Thursday, May 24, 2012
Random Past Game: September 1, 1997
Date of Game: Monday, September 1, 1997
Location: Veterans Stadium
Opponent: New York Yankees
Final Score: Phillies 5, Yankees 1
Winning Pitcher: Curt Schilling
Losing Pitcher: Hideki Irabu
Home Run: Tony Barron
Phillies Starting Lineup
Midre Cummings, cf
Mickey Morandini, 2b
Scott Rolen, 3b
Rico Brogna, 1b
Mike Lieberthal, c
Billy McMillon, lf
Tony Barron, rf
Kevin Stocker, ss
Curt Schilling, p
Yankees Starting Lineup
Derek Jeter, ss
Wade Boggs, 3b
Bernie Williams, cf
Tino Martinez, 1b
Paul O'Neill, rf
Chad Curtis, lf
Joe Girardi, c
Rey Sanchez, 2b
Hideki Irabu, p
About This Game: Of all the polarizing issues concerning Major League Baseball, few have been as divisive over the past decade and a half as Interleague Play. It seems as though everyone loves it or hates it with no middle ground. It was an idea that had been kicked around for decades before finally becoming a reality after the 1996 season, when the decision was made to put Interleague games on the 1997 schedule. Teams in a given division in one league would compete in regular season games against their divisional counterparts in the other league (NL East vs. AL East, Central vs. Central, West vs. West). This format stayed unchanged through the 2001 season, after which the matchups generally rotated through divisions, with "regional rival" series and occasional matchups that were seemingly scheduled at random for no apparent reason. The Houston Astros will move to the AL for the 2013 season, meaning each league will have 15 teams. This odd number means that there will be at least one Interleague matchup every day of the season. It may be a hard concept to swallow for many, but it's obviously one that everyone will have to get used to.
As for the Philadelphia Phillies in 1997, well, it didn't really matter what league their opponents hailed from for much of the campaign. It was a team that found itself 32 games out of first place at the All-Star break with a record of 24-61. That mark eventually sunk to 30-72 and the only real drama to the season seemed to be if they could avoid setting the all-time record for losses in a season set by the 1962 New York Mets. From that point, however, the Phils suddenly and perhaps inexplicably heated up. Their record over the season's final two months was tied for the best in Major League Baseball with their opponents on this Labor Day afternoon at Veterans Stadium, the New York Yankees.
Despite 20 wins in their previous 30 games, the Phillies were buried in last place in the National League East with a record of 50-82, 33 games behind the first place Atlanta Braves and 15.5 behind the next-to-last Montreal Expos entering play on September 1. The previous day's 2-1 loss to the Tigers in Detroit clinched the fourth straight losing record for the Phils, and 10th in the last 11 years. The defending World Champion Yankees sat at 79-55, which was 6.5 games behind the frontrunning Baltimore Orioles in the AL East but 7.5 games ahead of the Anaheim Angels in the Wild Card standings.
Curt Schilling would take the mound for the Phillies in this Labor Day matinee. One of the ballclub's few bright spots during the dismal first half, Schilling was one of baseball's top hurlers in '97 but to that point had only a 13-10 record to show for it. He'd be opposed by Hideki Irabu, a highly-touted Japanese import who was having his share of problems living up to the hype and getting accustomed to life in the Major Leagues. Things rarely go exactly as planned in sports, but on this day it was everything Phillies fans could've hoped for and more.
Right from the start, Schilling's stuff was electric as he struck out Derek Jeter and Wade Boggs looking to open the game while getting Bernie Williams on a grounder to Kevin Stocker to set the Yankees down in order. The offense would get Schilling what turned out to be all the runs he needed in the bottom of the first, as Mickey Morandini and Scott Rolen singled with one out before advancing to second and third on an Irabu wild pitch. Rico Brogna went down swinging for the second out, but Mike Lieberthal picked him up with a base hit to score Morandini and Rolen for the early 2-0 lead. Schilling had what some folks these days call a "shutdown inning" in the second and he did it in style, striking out Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, and Chad Curtis in order. The Phils loaded the bases with two outs in their half of the second, but Rolen went down swinging to end the threat. As it turned out, that was probably the only negative aspect of this game for the Phils.
Aside from a one-out single by Rey Sanchez in the third, the Yankees weren't able to muster any kind of offense through four innings. On the other hand, the Phillies were about to break the game open. Tony Barron began the bottom of the fourth with a bang, as his leadoff home run made it 3-0 in favor of the home team. Stocker followed that up with a double, then Schilling reached on a bunt single when no Yankee picked up his sacrifice attempt. The frazzled Irabu then threw a wild pitch, allowing Stocker to score the fourth run for the Phils. An infield single by Midre Cummings sent Irabu to the showers, with Brian Boehringer taking over on the hill. Morandini's fly to center was deep enough for Schilling to move to third, and after Cummings was picked off first, Rolen singled in Schilling to make it 5-0. The time spent on the bases didn't have any negative impact on the Phillies' ace as he worked a perfect fifth inning, striking out O'Neill and Joe Girardi in that frame to bring the total up to nine on the day.
While it was mostly smooth sailing for Schilling, the Yankees did make a little noise in the sixth. Sanchez, whose single in the third represented the only New York baserunner to that point, doubled to start the inning. It didn't seem like it would matter much, as Tim Raines (batting for Boehringer) and Jeter went down swinging. The leadoff double wouldn't be stranded, though, as Boggs singled home Sanchez to get the Yankees on the board. Williams followed with a double to send Boggs to third, but Schilling escaped further damage as Martinez popped to Rolen to retire the side.
The Phillies were unable to add to their lead, but it mattered little with Schilling in complete control. He worked around a one-out double by Curtis in the seventh, upping his strikeout total to a baker's dozen after getting O'Neill looking and Sanchez swinging. Scott Pose (batting for reliever Graeme Lloyd) and Jeter went down on strikes to begin the eighth, and after singles by Boggs and Williams, Schilling put a stop to any potential two-out rally by getting Martinez swinging for his 16th and final strikeout. The only booing directed at the Phillies on this day occurred in the bottom of the eighth, when Mike Robertson was sent up to pinch-hit for Schilling. Ricky Bottalico was summoned from the bullpen to wrap things up, and he did by getting the Yankees in order to finish up the 5-1 victory. Schilling improved to 14-10 on the season en route to a 17-11 final mark with a league-leading 319 strikeouts. Irabu dropped to 4-3, he'd finish at 5-4 with an ERA of 7.09.
Incredibly, Schilling's dominant performance may not have been the most impressive by a Phillies pitcher in their three-game set with the Yankees. Mike Grace shut New York out on three hits the next night, facing the minimum of 27 batters thanks to two double plays and a caught stealing. Like Schilling, Grace did not walk a single Yankee, however his only strikeout that night came when he got Raines looking to end the game. The Phils would complete the three-game sweep by rallying from a 4-1 deficit in the series finale, with a bases-loaded walk to Barron by Mike Stanton in the ninth forcing Gregg Jefferies home with the winning run in a 5-4 triumph.
The late surge to conclude the '97 season wasn't nearly enough to prevent a second straight last place finish for the Phillies, as their 68-94 record found them 33 games behind the Division Champion Braves and 10 games in back of the fourth-place Expos. Arriving at such a mark, however, was so miraculous that Terry Francona received votes in the Manager of the Year balloting and finally seemed to provide some hope that there were better days to come. The sweep at the hands of the Phils was only a minor misstep for the Yankees, as they'd finish at 96-66, two games behind the AL East Champion Orioles but 12 games ahead of the Angels in the Wild Card race. New York's season ended in the American League Division Series, as the eventual AL Champion Cleveland Indians defeated the Yankees in five games. It was a minor blip on the radar for the Yanks, as 1997 was the only year between 1996 and 2000 in which they did not win the World Series.
Personal Recollection: I was at this game, sitting out in right field at the Vet. The word I keep coming back to when remembering this day is "electric," which is very rare when describing the atmosphere at a Phillies game in the mid to late 1990s. It really hadn't been like that since the 1993 World Series and it would be a long time before that level of excitement returned.
As you can probably imagine, there were a large number of Yankees fans among the 50,869 in attendance that day, but they were kept in check by Curt Schilling and the Phils. To be honest, I was always kind of indifferent towards the Yankees to that point. Aside from a World Series between the two 47 years earlier, there was no rivalry to speak of. Even when the Yanks were in the World Series the year before, I was rooting for them because they were playing the Braves. That was really the first time I felt any level of contempt towards them. The level of dislike never reached the level as that of other NL East teams, but I suppose that was one positive of Interleague Play for me. I won't say I hate Interleague, but I would've never had a problem with it being discontinued. I guess it is what it is. It isn't going anywhere, so it's kind of a moot point now.
You may be wondering why there were Interleague games being played so late in the season. That's just the way they were scheduled throughout the year, with one round being played in mid/late June and another being played Labor Day weekend and week. There was some backlash among teams in both leagues, who preferred to be playing within their own league with the season entering the home stretch. The following year, the Interleague schedule went to something more like it is now, though for a few years the series immediately preceding and succeeding the All-Star break were against opponents from the opposite league.
Back to Schilling, he was basically a man among boys on the mound that day. I've made my thoughts on Curt Schilling known on here before, so no need to rehash. Anyway, the most mind-boggling thing about that game to me isn't the 16 strikeouts, but the fact the Yankees managed to get seven hits against him. Probably the most dominant seven-hit performance you'll ever see. Poor Mike Robertson, getting booed when he was announced as a pinch-hitter. Of course, the boos were good-natured and not directed at Robertson himself, but still.
With 1997 being Interleague's inaugural season, this was the first time the Phillies and Yankees played meaningful games against each other since the 1950 World Series, which New York swept in four straight games. So I guess you could see this series sweep as some small measure of revenge for the Whiz Kids, which was sadly magnified less than a week later when Richie Ashburn died suddenly, hours after calling a Phillies-Mets game at Shea Stadium.
In an era lacking in fun times, the Phillies provided the home fans with a highly enjoyable afternoon of baseball at the Vet. On the way home, I wondered just when we'd see the day when those kind of moments became commonplace. It took some time, but eventually they did.
That's my story on September 1, 1997. Do you remember this game? If so, feel free to share your own recollections!