CLEVELAND -- Orlando Hernandez knows about pressure. H faced it less than 10 months ago when he and seven others defected from Cuba and were eventually picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard on a tiny Caribbean island.
Confronting a different kind of peril last night, Hernandez rescued the New York Yankees with the calm of a man who has been places far more dangerous than Jacobs Field.
The series will now end in New York. The hex that tormented the Yankees for two games is broken. Hernandez made it happen.
"I had pressure prior to the game. It was a big game. I knew we had a must-win situation," Hernandez said. "I've had pressure, but I had no fear. I've been through many difficult times in my life on the field and off the field. I knew I would handle it."
"With all he's gone through, a playoff game is a playoff game," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "I guess it was a walk in the park for him."
A star on the formerly unbeatable Cuban national team, "El Duque" endured the indignity of being stripped of status and assigned work as a therapist at a Cuban mental hospital.
His life is now the stuff of a made-for-television movie -- a fact that prevents him from telling the story of his escape -- and his latest performance a season-saver.
Desperate for a win, staff ace David Wells approached Torre beforehand about pitching on short rest. Torre wasn't interested. His faith was rewarded.
Hernandez allowed three hits through seven innings, striking out six and retiring 14 of 15 in one stretch. He became the sixth rookie starter to win an ALCS game and only the second since 1991. The Indians were 0-for-6 with three strikeouts with runners in scoring position against him.
"Obviously, it's been a neat story since he's been here," said right fielder Paul O'Neill, who began the scoring with a first-inning home run. "He's had a lot of obstacles just to pitch in the major leagues. This was the biggest game we played all year. We're playing for our lives tonight. He comes out and pitches out of trouble a couple times. Nothing affects him."
Now, the Yankees look forward to sending Wells and David Cone against the Indians' Chad Ogea and Charles Nagy the next two games. Wells, the Game 1 winner, and Cone combined for a 38-11 record. Ogea was excluded from the Indians' Division Series roster and Nagy has won only two of 11 career postseason starts.
"In a short series, it goes back and forth like a tennis match. You win a game and you have momentum on your side," said Torre. "With Wells and Cone going and us going back to New York, I think we have the edge."
Contained to a .218 average this series, the Yankees grabbed a first-inning lead when O'Neill reached Indians starter Doc Gooden for a two-out home run.
The Yankees haven't received back-to-back hits since the seventh inning of Game 1, a span of 31 innings. Yet they produced last night through O'Neill's power, Gooden's lapses of control and their tactical speed.
"Offensively, we're coming around. We just can't seem to get the big inning. We've won a lot of games this way this year -- great pitching, great defense and a couple times where we scored some runs," said O'Neill.
First baseman Tino Martinez provided a fourth-inning sacrifice fly and started a ninth-inning rally with a leadoff double. The RBI was Martinez's first in 15 ALCS games and his hit broke an 0-for-19 slide in ALCS play.
Whatever Hernandez received was going to be enough. He has won eight of his last nine decisions; the Yankees are 16-5 when he starts.
"He's a pressure pitcher. He's shown that ever since he's been here. He came up supposedly for one start when somebody got hurt and he never went back down," O'Neill said.
With a chance to push the Yankees and their 114-win season to the brink of elimination, the Indians instead gave a limp offensive effort in which they committed as many errors (three) as they had hits through seven innings.
Catcher Sandy Alomar left with lower back pain. Gooden did his utmost to stop time. Hernandez held the last seven hitters in the Indians batting order hitless in 18 at-bats.
The Yankees reached Gooden for only two hits through four innings and failed to stretch a game-breaking opportunity in a two-run fourth. Gooden, once the game's premier pitcher with runners in scoring position, hurt himself by walking O'Neill and ZTC Bernie Williams to lead off the inning.
After a mound visit by Indians pitching coach Mark Wiley, designated hitter Chili Davis sliced a ground-rule double on Gooden's first pitch, scoring O'Neill.
Martinez then lofted a fly ball to medium center field, deep enough for Williams to tag. However, in his haste to make a play on the runner, center fielder Kenny Lofton lost his grip on the ball. Second base umpire Jim McKean ruled the play a drop and the Yankees led 3-0.
Indians manager Mike Hargrove thought Gooden pitched "well enough to win." Unfortunately, his 4 2/3 innings weren't even long enough to qualify.
Gooden no longer resembles the power pitcher who became the center of controversy as well as adulation during his 14 years with the Yankees and New York Mets.
But there were reminders last night. A younger Gooden's contorted leg kick became a model for Hernandez, then a teen with the Cuban junior national team. Gooden has abandoned the motion but Hernandez has made it his signature.
New York Yankees vs. Cleveland
(Series tied 2-2)
' New York 7, Cleveland 2
/# Cleveland 4, N.Y. 1, 12 innings
' Cleveland 6, New York 1
Last night: Game 4
' New York 4, Cleveland 0
Today: Game 5
New York (Wells, 20-4, 3.32) at Cleveland (Ogea, 5-4, 5.45), 4: 07 p.m.
Tuesday: Game 6
1% Cleveland at New York, 8: 07 p.m.
Wednesday: Game 7*
1% Cleveland at New York, 8: 07 p.m.
Note: Pitchers' stats include postseason.
TV: All games on chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 10/11/98