Happy holiday. The Yankees did not win the 2017 World Series, but for a little while there, early last month, it was too close for comfort. Only two stellar Houston home wins in Games 6 and 7 of the American League Championship Series separated the Bombers from a chance at their 28th World Series title, and in honor of those great games — which were followed by even greater ones, in the Fall Classic itself — I’ve decided to compile a list of my favorite Yankees losses since the strike, because they are probably my favorite sporting events of all-time. They are better than most Red Sox wins, and better than most Patriots Super Bowl wins. Every Yankees loss is a cause for celebration, but these precious few games are better than most. Without further ado, here’s the list:
Astros no-hit the Yankees in New York, June 11, 2003
In spring 2003, the then-National League Houston Astros defeated the Yankees on a lazy infield groundout and some of them started celebrating far out of proportion to a regular season win. What happened? A demoralizing, six-pitcher no-hitter had happened. And not everyone realized it. It was great!
Roy Oswalt had started the game for Houston but left with a groin pull after the first inning. He was followed by five relievers, all of whom put up zeroes: Kirk Saarloos, Octavio Dotel, Billy Wagner, Peter Munro and Brad Lidge. Until there were six outs left, though, even the people throwing the no-hitter didn’t realize it:
But it was only when Lidge joined the other pitchers in the clubhouse, having pitched two innings, that he and the others glanced at the television broadcast of the game and realized that, through seven innings, the Yankees had yet to get a hit.
“Lidge had just come out of the game,” said Saarloos, now an assistant coach at Texas Christian University. “He looked at me, I looked at him, and then without saying anything, we were like: ‘Oh. O.K.’ ”
So you can imagine, then, why some Yankees didn’t notice; there was none of the overwrought no-hitter drama, just a persistent lack of, well, hits, on a long, interchangeable spring night. In great a New York Times retrospective of the game in 2013 from which the above quote is taken, Benjamin Hoffman wrote about how the fates of the franchises had diverged in the following decade as of press time:
Those glory days are a distant memory for Houston. Gone are the perennial All-Stars Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Oswalt. They have been replaced with prospects, projects and spare parts.
We will hear from some of those prospects and spare parts further down in the list!
Trot Nixon hits the game winner off Roger Clemens, May 28, 2000
Seven months after Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez faced each other in the American League Championship series at Fenway (another one to which we’ll get), the aces faced each other in a rematch at Yankee Stadium on Sunday Night Baseball. Clemens jawed with Trot Nixon in the first inning, and that was basically the loudest either offense was until there were two outs in the top of the ninth, at which point Nixon hit a two-run homer to what we’d now call “Devers” the crowd:
Pedro would finish the game off, albeit with some drama, and the Sox won the battle of the dueling complete games.
Angels beat Yankees, 2005 American League Division Series
A year after the miracle, the Red Sox were swept out of their own ALDS by the eventual World Series-winning White Sox, which left the Angels in charge of the most important job in sports: Eliminating the Bombers. The series went to Game 5 in California, and all I remember was that Francisco Rodriguez got the save while the Yankees had the potential go-ahead run at the plate. It seemed good at the time because it was very good!
Indians beat Yankees, 1997 ALCS
Probably should be higher, but I almost forgot it and I’m throwing it in right here. God bless Sandy Alomar, Jr.
THE TOP 10
10. Yankees at Red Sox, 1999 ALCS Game 3, October 16, 1999
Roger Clemens vs. Pedro Martinez at Fenway in the first Sox/Yankees postseason series ever.
The Red Sox were never going to win this series. This isn’t (just) perfect hindsight; it was obvious at the time. Pedro had pitched the Sox past the Indians in the ALDS with his miraculous no-hit relief appearance, which meant he wasn’t available for Game 1 and instead was merely matched up against Roger Clemens in Boston in Game 3. For that to matter, the Sox had to steal at least one of the first two games in New York. When they pushed Game 1 into extra innings, things looked pretty good, but then the late, great Rod Beck threw his first pitch, Bernie Williams hit a homer, and the series was basically over. The Sox got screwed by some bad umpiring in game two, but these Yankees were good enough that it probably didn’t matter all that much — another detail that was obvious at the time.
Game 3 was for dignity, not simply because Pedro got his shot but because it came against Clemens. And he got pounded. The Sox -- not to mention the delirious, desperate, bloodthirsty fans -- were all over Clemens early, knocking him out of the game in the third inning, while Pedro did the damn thing (7 innings, 0 runs, 12 K’s) on the way to a 13-1 win. It was the only game the Sox won in the series, but it ruled, hard, and set the template for the ultimate role-reversal four years alter.
9. Yankees at Astros, 2017 ALCS Games 6 and 7, last month
After this series, to parrot Jose Altuve, “I literally love Justin Verlander,” but I love Altuve more. This whole shebang was too close for comfort, but the two MVPs (provided Altuve wins this year, which he will) were the difference-makers in Games 6 and 7, and have earned lifetime passes from me. On a personal note, I was pleased that Astros DH Evan Gattis, the only Major League Baseball player with whom I have gotten paralytically drunk, had the ultimate series-winning dong in Game 7. You my boy, bull:
To be sure, every Yankees elimination is cause for celebration, but this one was better than most because the Astros were a better team, and deserved to make it. I understand the appeal of the Yankees as the unexpected Little Engines That-Coulds, if only as a narrative inversion, but it will never be actually true and I’m super glad we don’t have to pretend it’s true this year.
8. Red Sox at Yankees, September 10, 1999
Pedro Martinez strikes out 17, pitches one-hitter.
One of two regular season games on the list, it’s arguably the finest pitching performance by anyone ever. I watched this game at home on college break, and a friend from New York called me just to say Tim McCarver, then the local announcer and never at a loss for words, was, well, at a loss for words. Tim McCarver, who caught Bob Gibson, said that. So did everyone else, basically. Buster Olney’s gamer in The New York Times is stuff of legend. I strongly recommend reading the whole thing, but this is my favorite graf:
It was as if the Yankees were swinging within a darkened closet, for Martinez was throwing all three of his pitches for strikes. His fastball was moving, Tino Martinez said, and he was spinning his curveball for strikes, and when you looked for the fastball, he would then throw his changeup, the ball dropping away as if Pedro Martinez were manipulating it like a marionette. ''That is about as close to unhittable as you can find,'' Torre said. ''You can't fault the hitters.''
I’m getting amped just thinking about it now, nearly 20 years later. This was before Pedro learned to smile for us, before the jheri curl, before Nelson de la Rosa, before the Mets and the Phillies. He was, in the monent, tiny, taciturn and tremendous. He’s still tremendous.
7. Yankees at Angels, 2002 ALDS, Game 5
(But really the whole series.)
Spoiler alert: The Yankees didn’t win the 2001 World Series. That’s great! They still made the 2001 World Series, marking four consecutive trips to the show and five in six years. This was entirely too many. Perhaps accustomed to despair, my Mets fan friends and I were going to a Sizzler in Queens during the game, fearful of the worst, and listened to the last few outs on the radio in a car, not believing that a Yankees loss this early in the postseason — it was Game 4!! — was even possible. But it was, and it happened, and I can still now recall my elation as I crossed Queens Boulevard and filled myself full of endless helpings of Grade D-meat. It was something like this:
6. Marlins at Yankees, 2003 World Series Game 6
Josh Beckett pitches complete game shutout in Yankee Stadium to win it all
Outside of Pedro’s 1999 game cited above, this is the best game I’ve seen pitched against the Yankees in New York, and watching the Marlins, of all teams, celebrate winning the title in the Bronx is still one of my life’s great joys. The Yankees got three-hit in an elimination game in their own building against a team in teal. It’s hard to imagine anything better… and yet, we’re only at No. 6.
5. Jason Varitek shoves A-Rod, Bill Mueller hits walk-off homer off Mariano Rivera, July 24, 2004
This is one of the great regular season games of all time, and by far the most important regular season game of the categorically insane 2004 season. If the Red Sox are known for having gotten to Mariano Rivera over the years, this is when it started. It is also, I think, when a lot of us started to believe.
4. Yankees at Indians, Game 2, 2007 American League Division Series
If this game was pitched as movie, it would be turned into an Amazon limited series, stretched out to really get the full flavor of it all. There was just too much happening at one time to process it all.
First off, the Yankees were leading when they called on Joba Chamberlain, the almost literally unhittable reliever who strongly resembled his Star Wars namesake, and he was attacked by a swarm of insects on the mound and had to pitch through it. Friends, it was ethereal:
This is the part of the game and for good reason, but it was so much more than that. My second favorite moment is one of my favorite at-bats of all-time, especially given who was involved.
Apparently MLB agrees with me, because they have the clip on YouTube. The Yankees batter is Alex Rodriguez, of whom you know. The Indians pitcher is Roberto Hernandez, then pitching under the name Fausto Carmona, the name of someone whose identity he stole to come to the U.S. Charming! Not as charming as this at-bat:
For these reasons I really wanted to rank it higher than this, but it was just a Game 2; that said, it was the best Game 2 I’ve ever seen, and the one that is the least likely to be repeated, even if you played a million simulations.
3. Yankees at Mariners, Game 5, 1995 American League Division Series
It’s their worst nightmare, so it’s one of our most beautiful dreams.
Especially given the cast of characters, announcers included, this is an astounding and life-affirming baseball clip:
If you ask Yankees fans of a certain age which loss still hurts the most, this is the one they’ll give you. This was a hell of a baseball game, the first Division Series elimination game in the first Division Series of all-time. It featured Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, a rookie Alex Rodriguez and Don Mattingly, in what would be his last game. I remember dancing in front of the TV in high school when this happened, certain I’d never seen anything better.
I would. Twice!
2. Diamondbacks vs. Yankees, 2001 World Series, Game 7
There’s a lot of Curt from here on out.
Three years before the comeback to end all comebacks, there was this certified miracle. Long story short, this series should have been long over, but the Yankees, three-time defending World Series champions, had won Games 4 and 5 on last-gasp home runs against Arizona’s closer, Byung-Hyun Kim, to send the series back to Phoenix with the D-Backs down 3-2. Arizona *destroyed* the Yankees in Game 6, leading to a winner-take-all affair in Game 7 that looked like another one for the nightmare files. The Yankees took the lead late on an inexplicable, very Alfonso Soriano home run from Alfonso Soriano, in that it was about five inches off the ground:
Like Tom Brady’s late-game touchdown drives against the Giants in two Super Bowls, this homer is mostly lost to history because of what happened next.
It’s stupefying. Rivera came out to face Mark Grace, who had announced he would retire after the season and was thus almost certainly taking the last at-bat of his career. He was, and is, a beloved figure in the baseball firmament, and I remember thinking that his career could only really end on a single in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series, and I was right. On the second pitch, he muscled a single to right-center, his third knock of his last game. Legend. Also old and slow, so David Dellucci came on as a pinch runner.
Damian Miller pinch-hit now that a bunt is afoot, and on the second pitch he gets it down, and Rivera throws it into center field. The only thing Rivera could not do on a baseball field was throw to second base with any sort of accuracy. He Florida States it wide right, but Dellucci can’t even go to third because he barrels into Jeter, injuring him. At the time I was pissed, but I gotta tell ya, when you know how it ends, it is seriously satisfying to see Jeter get spiked.
With runners on first and second, it’s important to remember that no team had beaten the Yankees since 1997.
Jay Bell then tries his own sacrifice bunt but Dellucci is thrown at at third, wasting the at-bat. Bad stuff? Yes. But not the end.
Up comes Tony Womack. His father has just died. He runs the count to 2-2, then doubles to right, tying the game. He points to the heavens at second base. I just watched it again. It still makes me cry:
Arizona does the only thing it can, and loads the bases on purpose. Luis Gonzalez, he of 57 -- yes 57 -- home runs, dinks the ball into left-center, and bedlam ensues. I am ecstatic. I am awed. I am humbled. I can scarcely imagine anything more beautiful.
And then, three years later, I see it.
1. Red Sox vs. Yankees, 2004 ALCS, Games 4-7
When I first conceived of this list I briefly thought of trying to rank these four games against each other, simply to maintain some suspense about end, but I could not. These games are my children. I will not choose between them. I love them equally and unconditionally and I apologize for nothing if I have softened -- or stratified -- as a fan, because of them. We keep getting older, but they will always be my babies.
The most striking thing about these games, and the other thing that makes them distinct in baseball history, is that, because of rainouts, they were played on four days in a row -- serious, serious old-school scheduling for old-school rivals. Over about 100 hours, the Sox won games in four different ways against their historical bullies. It was basically the Revolutionary War all over again, only if they changed uniforms so the good guys were in red.
Game 4 was hell for eight innings, until the Red Sox tied it after Dave Roberts’s steal and David Ortiz won it with a walk-off solo home run in the wee morning hours. Game 5 was merely hell for seven innings, with Ortiz tying the game with a homer in the eighth inning off former Red Sox closer Tom Gordon and winning it on a single to center.
Game 6, in New York, had A-Rod’s slap. Game 7, also in New York, was a near total catharsis for 86 years of pain. At the time, I was worried that the Sox would lose the World Series and render the comeback as an awful joke, even if any non-Sox fan to whom I spoke this fear aloud laughed me out of the room. My fears were unfounded. They won the World Series, and the further we get away from 2004, the more the ALCS stands out as perhaps the greatest sequence of baseball games ever played. It certainly is for me and almost certainly is for you, and it couldn’t have been the same against anyone else. Thank you now, as ever, to the Yankees for making my dreams come true.