NEW YORK -- The Yankees are headed to the World Series for the second time in three years, but their starting pitching -- so dominant for much of the postseason -- suddenly looks vulnerable.
Not seriously vulnerable, mind you, but vulnerable enough to raise expectations for a competitive World Series, regardless of whether Atlanta or San Diego wins the National League title.
The Yankees didn't want to use Andy Pettitte if the ALCS went to a Game 7, and now they can't be so sure about David Cone, who nearly blew a 6-0 lead last night in what he billed as "a defining moment in my career as a Yankee."
"I feel lucky. I feel very proud to be part of a team that picked me up," Cone said after the Yankees' 9-5 triumph. "If that game had gotten away, it would have hurt. It would have on a personal level for a long time."
Cone earned the victory despite allowing five runs in five innings, including a grand slam by Jim Thome that pulled the Indians within 6-5. Asked about the "defining moment" quote afterward, Yankees manager Joe Torre winced.
How did Torre define Cone's performance?
"He won," Torre said, drawing laughter in the interview room. "I don't say that sarcastically. David Cone got it done."
That, of course, is Cone's trademark, but he didn't have it easy last night. No one ever has against the Indians in October, as the '97 Orioles can attest.
The Indians were like a fly buzzing around your head, a stray dog that wouldn't leave your back yard or -- to stay with the animal motif -- an obnoxious Yankees fan screaming in your ear.
You couldn't kill 'em.
You couldn't get rid of 'em.
All you could do was hope they go away.
The Orioles never shook the Indians in last year's ALCS. And the Yankees nearly were pushed to the limit in a series that some joked would only last three games.
The Indians weren't good enough to win the World Series last season, and they weren't good enough to get there this time, but if they sign Roberto Alomar and trade for a starting pitcher this winter, it might finally be their time.
The Indians will regret their three errors last night, including shortstop Omar Vizquel's first in 46 postseason games. They will regret going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position. And they fTC will regret right fielder Manny Ramirez's ridiculous leap for Derek Jeter's two-run triple, a play destined to live in Cleveland infamy.
Ramirez overran the opposite-field shot, climbing the wall with his back to the play. The ball struck the base of the fence, and the Yankees' lead increased from 6-5 to 8-5. The crowd spent the rest of the night chanting "1948" in honor of the Indians' last World Series title.
The Yankees, of course, have won 23 of the suckers. Last night was their 121st victory of '98, and their record total will increase to 125 if they win the Series. They're not invincible -- the Indians proved that -- but they're utterly relentless and very, very good.
David Wells and Orlando Hernandez likely will start games 1 and 2 of the World Series, with Cone pitching Game 3 and Pettitte Game 4. Then again, Torre could also bring back Cone for Game 2 on five days' rest.
Cone finished with eight strikeouts last night, including three straight after Kenny Lofton reached second leading off the game on a bunt single and error. But he needed 103 pitches to complete five innings.
Right now, the Braves rate a clear edge over the Yankees in starting pitching, and the Padres are closer than they were, say, a week ago. Cone began the night 1-0 with a 0.66 ERA in two postseason starts. But he couldn't finish the Indians.
Thome's slam was his sixth home run of the postseason and second upper-deck shot of the series. It occurred just five pitches after Cone received a mound visit from manager Joe Torre and assistant trainer Steve Donohue.
He struck out Ramirez with the bases loaded, as if to prove to Torre that he was fine. But when Thome followed with his slam on the next pitch, it led to an obvious question: How can the Yankees continue placing such trust in their gallant ace?
"I just lost a little command," Cone said. "Joe wanted to see if my arm was all right. The first four innings, I threw a lot of pitches, made some good ones. But I kind of fell apart in the fifth."
Torre said Cone had trouble getting loose in the cool weather, with so much time between innings. Still, Cone got the final two outs of the fifth, then yielded to Ramiro Mendoza with a 6-5 lead.
"It wasn't one of his stellar performances, but winning is what this game is all about," Torre said. "He gets a lot longer rope than most people because of his heart."
Cone won Game 6 to tie the NLCS for the 1988 Mets. He started Game 6 when Toronto closed out the '92 World Series. And he won Game 3 of the '96 World Series after the Yankees lost the first two games at home to Atlanta.
Still, he's nearly 36 years old.
He faltered in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series against Seattle, walking in the tying run on his 143rd pitch. And he tricked himself into thinking he could win Game 1 of last year's Division Series against Cleveland when his shoulder required surgery.
He should be fine now.
But really, who knows?
Before last night, Pettitte was 1-1 with a 5.40 ERA in the postseason, while the rest of the Yankees' rotation was 5-0 with a 1.22 ERA. Wells won two of the games against Cleveland, Hernandez and Cone one each.
Vulnerable is a relative term with this group.
But the Yankees' starters are vulnerable now -- at least more vulnerable than before.
Pub Date: 10/14/98