A nightmare ending for Yanks

The Yankees return to Arizona with the pain of losing the '01 World Series to the D-Backs still fresh in their minds.

Originally Published: June 15, 2004
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

One of the gifts -- or curses -- of interleague play is that it opens doors into a franchise's own time tunnel. The Yankees are visiting Dodger Stadium this week for the first time since 1981, a memory too distant for their new-millennium players. But three games at Bank One Ballpark summon a rush of images from the 2001 World Series, most of which still sting.

After all, the Bombers haven't won a world championship since Mariano Rivera blew a one-run lead with three outs to go in Game 7. That touched off a frenzied offseason that not only rearranged the roster but sent owner George Steinbrenner's payroll into orbit: Jason Giambi replaced Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill and Scott Brosius both retired, Chuck Knoblauch moved on, while David Wells negotiated a two-year deal with Steinbrenner in a hamburger joint in Tampa, breaking a deal with the Diamondbacks.

The Boss couldn't stand the thought of losing Boomer to Arizona owner Jerry Colangelo, not after the Diamondbacks had stunned the Yankees. Steinbrenner defeated Colangelo -- for Wells, anyway -- but other scar tissue remains. The Bombers were ousted by the Angels in the 2002 Division Series, and lost in six games to the Marlins in the 2003 World Series.

Mariano Rivera
Mariano Rivera doesn't have pleasant thoughts from the last time he pitched in Arizona.

Could the three-year roadblock be traced back to that one fateful inning in 2001, when the BOB was so loud, the decibel-level practically damaged one's ears? Rivera says, "I try not to think about that game anymore. All I can tell you is I did the best I could and I don't look back."

Actually, the Bombers were doomed the minute they set foot in Arizona for Game 6. They left New York body-surfing a tidal wave of momentum after a 3-2 win, 12-inning win in Game 5. Brosius' two-run home run off Byung-Hyun Kim tied the game in the bottom of the ninth inning, the D-Backs' second straight blown save in the Series.

All the Yankees needed was for Andy Pettitte to outpitch Randy Johnson. But that was no small request, considering the Big Unit had struck out 11 in a 4-0 win over Pettitte in Game 2.

Still, the Yankees had momentum and the blessings of those who understood New York needed a spiritual boost after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Game 6 was supposed to be the mother of all pitching matchups -- except that Pettitte evaporated almost instantly. The Diamondbacks scored a run in the first inning, three more in the second, and knocked out Pettitte in the third during an astounding eight-run rally.

The subsequent 15-2 flogging was so incomprehensible to Pettitte, he still seemed dazed the next spring, convinced he'd tipped his pitches. As the left-hander said one day in 2002, "I kept telling myself, 'something's not right here.' I mean, I had really good stuff that night, same stuff as I had in [Game 2]. But they were sitting on everything I threw."

Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre did find the telltale flaw in Pettitte's delivery -- although it was too late by the time the Yankees had reconvened in Tampa the following February. Stottlemyre said, "It was very obvious to me, I just feel bad that I didn't see it that night. I almost didn't want to tell Andy what I'd seen in the tapes, because he was already feeling pretty bad about the way the game had gone."

Indeed, Pettitte seemed to take the outcome of the 2001 Series harder than Rivera, saying, "all I know is that we should've wrapped it up in six [games] and I didn't get it done."

With Pettitte vanquished, the Yankees turned their Game 7 gaze to Roger Clemens, who engaged Curt Schilling in a near-standoff. The game was tied 1-1 going into the eighth inning, when Alfonso Soriano launched a solo homer off of Schilling that gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Schilling said he had no regrets about the splitter he served up to the Yankees' second baseman -- a pitch that was so low, "it was down around his ankles. He just went down and got it," Schilling said.

The Bombers were six outs away from winning their fifth World Series since 1996, and not surprisingly, manager Joe Torre took the shortest route possible to the promised land -- Rivera. The closer had recorded a career-best 50 saves during the regular season, and before taking the mound in Game 7, had allowed just one earned run in 14 innings during the 2002 postseason.

So it was hardly extraordinary to see the Diamondbacks go down on strikes in the eighth -- all three outs, victimized by the merciless last-second darting of Rivera's cut fastball. Nothing suggested Rivera was about to melt down in the ninth.

I made every pitch I wanted to, but they hit them. I feel bad, but I'm only human.
Mariano Rivera, after losing Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to the Diamondbacks

Then, out of nowhere, the Diamondbacks, struck. Mark Grace led off with a single, and when Damian Miller laid down a sacrifice bunt, Rivera threw it into center field. With runners on first and second and none out, Torre convened the Yankees on the mound, trying to be heard over the growing riot at the BOB.

Preparing his infielders for the bunt Jay Bell would soon put down, Torre said, "Don't do anything stupid. Let's get one out. I don't mind Mo having someone on third base."

Months later, Torre wondered if that cautionary advice kept Brosius from completing a double play on Bell's hard bunt back to the mound. Rivera fired to Brosius for one out, but the third baseman held onto the ball, even though Bell was only halfway to first base and could've possibly been doubled up.

"Did I put it in Scott's head not to try for a double play? Did I make too much out of being careful?" Torre said. "I never got a chance to ask him that, because everyone left the clubhouse pretty fast after the game. But I do think about it."

The rest was an awful blur for the Yankees. Tony Womack's double to right tied the game, and when Rivera hit Craig Counsell to load the bases, not even the game's best closer could stop rising tide. Luis Gonzalez lifted a broken bat single over Derek Jeter's head, ending the game, the Series and the reign of Rivera's invincibility.

Thirty minutes after the game, Diamondbacks fans were in a state of delirium. No one left the BOB. No one dared. The miracle still hung in the air, wafting into the visitors' clubhouse. Not surprisingly, the Yankees were like zombies, more numb than angry.

In a voice that was barely audible, Rivera said, "I made every pitch I wanted to, but they hit them. I feel bad, but I'm only human."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.