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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

EL DUQUE: MR. CLUTCH

There are moments when you see the value of a player, their true character and grit, that you never forget. It was in Game 4 of the 1998 ALCS that Orlando Hernandez – El Duque – became one of my favorite Yankees of all time. With 114 regular-season wins in their rear-view mirror, and having blown through the Texas Rangers in the ALDS, the Yankees had their hands full with the Cleveland Indians and their loaded lineup. They won the first game, but lost the second game famously when Chuck Knoblauch let the ball roll away. They landed in Cleveland, and Andy Pettitte got rocked. He didn't make it out of the fifth inning.

All of a sudden, the Yankees were behind for the first time since early April. The media was in a frenzy. They couldn't talk enough about the 1954 Cleveland Indians who won 111 games – the record the Yankees just broke – and ended up getting swept by the Giants in the World Series. El Duque had never pitched a post-season game before in the majors, and the Yankees were in danger of falling behind 3 games to 1. But when he took the mound at Jacobs field and was set for his first pitch, the camera got a shot of his face.

I saw the look in his eyes and thought this guy was ready for war. He pitched a hell of a game. The vaunted Indians lineup, which dominated the American League throughout the season, was unable to reach third base until the sixth inning when Omar Vizquel stole third. Jim Thome was at the plate at the time. He stuck him out to end the inning. It was the second time in the game he struck him out. He struck out Manny Ramirez three times. Except for Kenny Lofton and Omar Vizquel, he held the rest of the lineup hit-less through 7. By the time he left, the Yankees had a 3-0 lead, and door was slammed shut by Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera.

Another example was the 2001 ALDS Game 4 against the Oakland Athletics. This was a bad season for El Duque, missing most of it due to an injured toe. He finished 4-7 with an ERA of 4.85, and was the biggest question mark in the rotation. Down two games to one, and facing a powerful Oakland lineup at the Coliseum, he was the man standing in the way of an Oakland romp. He started inauspiciously, loading the bases in the first. But he got things under control and got Jason Giambi to pop out and end the inning. The next threat was in the third, when Oakland scored twice, but the Yankees still had a 4-2 lead and Hernandez was keeping them in the game. He did not allow any home runs, and only walked one. He didn't have his best stuff, but somehow he knew how to pitch well enough to earn the Yankees a win in a critical game.

In big games, at crunch time, El Duque consistently delivered. His post-season record is proof of that. He finished his career with a post-season record of 9-3, an ERA of 2.55, and four rings out of five trips to the World Series. He pitched with great pitchers in his day, and perhaps his accomplishments don't get the recognition they deserve. But he was a joy to watch, with the wacky high leg-kick and the occasional eephus pitch. Most of all, when it mattered, he won.


--Ike Dimitriadis, BYB Writer
Twitter: @KingAgamemnon



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