Look out, American League. The New York Yankees are regaining their swagger.
Round one of the AL's big showdown turned into a big bust Thursday night at Jacobs Field as the Bronx Bombers dumped the Cleveland Indians, 9-5, in a contest that wasn't really that close.
The win in the opener of a four-game series pulled New York within one game of the Indians for the AL's best record. Three days ago, the defending world champions were on a four-game losing streak and four games behind Cleveland.
In fact, they were wobbling to merely hold off the surging Boston Red Sox and maintain the lead in the AL East.
Then came two comeback wins at Toronto, sparked by Tuesday's remarkable 10-6 victory. New York wiped out a 6-1 deficit over the final two innings by hitting grand slams (Bernie Williams and Paul O'Neill) in consecutive frames for the first time in the franchise's storied history.
That great escape prevented the Yanks' lead from slipping to only 2 1/2 games after it had been eight just two weeks ago. It's still only four (the Red Sox were idle Thursday) but the Yankees are slowly getting the jump back in their step.
"There's no question we have our confidence back," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Winning is a habit, but so can be losing. You could see the difference in our second win in Toronto. We paced ourselves. We didn't press (rallying from a 4-1 deficit through three innings for a 6-4 win). What happened the night before had an effect."
After Thursday's 3-hour, 39-minute affair finally ended, the Yankees still had their game faces on. It was clearly a response to the beating they've been taking of late from the New York media.
Second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, one of the team's more churlish types, brushed past the media horde in the packed clubhouse and that was no surprise. But O'Neill and Tino Martinez, usually two of New York's more accessible stars, also pulled the reporters-are-invisible trick and hightailed it for the exit.
Shortstop Derek Jeter, who reached base five times and scored three runs, was one of the few around to put the Yanks' thinking into perspective.
"This was huge, opening a big series this way," Jeter said. "Our focus is still on the division because Cleveland is already in the postseason. We're not there yet, but this really helps."
The Yankees exploded for seven runs in a three-inning span to break a
2-2 tie and that was plenty for starting pitcher Hideki Irabu (11-6). He went seven strong innings, holding the Indians to five hits.
Yankee batters gave Cleveland pitchers fits by working deep counts and taking extra bases all night. Five Tribe hurlers needed an astonishing 211 pitches to get through this one and Cleveland starter Dave Burba (14-8) threw 128 just to survive six innings.
The Yankees had 12 hits, drew seven walks and had 24 baserunners. They are 5-2 this year against the Indians.
New York's breakout hit came in the sixth, when Torre went to his bench and was rewarded by veteran Chili Davis.
Davis, in a 4-for-23 rut, ripped a 3-1 pitch from Burba high off the wall in left-center for a two-run pinch double to make it 5-2. Another run in the seventh and three more in the eighth allowed New York to breathe easy.
While the Yankees were going full throttle most of the night, the Indians seemed strangely on cruise control.
They equaled their season high by making four errors, two on one play in the first when Jeter's grounder scooted through Travis Fryman's legs and left fielder David Justice stumbled trying to corral it.
To make matters worse, Justice's throw back to the infield nailed second baseman Roberto Alomar on the bare (right) hand, causing a bruise that knocked the Tribe's MVP candidate from the game before he even had an at-bat. Alomar is listed as day-to-day.
O'Neill made Burba pay for that error with a screaming two-run homer to right to make it 2-0. Cleveland's most grievous error came in the eighth, when center fielder Kenny Lofton muffed Jeter's routine single and Knoblauch came home all the way from first.
"Four errors in a game bothers me," Tribe manager Mike Hargrove said. "Two errors would bother me. You make four and you shouldn't win."
The series continues tonight (7, MSG) with big question marks from each team's rotation taking the mound. New York's Roger Clemens (12-9, 4.65) has lost three straight starts for the first time since 1993 and will try to snap that string against Cleveland's Jaret Wright (7-8, 5.99).