MLB: What Made the Yankees So Great in the Late 90s

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Before there was Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Brett Gardner, there was Scott Brosius, Tino Martinez, and Bernie Williams. Prior to Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, and Andrew Miller, there was Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera. And preceding current New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi’s tenure in the dugout, Joe Torre was at the helm.

In the 2016 MLB season, the defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals will look to become the first team in baseball to win at least three consecutive pennants since those great Yankees teams of the late ’90s and 2001 campaigns. With that in mind, let’s take a trip down memory lane to look back at the legendary Bronx Bombers seasons from 1998 through 2001, when they made the World Series four consecutive times, winning three of them.

*Note: Although the Yankees also won the 1996 World Series, we start with 1998. They won “only” 96 games in the ’97 regular season and bowed out in the American League Division Series.

1998 New York Yankees

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114-48 regular season record; won World Series 4-0

After winning their first World Series in 18 years in 1996, the Yankees fell short of their goal the following year, dropping a heartbreaking five-game division series to the Cleveland Indians. The 1998 MLB production may be most remembered for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s epic, PED-induced home run chase, but the Yankees put together a season of historic proportions that is sometimes overlooked.

[update: the article originally listed the Seattle Mariners as the winner of 1997 the AL Divisional series. They beat the Yankees in 1995, and the piece has been updated to correct that error.]

Their jaw-dropping offense consisted mainly of a rapidly ascending, still young shortstop by the name of Derek Jeter, his double-play partner and the lineup’s new table-setter in Chuck Knoblauch (pictured above), and veteran right fielder Paul O’Neill. Oh yeah, they also showcased MVP candidates Williams and Martinez, as well as the underrated third baseman Brosius and catcher Jorge Posada among others.

The starting rotation was deep and talented, including ace lefties Pettitte and Mr. Perfecto David Wells, along with 20-game winner David Cone, the late Hideki Irabu and fan-favorite “El Duque” Hernandez. The stellar bullpen was headlined by the deadly lefty/righty set-up duo of Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson, paving the way for the relatively new closer, Rivera.

Simply put, this team was stacked. They blasted through the competition on the way to an astounding 114-48 regular season record. They showed no mercy to the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, sweeping them 3-0. Really, the only threat in their march toward a second title in three years came against the Cleveland Indians in the ALCS. After trailing the series 2-1 though, El Duque turned in a masterpiece in Game 4 to tie it up in Cleveland, and Wells out-dueled Chad Ogea in Game 5 to send it back to New York.

Offense propelled the Yanks to a 9-5, series-clinching win in Game 6, and Wells was named the series MVP. The World Series was essentially over before it started, as the overmatched San Diego Padres relied heavily on the bat of future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn throughout. Gwynn did his part, knocking eight hits in the series for a .500 average, but those eight hits accounted for 25% of the team’s total. Aided by a San Diego bullpen collapse in Game 1 and a mega-clutch Brosius homer in Game 3, the Yankees swept the Padres and the third baseman took home MVP honors.

1999 New York Yankees

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98-64 regular season record; won World Series 4-0

Employing much of the same cast of characters as the previous season, Torre’s Yanks again easily captured the AL East in 1999, finishing with a 98-64 record. The lineup remarkably had four hitters surpass 100 runs driven in, and Martinez, Williams, and Jeter all finished with more than 20 home runs. The last year of the millennium was arguably Jeter’s most prolific of his stellar career, as he led the league in hits with 219, posted a .349 batting average, and finished sixth in MVP voting.

The rotation was essentially the same, with Roger Clemens replacing Wells as the lone difference. All five starters stayed healthy and pitched in at least 30 games. They each had 11 wins and while Pettitte, Clemens, and Irabu’s ERAs were all over 4.50, they got plenty of run support from that dangerous group of bats. The bullpen was as good as ever, and the team again faced the Rangers in the ALDS. Once more, the playoffs were more of a formality, as the Bronx Bombers dispatched Texas in three games, and then overwhelmed the Boston Red Sox in a testy five-game set.

Their opponent for the 1999 World Series was the so-called “team of the decade,” the Atlanta Braves. Similar to the previous season’s World Series, the Yankees took Game 1 thanks to their opponent’s bullpen implosion. Game 2 featured remarkable pitching from Cone and returned the series to New York with the eventual champs up 2-0. Game 3 was a classic as the Yankees stormed back from a late 5-2 deficit and walked off on a Chad Curtis home run in the 10th inning (pictured above). A dominant outing by Clemens and yet another save for Rivera gave the Yanks a 4-1 victory in Game 4 and another clean sweep. Rivera — who had a win and two saves in the four-game set — earned the MVP award.

2000 New York Yankees

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87-74 regular season record; won World Series 4-1

New millennium, same old Yankees. Although the Pinstripes had a somewhat uncharacteristic regular season and finished with “just” 87 wins, it was good enough to make the postseason again and from there, it was just another October for Jeter and the crew. Williams put together a 30 HR/121 RBI stat line, and No. 2 again had more than 200 hits.

Key bats off the bench included mid-season acquisition David Justice and fan favorite Luis Sojo. Pettitte, Clemens, and El Duque again led an up-and-down rotation to solid win totals thanks to the bats, and Rivera, Stanton, and Nelson were the key cogs in the ‘pen. Though previous American League playoffs were basically a foregone conclusion for the Yanks to run through, this time there were some roadblocks.

New York squared off against the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS, a team in the middle of their Moneyball era of utilizing advanced statistics to pick their players and reap success. After splitting the first two games in Oakland, the Yanks seemingly took control with a 4-2 victory in Game 3. The A’s pounded the hosts in Game 4 though, pummeling their way to a decisive Game 5 by winning 11-1. A monster first frame gave the Yankees a 6-0 advantage before they took the field the next game, and they held off Oakland 7-5.

In the ALCS, the Bombers took a commanding 3-1 series advantage against the powerful Seattle Mariners, before A-Rod, Ken Griffey Jr., and company came alive in Game 5, winning that one 6-2. Justice hit his second homer of the series in Game 6 to earn the MVP, and the Yankees won 9-7.

The 2000 World Series — while pretty one-sided — was special due to the fact that both New York teams made it. The Yankees took Game 1 in epic fashion, a 12-inning thriller, on a Jose Vizcaino walk-off single, barely sneaking out of the Bronx with a 2-0 series advantage after winning 6-5 in Game 2. Thanks to a Robin Ventura homer and a solid start from Rick Reed, the Mets took Game 3 at home, 4-2. Flawless bullpen work in the remainder of the series, plus a first-pitch long ball from Jeter in Game 4, gave the Yankees a 4-1 series win. After going 9-for-22 with a pair of homers, Jeter earned his first World Series MVP.

2001 New York Yankees

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95-65 regular season record; lost World Series 4-3

The 2001 World Series was an instant classic, perhaps the best Fall Classic of them all. What transpired before that late-October/early-November series was just as memorable, both for the baseball world and the U.S. Led by the usual suspects in the lineup and a rotation headed by Clemens, Pettitte, and stud newcomer Mike Mussina, the Yankees and the rest of MLB appeared like they were on their way to another “normal” season of baseball.

That all came to a crashing halt with the horrific terrorist attacks on September 11 though, temporarily suspending play right in the thick of a playoff chase. Seemingly with the entire nation behind them, the Yankees finished off another strong season, winning the division with 95 wins this time. The Yankees again faced the A’s in the ALDS, but this time seemingly facing an upset after losing Games 1 and 2 at home. Then in Game 3, the “Jeter Flip” shifted the momentum. Mussina’s gem forced Game 4, and the Yanks’ bats came alive for 14 runs in the final two contests. New York advanced after a 5-3 win in Game 5.

Despite being tasked with taking down the 116 regular-season wins of the Mariners in the ALCS, the Bombers were up to the challenge. Aside from a 14-3 shellacking in Game 3, the Yankees easily dropped the M’s in the five-game set. That set up the unfathomable fourth-straight World Series appearance for Torre’s boys. Like the ALDS, the championship started out ominously for New York, dropping the first two on the road to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

With their backs against the wall, Clemens’ solid Game-3 outing gave the Yankees a 2-1 win and set the stage for big finishes ahead. Looking for a huge 3-1 series lead, manager Bob Brenly went to his shutdown closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, in the late stages of Game 4 (which took place on Halloween night). Martinez clubbed a game-tying homer in the ninth. Jeter added to his impressive resume with a walk-off homer in the 10th just after midnight, earning himself the title of “Mr. November.”

Game 5 was “deja vu all over again” for Kim, as it was Brosius who tied the game with a blast in the ninth, and Alfonso Soriano won it with a walk-off gapper in the 12th. Back in Arizona though, Randy Johnson dominated the Yankees in Game 6, and the previously untouchable Rivera surrendered a World Series-winning walk-off single to Luis Gonzalez in Game 7. Though the Yankees would return to the World Series in 2003 (and lose to the Florida Marlins), the Gonzalez blooper effectively signaled the end of this group’s dynasty.

The fact that it’s been a decade and a half since any team has won three straight pennants speaks to the difficulty of what the Royals face going into 2016. They’ll surely have a target on their backs next season, but for now, there’s still a long off-season to go.

All data courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.

Follow Victor on Twitter @vbarbosa1127

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