NEW YORK - If the heavily hyped Subway Series proved anything, it is that the New York Yankees are the third rail of postseason baseball. It's a bad idea to come in contact with them in October.
They won their third consecutive world championship last night with a 4-2 victory over the New York Mets in Game 5 at sold-out Shea Stadium, enhancing their status as the most successful team of their generation and one of the greatest teams in the glorious history of the Yankees' franchise.
Who's going to argue after they won their fourth championship in five years and continued to be one of the most dominant teams in World Series history?
The victory last night was the 16th in their past 17 World Series games, an incredible record against some of the best teams of the past decade. The Mets didn't go down without a fight, but there was no question afterward which team was the toast of the Big Apple.
Journeyman second baseman Luis Sojo's two-out single in the top of the ninth inning scored catcher Jorge Posada, and a second run scored when outfielder Jay Payton's throw to the plate hit Posada and bounced into the Mets' dugout.
What a moment for Sojo, who came back to the Yankees in August as insurance because of the defensive problems of veteran second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. He also played a solid supporting role for the Yankees in the 1996 World Series.
What a night for Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who was named World Series Most Valuable Player after hitting a game-tying homer in the sixth inning and finishing the series with a .409 batting average.
"Derek Jeter thinks this happens every year," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, "and it has for him. What a player. What a leader."
Jeter got to carry home the MVP trophy, but he tried to spread the credit all around the champagne-soaked visitors clubhouse.
"What can you say, this is a whole team of MVPs," Jeter said. "From Jose Vizcaino in the first game to Mariano Rivera to Luis Sojo tonight. Everybody came through tonight."
The Subway Series may have been short-lived, but it still lived up to the hype.
Every game was a knee-knocker. The Mets suffered each of their first three losses by one run. Their only victory was a two-run win in Game 3. The Yankees may have won four of five, but they had to battle to the final at-bat in every game against their crosstown rival. They outscored the Mets by just three runs over five games.
The final game came down to a long fly ball by Mike Piazza with a runner on third in the bottom of the ninth, but Bernie Williams faded back and squeezed it for the final, title-clinching out.
"In my opinion, the Mets were the toughest team we have played in my five years here," Jeter said. "Every one of these games could have gone either way. They could have given up after [losing] the first two games, but they never quit. You can't say enough about the New York Mets."
Mets left-hander Al Leiter carried a five-hitter through eight innings and seemed determined to buy his team one more shot at Roger Clemens in Game 6, but Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte pitched seven strong innings as the Subway suspense built to a late-inning crescendo.
Left-hander Mike Stanton would get the victory for pitching a scoreless eighth inning, and Rivera would come back from a strenuous performance in Game 4 to record his 19th career postseason save.
Leiter would suffer the heart-breaking defeat after getting the first two outs of the ninth without allowing a runner to reach base. Posada worked hard to draw a two-out walk, and Scott Brosius singled to left to bring Sojo to the plate.
It was another tough loss, but Mets manager Bobby Valentine was not about to apologize for his team's effort.
"I'm extremely proud of everybody who played for the Mets this year," he said. "I couldn't ask anything more of a group of guys. I couldn't ask for better effort, for better preparation, for better camaraderie. They're the National League champs. I think that they were champs this whole series.
"We lost to the world champs. They just did a little better than us this year, and they deserved to win."
It had been 44 years since two New York teams played each other in the World Series, but not much has changed since then. The Yankees are baseball's marquee franchise, just as they were when they defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1956 Fall Classic.
"The Mets gave us everything we could want," said an emotional George Steinbrenner, the Yankees' owner, as he and Torre received the world championship trophy from baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "They're a great team. This is great for New York."
Steinbrenner didn't hesitate when asked if this might be one of the greatest Yankees teams ever. The Yankees won five straight world titles from 1949 to '53, but it was another era.
"It's different," Steinbrenner said. "You've got to get through three levels of playoffs now. They never had to do that before."
Williams put the Yankees in front with a leadoff home run in the second inning, and Jeter brought them from behind with his second home run of the series in the sixth.
The Yankees had come this far with almost no offensive contribution from Williams, who entered the game hitless in his first 15 at-bats of the series. That World Series drought actually stretched to 22 at-bats dating to the final two games of last year's Fall Classic.
In other words, one of baseball's top clutch hitters was way overdue to make a contribution.
He battled Leiter to a full count in the second inning and fouled off two 3-2 pitches before launching a towering fly ball that landed well up in the terrace section of the left-field stands - about 10 feet inside the foul pole.
The home run was his second this October and the 13th postseason homer of his career.
Williams historically has struggled in the World Series, batting .151 in his previous three. The 0-for-15 slump dropped that average to .118 coming into Game 5.
Quite a contrast to Williams' performance in the other playoff rounds. He batted .435 against the Seattle Mariners in the American League Championship Series and owns an impressive .386 in 21 ALCS games. He has a more modest .286 average in Division Series play, but he has six home runs in 25 games.
"For me personally, it's been very frustrating," Williams said after Game 4, "but we've won three of the last four years so it doesn't really matter how I hit. If I had to trade having real good at-bats for the team winning, there is no question what I would choose."
He put the Yankees on top with the bases-empty shot, but the one-run lead did not last the inning. The Mets, who were cursing the fates after three one-run losses and several near-home runs, finally got a couple of breaks and scored twice in the bottom of the second.
Pettitte walked outfielder Bubba Trammell with one out and gave up a single to Payton. The two runners moved up on a groundout before Leiter laid down a surprise bunt that Pettitte misplayed for an error that allowed the first Mets run to score.
Leadoff hitter Benny Agbayani followed with a slow bouncer down the third-base line that Brosius tried to pick up bare-handed. He missed, and Payton scored from third on what was ruled an infield hit.
Clearly, the Shea Stadium crowd was pulling hard for the Mets to fight their way into a Game 6 rematch with Clemens. The proof was in a funny incident that took place in the bottom of the fourth.
Shortstop Kurt Abbott shattered his bat on a foul ball - much like Piazza did in Game 2 - and the largest bat fragment sailed all the way to Jeter.
Jeter, apparently able to distinguish it from the ball, didn't come up throwing, but the crowd quickly made the connection and began chanting "Roger! Roger!"
Valentine said after Game 4 that the Mets just needed their luck to change to get back in the series, but he couldn't afford to wait around for that to happen.
He made several changes in the starting lineup.
Gone was rookie Timo Perez, who had been such a sparkplug in the earlier playoff rounds but had managed two hits in 16 World Series at-bats. Gone also was former Orioles shortstop Mike Bordick, who had one single in eight at-bats and had been replaced by a pinch hitter in each of the first four games.
Agbayani moved into the leadoff spot; Trammell played right field and Abbott took over at short.
N.Y. Mets vs. N.Y. Yankees
(Best of seven; Yankees win series, 4-1)
Game 1: Yankees, 4-3, 12 innings
Game 2: Yankees, 6-5
Game 3: Mets, 4-2
Game 4: Yankees, 3-2
Last night: Yankees, 4-2