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Yankees' division-clinching games: 1996-2006

Yankees celebrate 10th AL East crown under Joe Torre
09/21/2006 12:33 PM ET
By Will Weiss / YESNetwork.com

Cabrera had a big role in putting the Yanks on top.(AP)

The Yankees' turnaround prior to the 1994 strike is well documented. The acquisitions of Wade Boggs, Jimmy Key and Paul O'Neill, coupled with the emergence of farm products like Bernie Williams and the detail-oriented stylings of manager Buck Showalter reversed a culture of losing in the Bronx. To this day, many believe that had the strike not occurred, the Yankees would have cruised to their first division championship and American League pennants since 1981 and battled the Montreal Expos in the World Series. Their 70-43 record was the best in the American League at the time of the stoppage.

The celebrations would be put on hold for two years, however. The Yankees' wild-card appearance and first-round loss in 1995 led to a managerial change, as the team replaced the micro-managerial Showalter with the laid-back Joe Torre. Tino Martinez took over at first base for the retired Don Mattingly, and rookie Derek Jeter Wally Pipped Tony Fernandez and became a mainstay at shortstop, helping to lead the Yankees to the top of the American League, and all of baseball.

The 1996 season marked the first of 10 division titles — nine consecutive — in the Torre era. Since divisional play began in 1969, only the Atlanta Braves' run of 14 straight division titles under Bobby Cox tops the Yankees' current run. The Yankees' success under Torre is unprecedented, with the team capturing the AL East crown every year except 1997, advancing to the World Series six times and winning four championships.

Dating back to 1976, of the 15 years the Yankees have won their division, they advanced to the World Series 10 times and won six championships.

Below is a brief summary of the Yankees' division-clinching games under Joe Torre.

2006
Date: September 20
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Location: Rogers Centre
Final Score: 3-2 (Loss)
Losing Pitcher: Sean Henn
The Skinny: Joe Torre rested four of his regulars against Jays ace Roy Halladay. After the Yankees gained a 1-0 lead in the third inning thanks to Robinson Canó's two-out double, the Blue Jays responded an inning later with three runs. Bernie Williams, playing center field for Johnny Damon, homered to bring the Yankees back to within one, but they could not muster another hit — much less another run — off of Jeremy Accardo, Brandon League and B.J. Ryan. It didn't matter, though, as the Minnesota Twins rallied to beat the Boston Red Sox, 8-2, at Fenway Park.

For new Yankees like Bobby Abreu, and youngsters like Melky Cabrera, Brian Bruney, Darrell Rasner, and Jeff Karstens, the celebration was their first. For others, like Damon, Mike Myers, Kyle Farnsworth and Octavio Dotel, this was their first experience celebrating a division title in New York. While among everyone in the clubhouse, there is a sense that the job is not done, the revelry, appreciation and excitement displayed in Toronto was much different than in years past.

"Winning the division title is very gratifying to me because it shows the total Yankee organization — on and off the field — demonstrating incredible guts, smarts and quality in the face of adversity and stiff competition," principal owner George Steinbrenner said in a statement. "It also shows the fantastic loyalty of our great Yankee fans who've made every game a sell-out or near sell-out — hanging in and believing in the team. The team kept fighting and the fans kept cheering.

"This is just the first step and I'm excited about playing hard to win the championship. I'm incredibly proud of every single member of the Yankee family."

2005
Date: October 1
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Location: Fenway Park
Final Score: 8-4
Winning Pitcher: Randy Johnson
The Skinny: Following an 11-19 start and enduring periods where every starting pitcher in the rotation spent time on the disabled list, the Yankees completed a magnificent playoff push by beating the Red Sox on the penultimate day of the regular season. It was a do-or-die game: if the Yankees won, they'd claim the head-to-head advantage in the season series and clinch the division even if they lost the following day. If they lost, the Red Sox would have won the season series and had the inside track on the division title, leaving the Yankees to scramble for a wild-card spot.

The Yankees scored six runs in the first three innings, courtesy of home runs by Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui, and sacrifice flies by Derek Jeter and John Flaherty. Johnson struck out eight Red Sox to secure his 17th win of the season and the Yankees' 11th straight postseason berth.

2004
Date: September 30
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Location: Yankee Stadium
Final Score: 6-4
Winning Pitcher: Tom Gordon
The Skinny: The series was billed as a playoff preview, with the Twins set to oppose the Yankees in the Division Series the following week. The seesaw game was tied at 4-4 in the ninth inning, when with one out, lefty Aaron Fultz was brought in to face Hideki Matsui. Matsui walked, sending Bernie Williams to the plate. Williams turned on a fastball and hit a screaming line drive into the netting above the retired numbers in left-center field to give the Yankees a dramatic 6-4 win and the chance to celebrate at home. In addition to clinching the division, Williams' home run was the Yankees' 242nd of the season, breaking the team record that had stood since 1961.

2003
Date: September 23
Opponent: Chicago White Sox
Location: Comiskey Park (It wasn't called U.S. Cellular Field until 2004)
Final Score: 7-0
Winning Pitcher: Jose Contreras
The Skinny: After building a seven-game lead, the Red Sox had closed to within a game and a half until David Wells outdueled Jeff Suppan in a classic at Yankee Stadium two weeks earlier. That game buoyed the Yankees to an eight-game win streak, while the Red Sox tapered off and focused their attention to the wild card. In this game, Contreras struck out 10 White Sox in eight innings to preserve a slim 2-0 lead. The Yankees punctuated the night with five runs in the ninth, including a Jason Giambi grand slam, to provide the final margin.

2002
Date: September 21
Opponent: Detroit Tigers
Location: Comerica Park
Final Score: 3-2
Winning Pitcher: Andy Pettitte
The Skinny: The Yankees stormed their way through the American League in 2002, ultimately winning the division by 10 ½ games. There was a businesslike, seemingly unaffected acknowledgement of the achievement following the win in Detroit, as if the team expected to dominate in that fashion. The victory was part of a three-game sweep at Comerica, and a run of nine victories in the team's last 11 games.

2001
Date: September 25
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Location: Yankee Stadium
Final Score: 4-0 (Loss)
Losing Pitcher: Roger Clemens
The Skinny: Exactly two weeks removed from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the Yankees, wearing FDNY, NYPD and PAPD hats to honor fallen members of the New York City Fire Department, Police Department and Port Authority police, didn't win, but managed to clinch due to the Baltimore Orioles' 12-7 win over the Boston Red Sox.

The Yankees managed only four hits off Tanyon Sturtze and failed to get Roger Clemens the 21st win of his Cy Young season. A throwing error by Clemens in the first inning led to two runs. But the loss didn't affect the emotion of the occasion, which saw a teary Joe Torre and New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani embrace near the pitcher's mound.

2000
Date: September 29
Opponent: Baltimore Orioles
Location: Camden Yards
Final Score: 13-2 (Loss)
Losing Pitcher: Andy Pettitte
The Skinny: The Yankees were coming off being thoroughly thumped in Tampa yet because the Red Sox continued to lose, still had a chance to clinch in Baltimore. Andy Pettitte allowed nine earned runs in 1 1/3 innings and the Yankees were pasted. The game, although they clinched, was arguably the low point of a stretch of 15 losses in the final 18 games. The Yankees stumbled into the playoffs losing seven straight and being outscored 68-15 during that skid.

1999
Date: October 2
Opponent: Tampa Bay Devil Rays
Location: Tropicana Field
Final Score: 3-2
Winning Pitcher: David Cone
The Skinny: Solo home runs in the fifth inning by Chili Davis and Scott Brosius staked the Yankees to a 2-0 lead. They added another run in the sixth, but a shaky Cone nearly blew the lead. Cone only got one out in the Rays' half of the sixth, forcing Jason Grimsley, Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera to clean up after him. The bullpen trio pitched 3 2/3 innings of shutout relief to secure the victory and home field throughout the playoffs.

1998
Date: September 9
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Location: Fenway Park
Final Score: 7-5
Winning Pitcher: Ramiro Mendoza
The Skinny: The victory in Boston was the Yankees' 102nd of the season. They had led the AL East by 10 games or more since June 24, so this was a foregone conclusion.

Derek Jeter and Paul O'Neill hit two home runs each to pace the Yankees' offense, and Ramiro Mendoza held tough after Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez gave up four runs on five hits and four walks in 3 2/3 innings.

The celebration was animated, but there was a clear sense that the only thing the Yankees accomplished was the first step toward a record season and a World Series title.

"Everybody realizes you can't get overly excited with this," Joe Torre told the Associated Press. "But we can take a day to enjoy it."

1996
Date: September 25
Opponent: Milwaukee Brewers
Location: Yankee Stadium
Final Score: 19-2
Winning Pitcher: David Cone
The Skinny: The Yankees gained the division lead on April 30 and never relinquished it. After two weeks of fending off the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees needed only one victory in a Wednesday twi-night doubleheader to clinch their first division title since the first half of the strike-shortened 1981 season.

And the Yankees took advantage of their opportunity, posting their highest run total since 1962. Tino Martinez opened the rout with a three-run home run in the first inning, and the Yankees scored 10 more in the second inning before cruising to the 17-run blowout. Every Yankee starter had at least one hit, and David Cone pitched six easy innings for his seventh win of the season.

During the rout, raucous fans chanted "We want Texas! We want Texas!" anticipating the team's first-round playoff opponent.

They couldn't celebrate, however, until after the second game, which the Yankees won handily, 6-2.

Will Weiss is the senior editor of YESNetwork.com. He can be reached at wweiss@yesnetwork.com.
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