With one out in the bottom of the third inning of last night’s game against the Blue Jays, Toronto’s rookie left fielder Travis Snider hit a comebacker that ricocheted off Mike Mussina’s pitching elbow and shot into foul territory, allowing Snider to reach base with an infield single. The ball hit Mussina flush on the head of his radius, and when trainer Gene Monahan and manager Joe Girardi ran out to attend to their veteran ace, the conclusion to Mussina’s terrific comeback season was clearly hanging in the balance. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead at the time, but Mussina needed to finish the third and pitch two more innings without giving it up in order to qualify for his nineteenth win and keep his hopes for his first twenty-win season alive.
Mussina asked the assembled group to let him throw a few pitches, and after tossing a fastball and a sharp curveball, he declared himself fit to pitch. He was right. Despite a large red welt on the outside of his elbow the size of a golf ball, Mussina allowed just one more hit before being pulled after going the minimum five innings required for the win. By then his lead had doubled to 2-0 thanks to Jason Giambi’s 32nd home run of the season.
The Yankees added a third run in the seventh when Robinson Cano doubled off Blue Jays starter Jesse Litsch, moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored on a passed ball. Never mind that Cano was actually out at home as the ball bounced right back to catcher Gregg Zaun, who tossed to Litsch, who made a great play sliding across the opposite side of the plate and tagging the sole of Cano’s foot as it came down to touch home. Home plate ump Larry Vanover blew the call and spent the rest of the game calling strikes in a manner that found the middle ground between a sea lion and the Swedish Chef (strike one: “BORK!” strike two: “BORK!” strike three: “ARF! ARF!”).
The Jays got that run back in the bottom of the seventh when lefties Adam Lind and Lyle Overbay singled and walked against Damaso Marte and Scott Rolen greeted Joba Chamberlain with a single that scored Lind. With two out and none on in the eighth, the Jays loaded the bases against Chamberlain thanks to some sloppy defense by Cody Ransom, who replaced Derek Jeter and his sore left hand at shortstop just before game time (Jeter said after the game that he couldn’t swing), and an intentional walk, but Chamberlain won a seven-pitch battle with Lyle Overbay on a slider breaking down and away for a called strike three (ARF! ARF!). Otherwise Phil Coke, Brian Bruney, and Mariano Rivera were perfect in relief, nailing down the 3-1 win and giving Mussina his nineteenth win.
Hard Times Befallen The Soul Survivors
Unfortunately, the Red Sox also won, putting up a five-spot against likely Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee at Fenway to squeek out a 5-4 win behind Tim Wakefield and a quintet of relievers. The decisive run was scored by Dustin Pedroia on a two-out single by Jason Bay in the fifth (“sweet things from Boston, so young and willing”). With that, the Yankees have been eliminated from the postseason for the first time since 1993, the last year before the Wild Card was introduced.
That year it was Toronto that won the AL East, though the Yankees avoided being eliminated head-to-head by beating Todd Stottlemyre and the Jays behind Jim Abbott in their final game at SkyDome that season. The Yankees won again the next day, beating Rick Sutcliffe and the Orioles 9-1 behind Scott Kamieniecki (playing right field in place of an injured Paul O’Neill, Jim Leyritz homered in both games), but the Jays clinched anyway by beating the Brewers 2-0 behind Pat Hentgen and a trio of relievers that included Mike Timlin. The Jays would go on to win their second consecutive World Championship that October with Joe Carter delivering the Series-ending home run off Phillies closer Mitch Williams.