CLEVELAND -- The New York Yankees entered the postseason hoping to confirm that they truly are one of the greatest teams in baseball history, but they suddenly look very ordinary.
The Cleveland Indians came into the postseason looking very ordinary, but they pounded Yankees starter Andy Pettitte like he had never been pounded before on the way to a 6-1 victory in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series last night at Jacobs Field.
Pettitte gave up four home runs -- the most he has ever surrendered in a major-league game -- and the Yankees gave up some more ground in their supposedly unstoppable march toward the World Series.
Indians first baseman Jim Thome homered twice. Outfielders Manny Ramirez and Mark Whiten hit one apiece. And 23-year-old right-hander Bartolo Colon pitched a four-hitter to push Cleveland up, two games to one, in the best-of-seven playoff.
"I think this team believes in itself," said Thome. "We knew coming into this series that the Yankees have been the team to beat all year. Going in and playing against the Yankees, you have to take your game to another level."
Colon certainly did that, bouncing back from a rocky first inning to dominate the struggling Yankees batting order. He gave up only two hits after the first inning and pitched impressively for the second time in his first postseason.
The Indi- ans can throw the entire city of New York into a panic with a victory in Game 4 tonight, their hopes riding on the shoulder of former Yankees and Mets ace Dwight Gooden.
The Yankees will counter with Cuban defector Orlando Hernandez, who hasn't pitched in two weeks and has never pitched under postseason pressure. In short, their dream season is in real danger of turning into a postseason nightmare, but manager Joe Torre insists there is no sense of panic in his clubhouse.
"These guys are pretty professional," he said. "They'll be back tomorrow. We've won three out of four games before this year."
Maybe so, but the Yankees haven't had to contend with this kind of adversity. They lost their first three games of the regular season, but recovered quickly and cruised to the best 162-game record in baseball history.
The 114-win performance displayed their unparalleled depth and balance, but carried with it added pressure going into the postseason. The best record in American League history was one thing, but only a world title would establish the Yankees as one of the greatest clubs of all time.
They looked invincible in the Division Series against the Texas Rangers and dispatched the Indians with ease in the first game of the ALCS. But the momentum shift was palpable when the Indians scored a 12-inning victory Wednesday night with the help of a controversial no-call by the umpiring crew.
Suddenly, they no longer seemed so charmed. Suddenly, the lack of offensive production that had been masked by the club's strong pitching performances in Texas and in the first two games of the ALCS seemed very significant.
Suddenly, there was concern that the Yankees might not even know how to handle adversity because they had experienced so little of it, though Torre tried to dispell that notion before last night's game.
"Sure, we've gone through some stress," Torre said. "I mean, you play 162 games, you're going to go through some dry periods of not swinging the bats real well and we've done that. But normally, we find a way to get the job done because we don't really rely on any one person and we don't really rely on any one way to score because we like to run and we like to do a lot of things."
Torre held a brief meeting before last night's game to make sure there was no negative carryover from the controversial bunt play that led to the winning run on Wednesday night.
"I just wanted to make sure we go out there and think about tonight instead of trying to make up for something that happened the other day," he said.
The Yankees have been inconsistent at the plate throughout the postseason, but they got off to a good start. Leadoff man Chuck Knoblauch, the goat of Game 2, opened up with a sharp single to left and came home to score on a two-out single by Bernie Williams. But that run would look very small when the Indians started peppering the bleachers with home runs.
Thome launched his first of the game to lead off the bottom of the second, and the Indians would go on to take the lead in that inning on a double by Whiten and a seeing-eye single by Enrique Wilson.
The Indians started blasting away in earnest in the fifth, when Manny Ramirez lined an opposite-field homer into the right field bullpen. It was Ramirez's second home run of the postseason and the 13th of his career. He is only 26 years old and he already ranks fourth all-time in that department, just five behind Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.
Pettitte never regained his composure. He walked Travis Fryman and gave up a towering fly ball to Thome that seemed like it might never come down. It finally did, barely clearing the yellow home run line at the top of the right field wall.
Pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre visited the mound at that point, but that short meeting didn't have the desired effect, either. Pettitte served up his third home run of the inning to Whiten and left to the delight of the sellout crowd.
"It's a mystery," Torre said. "You have to understand that when you go into postseason play, every pitch is important. Andy probably felt he had to pitch even better because we haven't been scoring a lot of runs."
Game 3: Atlanta at San Diego, 4: 15 p.m., chs. 45, 5
Game 4: N.Y. Yankees at Cleveland, 7: 30 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 10/10/98