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All Aces
Tom Verducci
November 01, 1999
In a World Series stacked with top-drawer starters, Orlando Hernandez and the Yankees got a leg up on the Braves
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November 01, 1999

All Aces

In a World Series stacked with top-drawer starters, Orlando Hernandez and the Yankees got a leg up on the Braves

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Maddux's start was like so many by Atlanta's illustrious starters in this decade's postseasons: He pitched well, but not better than his opponent and not well enough to overcome meager run support. (Through Sunday, Braves starters were 7-6 over the last two postseasons.) Maddux took a 1-0 lead into the eighth inning but failed to get another out. He gave up a first-pitch single to Scott Brosius. Torre, electing not to bunt, lifted Hernandez for pinch hitter Darryl Strawberry. With three lefthanders in the Atlanta bullpen, Torre knew this was his only chance to get the lefthanded-hitting Strawberry an at bat against a righthander. "Brilliant," Cone called the move. Maddux, respectful of Strawberry's power with a 15-mph wind blowing to rightfield, issued a five-pitch walk.

"We still felt it was a 1-0 game we could win," Mazzone said afterward. "They bunt, we walk [Derek] Jeter, and then we have [lefty reliever John] Rocker to face [lefthanded hitter Paul] O'Neill. We can play the infield back for a double play."

Chuck Knoblauch fouled off the next pitch on a bunt attempt. "When I fouled it off, I saw Maddux jump really quickly off the mound toward third base," Knoblauch said afterward. "I couldn't believe it. He was really aggressive, breaking toward third like that. So on the next pitch I actually was trying to bunt the ball straight back through the mound."

Knoblauch bunted hard just to the right of the mound, far from Maddux and nearly past charging first baseman Brian Hunter. Hunter fielded the ball but then dropped it for an error as he tried to throw to first. "Bases loaded and no outs is a lot worse than bases loaded and one out," Mazzone said.

Maddux worked Jeter to 0 and 2 but could not put him away. He missed away with one pitch and left the next one up and over the center of the plate. Jeter smashed it into leftfield for a game-tying single. Then O'Neill, batting against Rocker, rapped a 97-mph high-and-tight fastball through a drawn-in infield for a two-run single.

That hit made a winner out of Hernandez. Nothing new there. El Duque is 34-13, including 5-0 with a 1.02 ERA in the postseason, since leaving Cuba and getting a four-year, $6.6 million deal from the Yankees in 1998. The Braves were one of many clubs that decided Hernandez wasn't worth that kind of money, not when they couldn't verify his age (he claims 30 but might be as old as 34) or the pop on his fastball. All the while they should have been measuring his ticker. "In his mind he's the equal to Maddux or anybody," Cone says. "This is his chance to prove it. You can tell this is his time right now, and he wants to take advantage of it."

On July 16, in a 10-7 Atlanta win, the Braves had plastered Hernandez for six runs in 4⅔ innings. At the time he was having undisclosed personal problems. "He wasn't focused," New York pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "I think they lulled themselves into thinking they were going to see the same El Duque they saw then. I think they were surprised by what they got."

In Game 1, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox started six righthanded hitters (including Maddux) against Hernandez, who held righties to a .187 average this year. El Duque dominated the Braves with his sampler box of breaking balls, a variety pack of surprises. Atlanta looked at breaking balls that looped into the strike zone and swung at others that slid sharply out if it. Righthanded batters swung 35 times at the assortment of pitches, missing 13, fouling off 16 and putting only six into play, all for outs (two on the ground, four in the air). "I noticed, and I'll do the same tomorrow," Cone said after Game 1. "They seem to be vulnerable to breaking balls, and you can get them to chase out of the zone."

Against Cone's similar sidewinding style, however, Cox inserted into the Atlanta lineup three experienced, if lesser used, lefthanded hitters who had combined for seven home runs all season: Ozzie Guillen, Keith Lockhart and Greg Myers.

"He caught me off guard a little bit with the lefthanders," said Cone afterward. His Cy Young Award is the only one of the 13 in this Series not hanging in its owner's residence; Cone gave his to his father, who displays it in his Kansas City house. "Then I considered all the lefties to be better fastball hitters, anyway, so I stayed with the breaking stuff. It didn't change my approach much. I didn't give in at all. I sensed that in the middle innings they began to get frustrated and were swinging at pitches out of the zone."

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