PHOENIX Redemption has never been sweeter.
And the World Series may never be decided in more dramatic fashion.
Down to their last three outs and facing the dominant closer in the history of postseason baseball, the Arizona Diamondbacks stunned the New York Yankees last night by scoring twice in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 7, capturing their first World Series title.
Luis Gonzalez blooped a bases-loaded single over shortstop Derek Jeter’s head with one out in the ninth against Mariano Rivera, scoring Jay Bell with the winning run in Arizona’s dramatic 3-2 victory before an ecstatic crowd of 49,589 at Bank One Ballpark.
The incredible turn of events came only days after the Diamondbacks twice blew games with two outs in the bottom of the ninth at Yankee Stadium, a pair of defeats so crushing, few wondered if any team could rebound.
This team did.
Leading 2-1 in the ninth, the Yankees turned to Rivera who had converted 23 straight postseason saves and held an 0.70 ERA in the playoffs to close out their fourth straight championship. Rivera, who already tossed a scoreless eighth, immediately got himself into trouble.
Mark Grace led off with a single up the middle. Damian Miller laid down a sacrifice bunt, but Rivera misfired to second, leaving two runners on and no outs. Bell, pinch-hitting for reliever Randy Johnson (yes, reliever Randy Johnson), bunted as well, but this time Rivera got the lead runner at third.
Up came diminutive leadoff hitter Tony Womack, whose ninth-inning single won the National League Division Series for Arizona. This time, Womack tagged an inside pitch down the right-field line for a double, scoring pinch-runner Midre Cummings with the tying run. The stadium, silent only minutes before, shook with excitement.
Rivera then grazed Craig Counsell with a high-and-tight pitch, loading the bases for Gonzalez who led the team with 57 home runs this season. And the heart of the Diamondbacks’ lineup greeted Rivera with a blooper over Jeter’s head much like Womack’s game-winner in the NLDS that sent the stadium into pandemonium.
The Yankees were on the verge of wrapping up yet another title, this one perhaps more meaningful than any of their previous ones given the September 11 tragedies in New York. Rookie Alfonso Soriano had given his team a 2-1 lead in the top of the eighth when he belted a solo homer off Diamondbacks starter Curt Schilling into the left-field bleachers.
But the Yankees could not win the game with only two runs, and Arizona can thank its dynamic pitching duo of Schilling and Johnson for that the two were named co-MVP of the series.
Pitching on three days’ rest for the second time in the series, Schilling offered up 71/3 gutsy innings for manager Bob Brenly, but departed in the eighth shortly after the Soriano home run. Miguel Batista, who threw seven scoreless innings in Game 5, came out of the bullpen to record the second out of the eighth. Brenly then called upon Johnson, one night after the tall left-hander threw 102 pitches to lead Arizona to a Game 6 victory.
Johnson retired all four batters he faced in the eighth and ninth, ultimately earning his third win of the series.
Few knew what to expect from Schilling, making his second straight start on three days’ rest. He came out of his Game 4 outing with more shoulder soreness than he expected and was briefly questionable for last night’s game.
He put to rest any doubts about his arm strength early on in the game, coasting through the Yankee lineup. The only batter to reach base in the first six innings, retiring New York outfielder Paul O’Neill, didn’t stay there long. Batting second behind Jeter in Joe Torre’s lineup, the 38-year-old O’Neill belted a gap shot to right-center in the first inning but inexplicably tried to stretch it into a triple. Relay man Counsell easily gunned him down at third, allowing Schilling to keep pitching from a full windup.
He continued to do so for the next 16 batters, retiring the side in the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth before New York finally got to him.
Having just been given a 1-0 lead on Danny Bautista’s sixth-inning double, Schilling opened the seventh by giving up back-to-back line drives that narrowly fell in front of Arizona outfielders for singles. Jeter started things off by dropping one in front of Bautista in right field; O’Neill followed with a base hit in front of center fielder Steve Finley.
A force out put runners on the corners for Tino Martinez, and the ninth-inning hero from Game 4 delivered again, driving a single to right-center to score Jeter with the tying run.
Pitching on a full four days’ rest, Roger Clemens produced the same results as Schilling but took a far more circuitous route in getting there. The Yankee flamethrower allowed at least one runner to reach base in each of the first five innings, but managed to escape unscathed each time. He recorded eight strikeouts through the first four innings, four of them coming with two outs.
The Diamondbacks finally put a leadoff hitter on in the sixth, when Finley singled up the middle, and took advantage of it. Bautista, getting his third start of the series, then drilled Clemens’ first pitch to the deepest part of the ballpark in left-center. Finley came around to score easily, but Bautista (just like O’Neill) was thrown out trying to stretch the hit into a triple. Replays showed that Scott Brosius’ tag may have been slightly late, a matter that didn’t seem all that important at the time but could have resulted in another Arizona run when Grace followed by grounding out to second.
With the game tied following Martinez’s hit, Torre gave Clemens the chance to start the seventh, but pulled him after Womack’s one out single and brought in Mike Stanton. The left-handed specialist, who wound up becoming the pitcher of record, got out of the inning when Womack was thrown out attempting to steal and Counsell popped out.