of yesterday's doubleheader, Johan Santana was pulled after five innings, and is scheduled to rest until the playoffs begin. In tonight's game, Brad Radke received a similar early hook. The Yankees came back to win against the bullpen in both games.
In this, the Twinkies are following the example of their 1987 World Series squad, which similarly viewed their post-clinch final week of the season as tuneup time. They lost big in the last week of meaningless games, contributing to their becoming the World Champion with the worst regular season record in baseball history.
[Ed. Note: The above is the analysis of the day as I best remembered it. Thanks to the magic of Retrosheet (support Retrosheet!) I've looked at the Twins' last week in '87, and damned if I could tell they were playing it low-key -- Viola and Blyleven started during the final weekend, and they seem to have been playing their regulars to the last.]
As for tonight's clincher, I was glad to see Bernie Williams end it with a ninth inning two-run blast. Williams has had a second straight bad season, one that's seen the Yankees start to come to grips with his limitations in the field and at the plate. Bernie's still a useful player -- he has what they call "old player" skills, still able to work a walk out of a pitcher and capable of taking a mistake out of the yard. It's just getting harder for him to do something with a pitcher that challenges him in the strike zone, and his defense in center is often painful to watch.
So he's still useful, but probably not worth the $15 1/2 Million the Yanks owe him for the rest of his contract. I'm not sure that Bernie's the type of guy that will continue playing baseball as just an "ok" player, so it's possible that we might not see him in pinstripes past next year.
In that case, I'm happy to see him get every moment of glory he can, while he still can. I remember when Bernie first showed up at the Stadium, in the bad old days of 1991. He was a rare beam of hope in an otherwise dreary time for the franchise. He was attacked on all sides, as someone not aggressive enough to survive in the Boogie Down Bronx, and for not being the basestealer everyone thought he should be. He turned out to be a rock, the foundation of the next good Yankee team, and the spiritual successor for Don Mattingly -- silent excellence.
One of my favorite baseball memories is of the 1996 ALCS, what would later be known as the Jeffrey Mayer Game. After Jeter's fan-assisted blast extended the game, Bernie's 11th inning walkoff provided the coup de grace. I remember the Upper Deck shaking as Bernie rounded the bases, and the echoing chant of "Bernie Baseball!" that never died down as I descended the ramps to leave the Stadium. A "12 year old kid" may have made Jeter an Aura and Mystique All-Star that day, but you'd have had a hard time convincing me that the shy guy from Puerto Rico wasn't the hero of the game.