My favorite regular season Yankee game of all time took place five years ago today. It was the day that the two things in the title met, however briefly, on the way to a thrilling extra innings victory.
On July 1st of 2004, the universe was still aligned. The Red Sox were still a bunch of hopeless choke artists and the Yankees had just appeared in their sixth World Series in eight years. Despite trailing Boston in the season series 1-5 entering the series, the Yanks were up 5.5 games in the division. After outscoring the Sox 15-5 in the first two games of the series, that lead had swelled to 7.5. Their record was 49-26, which was the best in American League by six games.
That Thursday night, the Yankees prospects for victory didn't look so hot. Pedro Martinez was scheduled to start for the Sox while all the Yankees could counter with was Brad Halsey. Making just his third professional start managed to make it 5 1/3 innings and allowed only two runs, which came on a two run homer by Manny Ramirez. It was a dramatic improvement from his last outing in which he was destroyed for 7 runs by the Mets and chased in the fourth inning. The legendary Paul Quantrill cost Halsey a chance at a victory by giving up the tying run in the seventh inning.
Pedro wasn't perfect but he went 7 innings, allowed 3 runs and struck out 8. When he left the game, the score was tied 3-3, a position Yankees fans would have happily accepted at the outset of the evening.
Felix Heredia/Tom Gordon and Keith Foulke matched perfect 8th innings to keep the draw intact. Gordon delivered another scoreless frame in the ninth, but Foulke ran into some trouble. The Yankees loaded the bases with one out but Foulke got Ruben Sierra to strikeout swinging and Kenny Lofton grounded out to send the game into extras.
In Mariano Rivera's second inning of relief (the 11th), the Sox had runners on first and third with two outs. With Trot Nixon at the plate, Johnny Damon took second on defensive indifference. Then, on the 4th pitch of the at bat, Nixon popped one in back of third base, drifting towards the stands. Jeter, sprinting at full speed made the catch and unable to stop himself, flew head first into the stands.
Did the play decide the game? Probably not. Had Jeter not caught the ball, it would have landed in foul territory and Trot Nixon still would have had two strikes against Rivera, and regardless, the Yanks would have had a chance to respond in the bottom half. It most certainly defined the game, however.
I'm not sure if most Yankee fans would remember that Boston actually took the lead in the 13th on another homer by Manny and it took back-to-back-to-back two out hits by Ruben Sierra, Miguel Cairo and John Flaherty to vault the Yankees to victory. The lasting image was not of Flaherty rounding first base with his arms in the air, but of Jeter emerging from the stands and being tended to by Gene Monahan, his face bloodied and bruised.
It was a concrete representation of the mythical qualities and intangibles of Jeter, that can typically be dismissed as bullshit, all rolled into one photograph. It was part hustle, part toughness and part all-out effort.
Home from college for the summer, I watched that game at my friend John's house, over a soundtrack of powerful thunderstorms. We had plans to go out, but couldn't pull ourselves away from the extra inning drama. I'm glad we didn't.