Yankees answer skeptics with title N.Y. halts late slide to win AL East for first time since '81; Stretch drive


Start spreading the news. The New York Yankees finally did it. They clinched the franchise's first division title since 1981 last night and they did it with a resounding 19-2 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers in the first game of a rain-makeup doubleheader at Yankee Stadium.

They held off a late rush by the Orioles. Survived the wrath of Steinbrenner. Overcame a string of potentially devastating pitching injuries. And celebrated wildly as the fans in the upper deck showered them with confetti -- the party finally interrupted by the start of the meaningless second game, also won by the Yankees.

The Yankees came into the doubleheader needing only one victory to clinch a tie for first place, which was enough to BTC guarantee them the American League East title because they had won the season series against the second-place Orioles.

Manager Joe Torre had been waiting to exhale since the resurgent Orioles began the long march that brought them from 12 games out of first place on July 28 to as close as 2 1/2 games of the lead before the Yankees turned them back in the crucial head-to-head series last week in the Bronx.

How unlikely this must have seemed just a few months ago, when the Orioles got off to an 11-2 start in April and the Yankees lost pitching ace David Cone in May. But the Yankees' superior pitching depth carried them to the top of the standings and they held their ground through a tumultuous second half.

Who would have believed when the season started that young Andy Pettitte would fill the void left by the loss of a Cy Young Award winner with a 21-win season that likely will make him a Cy Young Award winner in November? Who would have imagined that Dwight Gooden would step up and -- at least for a couple of critical months -- remind everyone of the dominating young pitcher who led the team across town to a world championship in 1986?

Who could have hoped that Cone, who underwent surgery to repair an aneurysm in his pitching arm, would come back to give the Yankees a tremendous emotional lift with a series of strong September performances, including one last night.

Somehow, the Yankees even overcame divisive owner George Steinbrenner, who couldn't help but create controversy with a series of predictable outbursts that only put extra pressure on the club during its August slump.

Credit Torre with a masterful job of maintaining calm in that time of crisis. His appointment last winter raised some eyebrows, but he proved over the long, hard summer that he was the perfect man for the job.

The Yankees didn't keep the crowd in suspense last night. They scored four runs in the first inning and 10 in the second to build a 14-1 lead with the most productive first two innings in the 94-year history of the franchise. It took awhile for the stadium to fill up because of the late afternoon start, but the joint was jumping by the ninth inning, and the fans -- who were chanting "we want Texas, we want Texas" throughout the game -- stood for the final three outs.

The players were entitled to some self-congratulation, but Torre remained characteristically low-key. "Getting to the postseason is nice," he said, "but it's just not finished."

Yankees fans may have been shouting for the Texas Rangers -- who will open the divisional series in New York on Tuesday -- but the Yankees will have to play better against the soon-to-be crowned AL West champions than they did during the regular season if they hope to reach the AL Championship Series. They won two of three games in each of their home series against the Rangers, but were 1-5 at the Ballpark in Arlington, and the Rangers have three possible home games in the best-of-five series.

Pub Date: 9/26/96

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