Beyond everything else that was wrong with the Yankees over 15 games from hell, from their wayward hacks to their joyless disposition, they came across as mentally soft. Fragile. Lacking the stomach for the fight.
They seemed to be everything their dynastic forebears were not, at least until Tuesday night, when the Yankees did to the Braves what the Yankees of the Nineties always did to them. They pressed them across a tight and tense game, toughened their at-bats as the game wore on, unleashed a lights-out bullpen and waited for the Braves to make the fatal mistake.
Nate Jones’ wild pitch with the score tied and the bases loaded in the eighth wasn’t exactly Mark Wohlers’ hanging slider to Jim Leyritz in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series, but hey, after what these Yanks have endured in April, it felt close enough. It’s quite possible that no modern-day New York baseball team has ever needed a victory on April 20 as much as the home team needed this one in The Bronx.
This 3-1 result that ended a five-game losing streak wasn’t a triumph defined by a dramatic upgrade in physical play as much as it was by the grit and spirit required to win at the highest level. The benched Aaron Hicks didn’t crumble under the weight of his demotion; he helped his team win instead. He reemerged in the eighth to work a four-pitch leadoff walk against Tyler Matzek and, after moving to third on singles from DJ LeMahieu and Aaron Judge, scored on Jones’s 87-mph slider in the dirt.
Aaron Boone would later talk about the satisfaction he felt in winning the hard way, in doing the little things it takes to survive a strong start from a distinguished big-game pitcher the likes of Charlie Morton.
“Even though we didn’t break it open,” the manager said, “there were a lot of good things that happened.”
Good things that he swore did not surprise him. Boone maintained his team’s resolve hadn’t been shaken during a period his boss, Brian Cashman, called “15 games I’d like to forget.”
His players, Boone said, “know they’re going to be a beast. They’re going to be a problem, and we’re going to get there.” File that under much easier said than done.
Things were going so terribly for Boone, someone should have brought his old friend, Brennan Miller, in for a pregame ceremony, so the umpire could have shouted in the manager’s face, “Tighten it up right now, OK? Tighten this s–t up.”
In fact, the only Yankee who had a right to feel good walking into the building Tuesday night was David Cone, working the game as a YES Network analyst. He helped finish off the Braves as Toronto’s Game 6 starter in the 1992 World Series. He helped diminish the Braves as the Yankees’ Game 3 starter in the 1996 World Series. And he helped sweep the Braves as the Yanks’ Game 2 starter in the 1999 World Series.
In all, Cone allowed only five earned runs in four starts and 23 ¹/₃ innings of World Series work against Atlanta, with his teams winning all four games. But there’s one act that rises above all others in the Cone-Braves passion play — his decision to challenge his fellow Yankees after they lost the first two games of the 1996 World Series at home by a combined score of 16-1. “We’re getting embarrassed here, and they’re putting it right in our faces,” he barked at them. “This has to change.”
Cone changed it by winning Game 3 with a sixth-inning escape that would’ve put young David Blaine to shame. The Yankees would win five titles after Cone’s start in Atlanta, or five more than the Braves would win since that night. He ran a clinic on how to grab a team in crisis by the throat, accepting the immense pressure that came with it.
“I didn’t mind it,” Cone said. “I wanted to be that guy.”
A quarter century later, with the setting and the stakes entirely different, Cone named a number of prominent Yanks he believes can be that guy, including Gerrit Cole, Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner and Aaron Judge.
“I think they’re covered, I really do,” he said. “They’ve got high-profile, experienced people with strong opinions and a strong commitment. That’s the last thing I’d be worried about in that clubhouse.”
And then the 2021 Yankees went out and beat the Braves the way Cone’s Yankees beat them. When told after the game that the current team finally showed the mental toughness that his teams always showed against Atlanta, Cone texted, “Yes. Take the win and run.”
Don’t look back, either. The mentally tough never do.