If this is October, $87 million outfielder Bernie Williams must be slashing and dashing his way into the postseason record books.
It is October, indeed.
Williams drove in six runs with a single, a double and a record-tying three-run home run last night as the Yankees dominated the Rangers, 8-0, in Game 1 of the best-of-five Division Series before 57,099 at Yankee Stadium.
The Rangers ought to know the drill by now. They come to New York like so many country bumpkins, certain that good fortune will eventually smile on them, and just as certain to leave with their pockets empty.
Cuban pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez picked them clean, holding one of the most explosive offensive lineups in baseball to just two hits over eight innings. Catonsville's Jeff Nelson threw a hitless ninth. Williams and first baseman Tino Martinez chipped in with spectacular defensive plays as the Yankees overpowered the Rangers in every aspect of the game.
Williams, who hit three home runs against the Rangers in the 1996 Division Series, broke open a close game with a long two-run double in the fifth inning and removed all doubt with his sixth career Division Series homer, which tied teammate Paul O'Neill for the major-league record.
The six RBIs moved him past O'Neill and into sole possession of the Division Series record with 17, but he fell one shy of the single-game record, held jointly by Edgar Martinez and Mo Vaughn. It's times like these that no one complains about the huge contract he signed last winter.
"Bernie's a special person and a special talent," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "He's the same guy if he's making 10 cents. To have the night he had tonight, not to mention the year he's had, was very impressive."
The Rangers, of course, have seen this all before. They faced the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs in '96 and again last year, with similar results. Each time, the Yankees scored a convincing victory and went on to win the World Series, but Williams isn't ready to assume that history is repeating itself.
"It's just the first game," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do. With those guys, it's like waking up an anthill. Those guys are going to be swinging."
The oddsmakers clearly favored the Yankees again. They entered last night's game with six consecutive postseason victories over the Rangers, and the same dynamic appeared to be in effect. Good pitching usually beats good hitting. The Yankees again have the superior pitching -- at least on paper. The Rangers again have the more explosive offense, but scored only one run in last year's three-game sweep and came up very empty again last night.
"We could, by pure luck, do better offensively," said Rangers manager Johnny Oates. "I don't care if it's Yankee Stadium or Yellowstone Park, you can score more runs than that by accident. Take nothing away from 'El Duque' Hernandez. He threw a great game, but with our offense, we're going to bump into a run once in awhile by accident no matter who's pitching it's mind-boggling."
Oates was picking up on a theme that he had explored during the pre-game news conference, when he reflected on his club's performance in the two previous Division Series against the Yankees.
"The perception is that we need to pitch better," he said before the game, "but if you look at the numbers, we need to hit better. Really, we haven't had much offense. We haven't had a whole lot of scoring opportunities. We need to have more base runners. That's one of our strengths -- our offense -- and one run every ballgame isn't going to get it done.
"Since the fifth inning of Game 1 [in 1996], we haven't done a whole lot."
Some choice opportunities presented themselves in the early innings last night, but the Rangers could not keep the pressure on Hernandez. They loaded the bases in the first inning on a double by Ivan Rodriguez and a pair of walks, but third baseman Todd Zeile struck out swinging to end the threat.
Hernandez also struggled with the heart of the Rangers' order in the third, giving up a second hit to Rodriguez and a walk to Rusty Greer, but Williams bailed him out with a great running catch in center field and Rafael Palmeiro ended the inning with a fly ball to deep center.
Martinez would perform a similar service in the sixth when he leaped high to stab a line drive by Palmeiro and turn an inning-ending double play.
Rangers starter Aaron Sele was almost as effective in the early innings, but not nearly as fortunate. He appeared to be out of a jam in the second when Yankees outfielder Ricky Ledee hit a hooking line drive to left, but the ball disappeared in the lights and whistled past the head of Greer for a run-scoring double. If that wasn't frustrating enough, Williams' two-run double in the fifth -- the pivotal hit in the game -- came after Sele thought he had the Yankees center fielder struck out on a 2-2 curveball.
The fifth-inning rally was marred by a near-tragedy when a sharp foul ball off the bat of Chuck Knoblauch struck bench coach Don Zimmer on the side of the head and knocked him to the floor of the dugout. Medical personnel attended to him for several minutes and he had to be helped into the clubhouse, but team officials announced he had suffered only abrasions on his jaw and left ear. He later returned to the dugout with an icepack pressed to his face.
Zimmer narrowly avoided becoming another one of those poignant Yankees postseason subplots. It was during the Division Series against the Rangers last year that the Yankees learned that Darryl Strawberry was suffering from colon cancer. Two years earlier, Frank Torre -- the brother of the Yankees manager -- underwent a heart transplant while the Yankees were playing the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
"He's fine," Torre said of Zimmer. "He came back out. I didn't expect that. Luckily, he turned his head and it hit him in the jaw and just cut his ear."
The Rangers have only scored one run in their last four Division Series games against the Yankees and have lost the last seven games:
99 Score H NY P
Gm 1 NY 8, Tx 0 2 Her'dez
98 Score H NY P
Gm 1 NY 2, Tx 0 5 Wells
Gm 2 NY 3, Tx 1 5 Pettitte
Gm 3 NY 4, Tx 0 3 Cone
96 Score H NY P
Gm 1 Tx 6, NY 2 8 Cone
Gm 2 *NY 5, Tx 4 8 Pettitte
Gm 3 NY 3, Tx 2 6 Key
Gm 4 NY 6, Tx 4 9 Rogers
* 12 innings