(Posada applies the tag. Photo courtesy of the New York Daily News)
The 2001 New York Yankees, the winners of four World Series titles in five years, came dangerously close to getting knocked out in the first round. The Oakland Athletics, their first opponent in the postseason, were an extremely talented team; their lineup was stacked with All-Stars such as Johnny Damon, future MVP Miguel Tejada, reigning MVP Jason Giambi, Jermaine Dye, and Eric Chavez, and their pitching rotation included Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito -- the best trio of pitchers in baseball.
The A's and Yankees met in the '01 American League Division Series. Oakland won the first two games at Yankee Stadium, thanks to brilliant performances from Mulder and Hudson, who pitched a combined 14.2 innings while giving up just one earned run.
In Game 3, it was the Yankees' turn to produce a stellar pitching performance. Mike Mussina, New York's major offseason acquisition, was taking a shutout into the 7th inning. The Yanks were leading 1-0 with a Jorge Posada home run standing as the difference. New York had absolutely no margin for error; no team had ever come back from an 0-2 deficit after losing the first two games at home.
In the bottom of the 7th, a series of critical errors nearly did in the Yankees' season. Mussina gave up a two-out single to Jeremy Giambi, the A's designated hitter and the brother of Jason Giambi. Jeremy, representing the potential tying run, was easily the slowest player on the team; through 336 career games, he had never stolen a single base. With two outs in the inning, Oakland manager Art Howe left Jeremy in to run, and later stated that he planned on substituting a faster runner if Giambi reached scoring position.
The next batter was left fielder Terence Long. As Giambi wandered off first base, Long hammered a line drive down the right field line. The baseball caromed into the right field corner, where outfielder Shane Spencer came up with it. Giambi was chugging his way to third base and was being waved home by Ron Washington, the A's third base coach.
Spencer, who had been inserted into the lineup to shake things up, did not make Joe Torre's decision look smart. He overthrew both cut-off men, sailing the ball over the heads of Alfonso Soriano and Tino Martinez as Giambi made his way home.
With Giambi halfway to home plate, the ball bounced midway done the first base line. With the pitcher backing up the catcher, and the catcher blocking home plate, it appeared that Giambi would cross the diamond well before the throw reached Posada.
However, Derek Jeter, the Yankees superstar shortstop, was on the scene. Making what most consider the greatest play of his career, Jeter abandoned his position and bolted towards the first base line. He intercepted the ball on a hop, barehanded it, and made a backhand flip to home plate. Giambi, who was not expecting the ball to reach him, did not slide. Posada caught the ball and quickly pivoted to tag out Giambi, microseconds before he crossed the plate. Giambi was out and the threat was over, much to the shock of the fans at Network Associates Coliseum.
The Yankees held on to win, 1-0, and lived to see another day. Jeter's play had prevented a run from scoring and potentially an Athletics victory.
"Thank god Jeter was there," Spencer later told reporters. He was unaware that Jeter had retrieved the ball and was cursing himself as Jeter made the throw home.
"He seems to always be in the right spot at the right time," relented Art Howe. "I wish he wasn't there but he was. ... I didn't have a clue why he was involved in that, but it worked out well for them."
While Howe was forced to defend leaving Giambi in to run, Giambi had to explain why he didn't slide on the play.
"I didn't know he missed the cutoff man," Jeremy said. "I was picking up Washington. I was coming in and was getting ready to make some contact with Posada. He hadn't got the ball yet so I figured I had a better chance to try to run through the bag and beat him to the bag. That's probably why I made the mistake. I was picking up Posada to see if he had the ball. I didn't know they had missed the cutoff man. I thought the ball came from the cutoff man until I saw the replay. I did my best. I was trying to score and that was the decision I made."
A's catcher Ramon Hernandez, who was in the on-deck circle, said he signaled for Giambi to slide. "I don't know if he saw me or not. I waved and yelled," Hernandez said. "I was trying to yell, but it was too loud, so I just put my hand out and told him to go down."
There was also the question if Posada really did tag him out. Giambi's foot appeared to cross the plate at the same time Posada swiped him with the baseball. "I knew he tagged me on the leg that tagged the plate," Jeremy said. "I don't know at what point he hit me. It was a tough play. He swiped. It was the same leg. I don't know if I was up in the air or not."
(Posada reaches for Giambi as he races home. Photo by Eric Risberg, AP)
The Yankees won the next two games to win the series, 3-2. In Game 5, a pair of Athletics errors allowed what would be the decisive runs. The Yankees then beat the Seattle Mariners, who won a record 116 games, in the next round and advanced to the World Series.
The Bronx Bombers failed to recapture the championship and lost an epic seven-game series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Yankees retooled and acquired several monster players, including Alex Rodriguez, Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi.
For the Athletics, it was business as usual. From 2000 to 2003, the immensely-talented A's lost in five games in the opening round. The A's led all four series at least once and twice led the series 2-0. After the 2003 season, Oakland went on a fire sale, as directed by general manager Billy Bean, who couldn't afford to keep his superstar players. The A's continued to stay respectable, but they were never deeper than they were in 2001 and 2002.