This is the third installment in a series about some of the Detroit Tigers’ memorable moments and games from Comerica Park’s inaugural season of 2000, which included a weekend in which the Tigers were the David to baseball’s Goliath, the New York Yankees.
Comerica Park’s earliest visitors had provided the Tigers with some formidable competition. Of the first five teams they hosted – the Mariners, Devil Rays, Red Sox, White Sox, and Royals – only the Devil Rays had a losing record by the time mid-May rolled around.
The Tigers were about to face their stiffest challenge at home, though. The Yankees had arrived at Comerica for the first time. On paper, the series looked like a mismatch. The 22-10 Yankees (the two-time defending World Champions) had the best record in the American League. The 9-23 Tigers had the worst record in the majors.
In the Friday night series opener, Tigers lefty C.J. Nitkowski got off to a good start, retiring the first seven batters he faced. A single in the third inning proved to be harmless. The Tigers put four runners on against Yankees ace Roger Clemens in the first two innings, but a runner caught stealing in the first and a double play in the second helped keep “The Rocket” out of trouble. Nitkowski knew what he was up against. He acknowledged,
“It’s always a challenge when you face someone like Clemens, because you know you’re not likely to have many runs to play with by the time the night’s over. It shouldn’t make a difference in how you approach the game, but it does. He’s so good, and they have such a great lineup that every pitch is a potential disaster.”
Luis Polonia and Rich Becker each singled off Clemens with one out in the third. Juan Encarnacion’s grounder forced Becker at second, but Polonia moved on to third. That brought up Juan Gonzalez. The Tigers’ high-profile superstar had not been living up to expectations. He came into the game hitting .214/.270/.398 with only four homers, eight RBI, and 20 strikeouts in 26 games. “Juan Gone” was also an unbelievable 1-for-21 with runners in scoring position. That had turned him into a target of Comerica Park boobirds, but Gonzalez made the crowd of over 33,000 happy when he shot the first pitch he saw into left for an RBI double. The Tigers led 1-0.
Detroit struck again in the fourth. Dean Palmer lined a single to left. Robert Fick walked. Jose Macias’ bunt single, which froze Clemens, loaded the bases. Deivi Cruz singled Palmer in. The bases remained loaded for Polonia. He flew out to right, but not deep enough to drive in a run. Macias, Cruz, and Polonia were all first-pitch swinging. Becker was a little more patient and drew a walk to force Fick home. On a two-strike pitch, Encarnacion’s single to left knocked in Macias and Cruz. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said it was a slider that stayed up in the middle of the plate. Clemens finally got out of the inning by retiring Gonzalez and Tony Clark, but the Tigers’ outburst gave them a 5-0 lead.
After his long wait to get back on the mound, Nitkowski struggled in the top of the fifth. A single-double-single combo to begin the inning drove in two runs for the Yankees. Nitkowski got out of the inning without any further trouble, though.
Perhaps surprisingly, Clemens returned for the bottom of the fifth. Palmer greeted “The Rocket” with a rocket of his own. His leadoff homer gave the Tigers a 6-2 lead. It was his sixth round-tripper of the season. The Tigers threatened to add more after a Cruz triple and a walk to Polonia that knocked Clemens out of the game, but reliever Todd Erdos struck out Becker to end the inning. Detroit did add two more runs against the New York bullpen in the seventh.
“The Rocket” never really got off the launching pad that night. In 4.1 innings, Clemens gave up six runs on 10 hits and five walks. With a game score of 18, it was the third-worst of the 48 starts he made against the Tigers in his 24-year career. (An August 14, 1988 start with a game score of 10 – he was pulled in the second inning – was his rock bottom point against the Detroiters). Clemens attributed his performance to the trouble he had with his release point and added,
“I knew it warming up. I feel like I wasted a start. My arm felt lethargic and heavy, and the ball was moving all over the place. I told Jorge to bear with me.”
Trailing 8-2, the Yankees began a comeback attempt in the eighth. With one out, Willie Blair, the Tigers’ second pitcher of the day, walked Paul O’Neill on four pitches. Bernie Williams ripped the first pitch he saw into center for a line drive single. Manager Phil Garner brought in lefty Jim Poole to turn the switch-hitting Posada around and then face left-hand hitter Tino Martinez. The pitching change didn’t work, as Posada laced an RBI single and Martinez followed with a two-run double. The Tigers lead was now 8-5. Doug Brocail came in and put a stop to the Yankees’ rally.
The Tigers tacked on a run in the eighth on an RBI single from Cruz. That was the fourth hit of the day for the Detroit shortstop and ninth-place hitter.
With a four-run lead, Garner elected to stick with Brocail for the ninth. A Chuck Knoblauch single and a two-run homer by O’Neill changed the skipper’s mind. The Tigers lead had been trimmed to 9-7. Closer Todd Jones was called on to get the last out. Instead, Williams greeted him with a triple. Posada, representing the tying run, lofted a fly ball to deep left. It was deep enough to be a game-tying home run in most ballparks, including the one at Michigan and Trumbull that the Tigers had left behind. In brand new Comerica Park, however, left fielder Becker (who was making his Tigers debut) was able to make a game-ending catch.
Detroit’s 9-7 win snapped a four-game losing streak. The Tigers finally became the last team in the majors to reach 10 wins for the season.
Earlier in the evening, there had been a tornado warning in the area that coincided with the middle innings. The only storm that happened during the game, though, was the Tigers’ fourth-inning rally. Moments after the game ended, a thunderstorm began, which couldn’t have been very much fun for fans exiting the ballpark. Inside the manager’s office, where it was nice and dry, Garner was in a jovial mood. He joked,
“See how our fortunes have changed already? Yesterday, it would’ve poured on us in that inning right before we scored all the runs.”
For Nitkowski, who picked up his second victory of the season, the game was bittersweet. Earlier that day in Monroe, New York, his friend Danny Moriarty was being laid to rest. Moriarty had died a few days earlier. Knowing that the game was being televised in New York and that their friends would be watching, Nitkowski had written Danny’s initials on his cap in tribute. He said,
“I wanted to have a good game for him. I was thinking about him. He had tried to get in touch with me the night before (he died), and I didn’t get a chance to call him back…He was just one of those guys who didn’t care how I did. He drove 15 hours to see me when I made my first start when I first got called up.”
The Tigers and Yankees reconvened on a Saturday afternoon that included strong and steady southwest winds blowing in from right field throughout the day. Gregg Jefferies, who had spent a number of years in the National League before arriving in Detroit, said that it made Comerica Park feel like Candlestick Park, the notoriously gusty long-time home of the San Francisco Giants.
After Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada led off the second inning with back-to-back singles off Tigers starter Jeff Weaver, Scott Brosius got the scoring started with an RBI single that drove in Martinez.
Dean Palmer led off the bottom of the second with a line-drive double to right. Yankees starter Andy Pettitte rebounded by striking out Rich Becker, but followed that with a walk to Jefferies. Rookie Jose Macias smacked his first big league triple, a liner down the right-field line and into the corner. That put the Tigers up 2-0. The next batter, Shane Halter, hit the ball hard back to Pettitte, who knocked it down. He threw wildly past first baseman Martinez, and Macias scored easily. Luis Polonia singled Halter to third, and Brad Ausmus doubled him home. Pettitte avoided further damage by getting the Tigers’ two Juans, Encarnacion, and Gonzalez, out on easy grounders.
Bolstered by the 4-1 lead, Weaver shut the Yankees down with three straight 1-2-3 innings. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ lineup got more work done against Pettitte. With two outs in the fourth, the two Juans struck back. Encarnacion singled, and Gonzalez walked. That’s when the wind, which was an ongoing challenge for players to deal with, made its first real impact on the game. Palmer hit a fly ball that looked like a routine play for right fielder Paul O’Neill until it wasn’t. A gust of wind had its way with the ball. O’Neill groused,
“I had absolutely no chance. I wouldn’t have caught that ball even if you told me where it was going to drop. It’s like it took off sideways.”
The helpless O’Neill scampered after the wayward ball, which landed an estimated 100 feet away, closer to second baseman Chuck Knoblauch than where O’Neill had been positioned at the beginning of the play. That kept Palmer from taking second, but the hit did score Encarnacion, making it a 5-1 game. From the visitors’ dugout, Yankees coach Lee Mazzilli watched the folly unfold. He quipped,
“It was like a duck that was shot and went right down.”
The Tigers scored another run in the fifth on Polonia’s sacrifice fly, which knocked Pettitte out of the game. Just like Roger Clemens the day before, Pettitte lasted only 4.2 innings and gave up six runs on 10 hits. The only difference was that one of the runs Pettitte gave up was unearned.
The Yankees got an assist from the wind in the sixth with O’Neill on first base and one out. Becker, the Tigers left fielder, was charged with an error when he misplayed a Bernie Williams high line drive. As Buster Olney, then with the New York Times, described it,
“Becker moved in for a moment, started backpedaling faster and faster, like someone playing in a company softball tournament, and the ball fell about five feet behind him.”
O’Neill took third and Williams took second on the miscue. That led to a run-scoring single off the bat of Martinez. Weaver got out of the inning on a double play when Williams was caught stealing home as Posada struck out.
New York cut the Detroit lead to 6-3 in the seventh on an RBI single from Knoblauch. Weaver then walked Ricky Ledee. With two on and two outs, Tigers manager Phil Garner called on Matt Anderson, who got O’Neill to ground out to first baseman Jefferies. It was a decent outing for Weaver, who gave up three runs (only one earned) and struck out five in his 6.2 innings of work. Evaluating his own performance, the second-year righty remarked,
“Every pitch is definitely a key pitch against those guys, and things seemed to work out today.”
Doug Brocail and Todd Jones pitched clean innings in the eighth and ninth to nail down the Tigers’ 6-3 victory. For Weaver, it was his first win of the season.
The second out in the top of the ninth turned out to be pretty adventurous, thanks to the wind. Brosius had worked the count full against Jones and kept battling. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, he popped the ball up in foul territory to the right side of the plate near the on-deck circle. Jefferies said that he thought it was his catch to make. Thomas Hill of the New York Daily News guessed that the ball was headed for the 10th row in the stands. Then the wind caught it and sent it way over to the left side of the plate. Ausmus had been tracking the crazy flight of the ball, and the Tiger catcher said,
“Normally, you have some idea of the general direction of the ball. I knew it went up over my right shoulder, but then I just started sprinting to where I thought it might end up.”
Tom Gage of the Detroit News wrote that the ball “behaved more like a bottle rocket”. In order to make the play, Ausmus said that he had to make an “emergency stretch” and then “twist and jump”. He made the catch but said that it knocked the wind out of him. That may have been the only time all day that any kind of wind had disappeared.
If spirits were high in Detroit this Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t just because it was Mother’s Day. The Tigers had already clinched the series win against the Yankees. Of course, the possibility of getting a sweep was still on the table. As manager Phil Garner exuded,
“To heck with the series. I want to win three in a row. We haven’t done that yet, have we?”
They hadn’t. In fact, prior to this series, the 2000 Tigers had only pulled off back-to-back wins twice (and just once at Comerica Park).
Both teams squandered scoring opportunities early as starters Dave Mlicki of the Tigers and David Cone of the Yankees each worked his way out of tough spots. New York stranded runners on the corners in the first inning. Detroit left a man on second in the bottom half. The Yankees’ Jorge Posada was thrown out at the plate by third baseman Dean Palmer on a fielder’s choice play in the second. Then the Tigers were unable to capitalize with runners on second and third.
Mlicki was the first of the two pitchers to find a groove. Beginning in the third, he threw four consecutive 1-2-3 innings, averaging just under 12 pitches per inning. Ricky Ledee (in the third) and Posada (in the fourth) were the only two hitters to put up much of a fight in that span. Both Yankees worked seven-pitch at-bats against Mlicki, but he ended up striking both of them out. When Shane Spencer singled with two outs in the seventh, that snapped a string of 17 straight outs. Spencer had two of the four hits (all singles) that Mlicki scattered.
His weapons of choice, the curveball, and change-up, were both sharp. A New York Daily News headline referred to him as “Tricky Mlicki”. Realizing that the Yankees might have been pressing in order to avoid the sweep, he had them where he wanted them. The Tiger righty noted,
“They tend to be a patient team, and they did swing at some first pitches. When (Tino) Martinez got ahead 3-and-0 (to lead off the fourth), I threw him a sinker, and he rolled over on it.”
The pitch Mlicki was referring to resulted in a harmless 3-1 groundout. As he cruised along, his teammates were able to do just enough against Cone to eke out a modest lead. A double from Brad Ausmus and a single from Juan Gonzalez got the Tigers on the board in the third. A leadoff double from Deivi Cruz and a single from Juan Encarnacion added a second run in the fifth.
Spencer’s seventh-inning single set up the Yankees’ best scoring opportunity since the second inning. Scott Brosius followed Spencer with a hard-hit ball down the third baseline. Off the crack of the bat, it looked like a possible RBI double into the left-field corner, but Palmer was in the perfect position to make the play of the game. He backhanded Brosius’ shot and threw him out to end the inning and keep the Yankees off the board. Buster Olney of the New York Times reported,
“When a frustrated Brosius returned to his position, he glanced into the Tigers’ dugout until making eye contact with Palmer and lifted a finger to the bill of his cap (to say) ‘nice play’.”
Mlicki threw another 1-2-3 inning in the eighth. At that point, he was so locked in that it barely phased him when he was interrupted by what might have been the weirdest moment in Comerica Park’s young history. With the first hitter of the inning, Lance Johnson, at the plate, alarms started sounding and lights started flashing throughout the ballpark’s concourse. An automated public address announcement advised everyone to head for the nearest exit. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. It turned out to be a false alarm. Although Mlicki did fall behind 3-0 in the count to Johnson when play resumed, he was able to induce the first of three straight groundouts.
That gave him a shot at his first complete game of the year. In his six previous starts, Mlicki had only averaged six innings. Paul O’Neill led off the bottom of the ninth with the Tigers up 2-0. In the Friday night series opener, he’d hit a two-run homer in the ninth but took a different approach this time. With the Tigers’ infield playing back, he tried to lay down a bunt. After fouling off the pitch and ruining the element of surprise, O’Neill decided to swing away and ended up flying out to Gonzalez in right.
Mlicki got Bernie Williams to ground out to second baseman Jose Macias for the second out. The Comerica Park crowd of over 31,000 began chanting “Sweep! Sweep! Sweep!”. One out away from going the distance, though, he gave up back-to-back walks to Martinez and Posada. He had two strikes on Martinez before losing him but threw four straight balls to Posada. Mlicki admitted that he had started aiming for the ball. Garner made the call to the bullpen, and Todd Jones came in to finish off the Yankees.
Of course, in true “Roller Coaster” fashion, it wasn’t that easy. Spencer greeted Jones with a single, his third hit of the day, which drove in Martinez to spoil the shutout. Jones then retired Brosius to end the game. The Tigers won 2-1. Mlicki, who pitched one of the best games of his Tigers tenure, got his first win of the season. Jones, with a nine-pitch outing, got his 10th save of the year.
The Tigers had wrapped up their first series sweep at Comerica Park, which seemed to surprise everyone. Ausmus remarked,
“You’d be a moron to try to predict this. I’m sure oddsmakers in Las Vegas didn’t predict this.”
Garner, who liked the confidence that he’d seen in the Tigers when the weekend began and the overall approach that his hitters showed at the plate against three big-time Yankees pitchers, had gotten what he’d wished for coming into the series finale. He gushed,
“This is the first opportunity we’ve had to gloat over a three-game winning streak, and we’re going to take it.”
The win temporarily knocked New York out of first place, and the sweep established Comerica Park as a place where the Yankees would sometimes struggle to be comfortable over the ensuing years. The Tigers took two out of three when the Yanks returned later that season. Overall (through the end of 2019), Detroit has a home record of 42-40 against their visitors from the Bronx, and that includes five sweet postseason victories in 2006, 2011, and 2012.