The toy-car-racin', profanity-rappin', towel-snappin' romper room that is the Oakland Athletics' clubhouse at Network Associates Coliseum fell so quiet last Saturday evening you could have heard a jaw drop. How in the world, the A's wondered, did New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter suddenly and inexplicably materialize, apparitionlike, and ruin their party with one quick flick of the wrist? How did the Yankees, who looked so old and infirm for the first two games of the American League Divisional Series that you could almost hear them creak, suddenly revert to, well, the Yankees? The Athletics knew where to find the answers: the calendar. This was October.
The ancient Greeks thought those favored by the gods with immortality played upon the Fortunate Fields in eternal bliss. Forgive the A's if they believe the Yankees have found the baseball equivalent. Four times in the past two postseasons Oakland needed only one victory to kill New York's latest dynasty. Four times Oakland failed. Having lost the first two games of the five-game series at home, the Yankees and their mystique lived on when, taking advantage of sloppy Oakland play (three errors among other gaffes), they completed an unprecedented three-game comeback with a 5-3 victory in Game 5 on Monday night.
In the first two games, which New York lost 5-3 and 2-0, respectively, the Yankees scored one run in 14? innings against Oakland's winning starting pitchers, lefthander Mark Mulder and righthander Tim Hudson. The A's celebrated boisterously with their usual musical selections featuring lyrics that would make a drunken longshoreman blush.
Before Game 3 in Oakland, during a casual bit of pulse-checking in his own clubhouse, New York manager Joe Torre was not comforted by what he found. "I thought my team was anxious," he said the next day.
"Darn right," outfielder Paul O'Neill said. "We were desperate."
The turnaround began, though, 30 minutes before the game as righthander Mike Mussina, whom New York had signed to a six-year, $88.5 million free-agent contract last November, put on a game face that might as well have been cast in stone. Pressure? Torre always has regarded Game 3 as the most important of a postseason series, and here was Mussina pitching a Game 3 in his first postseason start for New York—with the Yankees dynasty hanging by a thread. "I watched him for a while, and I liked what I saw," said Reggie (Patron Saint of October) Jackson, a New York adviser, after the game. "He sat in front of his locker and was very serious. I could tell by his body language the man was ready."
Said Mussina, "Reggie told me later that he got fired up just seeing me prepare. What I did, though, was treat it like any other start. You have to. If you think about what's on the line and take the weight of it out to the mound with you, you can't perform."
Torre maintains that the foundation of the Yankees' October success was built on the mound. The visitors' bullpen in Oakland on this day offered a reminder. First Roger Clemens threw there as preparation for a possible Game 5 start. Then the ever mysterious Orlando (El Duque) Hernandez, the Game 4 starter if necessary, took the hill for a fascinating 15-minute phantom throwing session with an invisible baseball and invisible catcher. Then Mussina warmed up for his start, and in the later innings Game 2 starter Andy Pettitte readied himself for possible relief duty in Game 5. Clemens, Mussina, Hernandez and Pettitte. It looked like one of those old Soviet army parades of weaponry through Red Square.
Once Game 3 began, Mussina outdueled Barry Zito, Oakland's 23-year-old lefthanded prodigy, in a 1-0 instant classic. The Yankees got only two hits off Zito and reliever Mark Guthrie, who pitched the ninth inning—matching the most meager output in the Bronx Bombers' storied 279-game postseason history. ( Hall of Famer Warren Spahn two-hit New York for the Milwaukee Braves in the 1958 World Series.) One of those hits, however, was a fifth-inning home run by Jorge Posada.
"It's almost all I've known; I'm used to it by now," Mussina said of dueling another ace. He joined Oakland's Vida Blue (who shut out the Baltimore Orioles in 1974) as the only starters to win a 1-0 game on the road in an American League playoff game. It was the 16th time in 35 starts this year that the Yankees had scored once or not at all while Mussina was in the game.