Thursday night’s clinching of the A.L. East by the New York Yankees was memorable for a number of reasons. First of all, it was the first division clinch since 2012. Second, it was somewhat subdued, especially when the third out was recorded. I was happy to see that, since it seemed like the guys were thinking, “Okay, let’s celebrate tonight, but we have a ton of work left to do”.
Winning the A.L. East was just the first step on a long road that will take 11 wins to bring home championship #28, AKA “Replace for 28”. Whether it was DJ LeMahieu or Gio Urshela or Cameron Maybin or Tommy Kahnle or Gleyber Torres…someone always came through and that will have to continue for the Yankees to succeed.
But, let us truly savor this division title. This is a 100-win team despite all of the injuries and a myriad of replacements. Guys that you would never have imagined ever stepping on to a Major League field or wearing a Yankees uniform stepped in and, more importantly, stepped up.
So, in celebration of another division title in this great “LegaCCy” that is the Yankees, here’s a look back at some of the most memorable clinching moments.
1996 Yankees Clinch
The start of the Yankees late 1990s/early 2000s dynasty really began with a strike-shortened season that deprived the Yankees of a possible 1994 playoff berth. A year later, they followed it up with heartbreaking playoff loss to the Seattle Mariners.
But, the ’96 squad was destined for greatness. Many players stepped up that season as well, not so much due to injuries but because of an incredibly deep and talented roster. Wade Boggs and Charlie Hayes at the hot corner. Tino Martinez and Cecil Fielder across the diamond at first base. An outfield with Tim Raines, Darryl Strawberry, Bernie Williams, and Paul O’Neill, and earlier in the year, Gerald Williams and Ruben Sierra.
The Yankees maintained a 10-game division lead in early August, but it was down to 2.5 games in mid-September. The Baltimore Orioles were breathing down the Yankees’ necks when the two teams met for a three-game series at Yankee Stadium on September 18th and 19th.
The Orioles led the opener 2-1 in the bottom of the 9th and had closer Randy Myers on the hill. But Myers walked the first two hitters and Bernie Williams slapped an RBI single off of reliever Alan Mills to tie the game 2-2.
In the 10th, Derek Jeter reached on a lead off single, moved to third base on a pair of outs and came home with the winner on Ruben Rivera’s single. The teams played a doubleheader the next day with the Yankees jumping all over Mike Mussina in Game 1 for a 9-3 win. Mariano Duncan, who made up t-shirts “We play today, We win today, Das it” drove in three runs. Shaky starter Kenny Rogers chipped in with five-plus shutout innings.
Even though the Orioles won the nightcap, the Yankees lead was up to four games and it remained that way after splitting a four-game series with the Boston Red Sox. That brought the Milwaukee Brewers to town for a September 25th doubleheader and a chance for the Yankees to clinch the division.
Game 1 was never a contest. The Yankees blew out the Brew Crew 19-2, busting things open with a 10-run second inning. Tino Martinez drove in five runs, Bernie chipped in three more and the Yankees banged out 20 hits against a quartet of hapless Milwaukee pitchers.
With the score so large, there was no need for John Wetteland or Mariano Rivera on the mound. Instead, manager Joe Torre send out Jeff Nelson to record the final three outs and start the celebration.
Nellie struck out the first two hitters and got Fernando Vina to fly out to Bernie in center to seal the deal.
It was Yankees first non-strike season divisional title since 1980. Just for good measure, the Yankees unloaded the bench in Game 2 and swept the twin-bill.
2005 Fenway Clinch
Many fans didn’t know for sure whether the Yankees would clinch when the played the Red Sox up in Fenway Park on Saturday, October 1st, 2005.
The teams entered play that day with identical 94-66 records, with another game…the season finale…scheduled for Sunday.
But, Major League Baseball decided on different tiebreakers for the 2005 season. The Yankees held a 9-8 season series lead after Boston won Friday night’s series’ opener 5-3. If Boston swept the series, they would be division champs. If the Yankees won one of the weekend games, they would be division champs even though the teams could have identical records after 162 games.
So, on Saturday the Yankees sent out Randy Johnson against knuckleballer Tim Wakefield.
The Yankees pounced on Wakefield in the 1st inning for three runs with Gary Sheffield belting a two-run home run.
Manny Ramirez countered in the bottom of the 1st with a two-run HR of his own off the “Big Unit”. But, the Yankees kept adding runs on.
Hideki Matsui took Wakefield deep in the 3rd inning and Alex Rodriguez added his 48th home run of the season in the 5th. Johnson gave up three runs in 7-1/3 innings and the Yankees came away with an 8-4 win to clinch the AL East.
1998 Early Clinch
The 1998 Yankees squad ran roughshod over the American League like no team had done since the 1954 Cleveland Indians. The team rang up 111 regular season wins since clinching the division title was a mere formality. One that arrived on September 9th.
Though the team led the A.L. East by so many games, the division clinch was still sweet since it occurred at Fenway Park. The Yankees entered the day 19.5 games ahead of second-place Boston. The Red Sox were not only not in the Yankees’ rear view mirror, they weren’t even on the same highway.
Wakefield had the misfortune of being on the mound back then too. The Yankees pasted him for five runs, two on a Jeter home run, over four innings to take a commanding lead.
But, Orlando Hernandez was not himself that day. El Duque struggled with control and surrendered a grand slam to Scott Hatteberg in the bottom of the 4th.
Just like this season, the Yankees turned things over to a dominant pen that limited the Red Sox to one run the rest of the game. Meanwhile, O’Neill hit a pair of solo home runs to boost the lead to 7-5. Rivera came on in the 9th and was greeted by Jorge Posada. “Let’s do this right now.” was all the catcher needed to say.
Rivera recorded a 1-2-3 9th inning, inducing John Valentin‘s game ending grounder to Jeter. It was the Yankees first road clinch in 20 years.
The Greatest Clinch of All?
That road clinch that came 20 years earlier? Bucky “Bleeping” Dent. Fenway Park. Notice a trend here?
In one of the greatest Yankees seasons of all-time, it was no shock that the division title would come down to one game. A 163rd game to see who went on to the ALCS and who went home for a very long winter.
The Yankees had rallied from 14.5 games back in the heat of the summer to play for all the marbles on October 2nd, 1978.
Ron Guidry was in the midst of the greatest season of his career (25-3. 1.74) when he took the hill for the Bombers against former teammate Mike Torrez.
Torrez had recorded the final out against the LA Dodgers in the 1977 World Series when he gloved Lee Lacy’s pop-up bunt in the 9th inning of Game 6. Now, he was the enemy.
The Yankees trailed 2-0 in the 7th inning when the magic happened. One-out singles by Chris Chambliss and Roy White put the tying runs on base. Torrez retired Jim Spencer for the second out, but then up stepped Dent.
The Yankees shortstop entered the day with four home runs on the season and was batting in the 9th hole. He nearly couldn’t complete the at-bat after he fouled a 1-0 pitch off the top of his foot.
After getting the area frozen with Ethyl Chloride and getting a new bat from Mickey Rivers, Dent parked Torrez’s next pitch into the netting atop the Green Monster. The Yankees had a 3-2 lead and never looked back.
Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson added tack-on RBI and Goose Gossage wrestled his way, with some big help from Lou Piniella in RF, through 2-2/3 innings to hold on for a 5-4 victory. Future Hall-of-Fame member Carl Yastrzemski, playing his final season, came to bat in the bottom of the 9th representing Boston’s last hope.
With runners on the corners and two outs, Gossage got Yaz to pop up a 1-0 fastball. Third baseman Graig Nettles camped under it and squeezed it in his glove, atop his left shoulder. How sweet a clinch is.
One clinch down. Three to go!