BOSTON (AP)—Not their best season. Not their smoothest. And certainly not the biggest title for a franchise that has 26 World Series championships in its illustrious past.
Yet somewhere in the spray of champagne in the visitors’ clubhouse at Fenway Park on Saturday was the satisfaction that these Yankees came farther to win this AL East championship than any New York team since Bucky Dent popped one into the net here in 1978.
“I can’t take my glasses off. I’m crying like a baby,” manager Joe Torre said on the field after New York beat Boston 8-4 to clinch the division for the eighth consecutive year.
“This was the best of all of them,” he added in the clubhouse. “The first is always memorable. But this has to be the most special because of everything that went on this year.”
Randy Johnson won his sixth straight decision and the Yankees scorched Tim Wakefield for three homers—from Alex Rodriguez, Hideki Matsui and Gary Sheffield—to win for the 16th time in 20 games. Mariano Rivera finished up, gloving Johnny Damon’s high-chopper and throwing to first baseman Tino Martinez to set off a restrained on-field celebration.
Once inside the clubhouse, the Yankees sprayed champagne that dripped from the brims of the newest AL East Champion hats in their collection. For stalwarts like Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams, it is No. 9; for Robinson Cano, Aaron Small, Chien-Ming Wang and Shawn Chacon, it is a first.
“I have been fortunate to be a part of this three times,” Johnson said of his time with the Mariners and Diamondbacks. “But you could see a lot of new kids in here that haven’t experienced this.”
Mike Mussina taped up plastic in the clubhouse to protect the Yankees’ lockers; it’s his only responsibility in Boston since he won’t be needed in the regular season finale. Instead, he will pitch Game 1 of the playoffs on Tuesday against Cleveland or the Los Angeles Angels.
Through a quirk in baseball’s rules, the Yankees (95-66) won the division because of Cleveland’s loss to Chicago in the AL Central. The loss by the Indians (93-68) eliminated the possibility of a three-way tie—and an unprecedented two-game, three-team tiebreaker—and gave New York the East by virtue of their 10-8 record against Boston (94-67).
Small watched in the clubhouse and relayed the Indians’ score to the dugout.
“He wins 10 games and give you the final score, too,” Torre joked with one of his coaches. “How much better can it get?”
The Red Sox finished second in the division for the eighth straight year, but it’s not all bad news for them.
Their magic number to clinch the AL wild-card berth is one, meaning the defending World Series champions can do no worse than a tie—news that got a medium-sized cheer when it was announced on the Fenway scoreboard.
If Boston loses on Sunday and Cleveland wins, they will meet at Fenway Park on Monday to decide the AL’s last playoff berth. If Cleveland loses on Sunday, the Red Sox get the wild-card berth no matter what they do.
“It’s the most unique situation you will see,” Boston manager Terry Francona said. “What are the odds of us watching the Yankees celebrate and we’re coming into the clubhouse as excited as you can be about playing the game tomorrow.”
Johnson (17-8) allowed three runs, five hits and three walks, striking out eight in 7 1-3 innings. He walked Damon in the first before Manny Ramirez homered—his first of two homers on the day. The 6-foot-10 left-hander walked a pair in the second, glaring at plate umpire Gary Darling when the calls didn’t go his way.
But Johnson retired 16 of his last 18 batters after David Ortiz doubled to start the third. Only Tony Graffanino, who had three hits including a homer, seemed to solve the five-time Cy Young Award winner, acquired during the offseason to anchor their $67 million rotation.
That staff quickly disintegrated with injuries and ineffectivenes, but Johnson did exactly what he was brought in to do, going 5-0 against Boston. Unexpected contributions from Small (10-0), Chacon (7-3), Wang (8-5) and Al Leiter (4-5) kept the team in the race after an 11-19 start—the Yankees’ worst since 1966—that put them nine games off the division lead.
New York trailed Boston by 5 1/2 games on the morning of Aug. 11 before going 35-12 the rest of the way.
“I’m proud of them, and delighted for our fans who stuck with us through this tough, exciting season,” owner George Steinbrenner said through spokesman Howard Rubenstein. “But this is only the first step toward our goal, a championship.”
Johnson was a big reason for the resurgence, going 6-0 with a 1.93 ERA in eight starts since Aug. 21. With New York down by four games on Sept. 11, he beat Wakefield 1-0 to start the final push.
“Every game out was like a bigger game for him,” Jeter said, “and he got better and better.”
Wakefield (16-12) started on three days’ rest for the first time this year and gave up seven runs on seven hits, striking out one in five innings. He had won eight of his prior 10 decisions while avoiding the clunker of an outing that the knuckleball seems to produce, allowing only three homers in September.
But he quickly matched that on the first day of October.
Sheffield hit a two-run shot as New York took a 3-0 lead in the first. Ramirez’s two-run homer in the bottom half cut the deficit to one run. The Yankees scored on a pair of sacrifice flies in the second inning and then made it 5-2 on Matsui’s homer in the third.
Rodriguez added a solo shot in the fifth—his 48th of the year, moving him ahead of Ortiz for the AL lead. Wakefield also allowed one of the more painful homers in Red Sox history when he gave up Aaron Boone’s shot that ended Game 7 of the 2003 AL championship series.
The Red Sox recovered the next year, rallying from a 3-0 deficit in the AL championship series to celebrate on the field at Yankee Stadium, then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals for their first World Series title since 1918.
But they’ll have to wait at least one more day to find out if they’ve got a chance to defend their title.
Jeter reached the 200-hit milestone for the fourth time. Only Lou Gehrig, who had 200 hits eight times, has more as a Yankee. … When Francona heard that the Yankees had brought in a knuckleballer to pitch batting practice Saturday to prepare for Wakefield, he quipped, “we imported a 6-foot-11 guy.”… Torre said facing a knuckleballer in batting practice was more to get the Yankee hitters adjusted to the speed of the pitch rather than the movement. “So much today is based on timing to a certain speed of pitch,” he said. … Torre moved Cano up to sixth in the batting order and Martinez up to seventh largely because of the success they’ve had against Wakefield in the past.