March of the irresistible Yankees

Letter From Atlanta
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The Independent Online

Baseball is a game of small miracles, of personal heroics and sudden epiphanies; unless you are the New York Yankees, in which case it is a matter of organisation and applied physics.

Baseball is a game of small miracles, of personal heroics and sudden epiphanies; unless you are the New York Yankees, in which case it is a matter of organisation and applied physics.

Their sheer proficiency and strength in depth were all too evident as they marched to a 4-1 victory in the first game of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night. Though this World Series is far from being a foregone conclusion, it is still all too evident that the Yankees are a team at the top of their game.

It was a battle of the pitchers, with Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez of the Yankees facing off against Greg Maddux, and until the eighth inning, it looked as if the Yankees might be losing their grip just a little. Chipper Jones took the opportunity of a dodgy fastball from Hernandez to smack a home run, and it seemed as if that one mistake might be enough. Then in the eighth inning, it all turned around with magnificent precision and what with other teams might be characterised as just a little luck.

It started when Scott Brosius hit a single through the left side of the infield. Darryl Strawberry, pinch-hitting for Hernandez, held his fire and was walked. Chuck Knoblauch bunted, dashed for first base and made it after a fielding error by Brian Hunter, the defensive replacement at first base for the Braves.

The bases were loaded, and Derek Jeter stepped up to the plate. He put a single neatly into left field, allowing Brosius to come home and level the game. The Braves replaced the tired Maddux with southpaw John Rocker, who faced Paul O'Neill for the Yankees. O'Neill cracked one into the right side of the infield, allowing both Chad Curtis (who ran for Strawberry) and Knoblauch to race home. That erased the Braves' lead and gave the Yankees a 3-1 margin. They topped it off with a further run later in the inning. A ninth-inning single by Bret Boone off Mariano Rivera came to nothing, and that was that for Game 1.

It was a mixture of tactical insight by Joe Torre, the Yankees' manager, deft play and strength in depth which gave the Yankees the game and on this showing, may well give them the World Series yet again.

"I knew my job was not to chase pitches out of the strike zone, which is how Maddux gets people out," said Strawberry. "The walk fit in exactly and jump-started the inning." Then, said Torre, "Knoblauch placed the bunt in a perfect spot, put a little pressure on the defence."

Luck is one thing; finding the gap, spotting the tactical error that can be turned into a strategic weakness, is another. This is a team against which mistakes are penalised. Until that eighth inning, Maddux had not conceded anything, allowing the Yankees only three hits, and he "thought the one run would be enough". But it was not. "I pitched too fine on Darryl and walked him, and made the only mistake I made all day to Jeter - it happens," Maddux said. "I have only made four errors all year," said Hunter. "I made two stupid mistakes and that cost us the game today."

It is this precision, patience and sheer technical dexterity which makes the Yankees such formidable opponents. For his part, Hernandez gave up only one hit in seven innings for 10 strike-outs. But then when you are a Yankee in 1999, you are permitted a certain confidence in your team. "I knew we were going to score," he said. "Even though Greg Maddux was out there, I knew that one run was not going to win it." As Torre put it with his very un-New York understatement, "It didn't surprise us when we got a little crack. We've been a very patient ball club."

These are without doubt the two best teams in the game this decade, closely matched and both highly skilled. For the Yankees, this would be their third championship in four years, and their fifth straight year in the play-offs. It is their 19th victory in their last 22 play-off and Series games. The Braves, despite eight straight division titles and five trips to the World Series, have won only once in the decade, in 1995, and a title would wrap things up for them very nicely. A loss would make them the first team since the New York Giants to lose four World Series in a decade, and that was in 1910-19.

But for the Yankees, there is more to it than that in the 95th World Series. They have already won 24 times; another title would make them the first to win back-to-back Series since Toronto in 1992 and 1993. It is worth remembering that this is a team which - as last season - began the year seeming weak and vulnerable. But the Yankees seem certain, once again, to end it looking unassailable.