By Geoff Bilau, Angelswin.com Senior Editor
Few who are familiar with recent Angels history would be surprised that the man at the center of the team’s most memorable comeback of the 2000 season was Darin Erstad. Even though his teammates were hitting home runs at a record pace, there was never any question about who was that season’s MVP.
And no game better illustrated the magic of that year than this shocker in the Bronx.
Early on, it was like so many Angels/Yankees games of the past, with the Angels scoring one run and the Yankees answering with two. And two more. And two more. After the sixth inning, New York led, 8-3, and Roger Clemens found his groove, retiring the Angels in order in the seventh and eighth.
And though he’d already thrown 119 pitches, Clemens came out for the ninth. Singles by Troy Glaus and Bengie Molina sent him to the showers, however, and reliever Jeff Nelson was summoned to quell this minor uprising. Nelson retired Adam Kennedy on a flyout, but walked Kevin Stocker to load the bases, convincing Joe Torre to go to his bullpen ace, Mariano Rivera. And when Erstad hit into a fielder’s choice at third, the Angels gained a run, but were now down to their last out against the game’s premier closer.
But then the Angels grabbed a bit of that Yankee Stadium “mystique and aura” for themselves when Orlando Palmeiro laced a double into right field to score Stocker and cut the Yankees lead to 8-5. Two pitches later, Mo Vaughn launched an 0-1 Rivera cutter into the upper deck in right field, tying the game and bringing the Angels all the way back from an 8-3 ninth inning deficit.
“Until the game is over, you keep battling,” Erstad said. “How many times are you going to see that kind of comeback in your career, against one of the best pitchers ever and one of the best closers in the game? That’s why we play until the last out.”
The Yankees didn’t quit, either, and appeared poised to snatch back the victory in the bottom of the tenth when pinch runner Luis Polonia reached third with two outs and Derek Jeter was intentionally walked in favor of Jorge Posada. Posada smashed a drive into the left-center gap that had walk-off written all over it. Somehow, Erstad, motoring from over near the left field line, managed to get close enough to make a full-extension dive on the ball already past him, reaching out and hauling it in before crashing violently onto the outfield grass.
“I thought it split the gap when he hit it,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. “All I can say is incredible.”
Many Yankees had already spilled out of the dugout to celebrate, most then lingering in amazement that they had not just won the game.
“I thought the game was over,” Clemens said. “That was one of the top three catches I’ve seen in my years in the game.”
Instead the Angels players were the ones celebrating, greeting Erstad in foul territory and mobbing him in the dugout.
“They wouldn’t leave me alone, and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to go hit, leave me alone,’“ Erstad said.
Due up second in the eleventh, the Erstad Show was primed for an encore. After Stocker’s failed bunt attempt, Erstad lofted a Mike Stanton offering high into right field and just over the fence to give the Angels a 9-8 lead. The Yankees went 1-2-3 in the bottom half and the Angels won a game they twice seemed sure to lose.
“Posada smoked that ball,” Erstad said of his catch in the tenth. “It was just one of those things. You just react and let your ability take over.”
Whether it was ability, luck, grit or some combination of all three, Erstad’s 2000 season is arguably the greatest offensive (and defensive) performance in franchise history. He batted .355 with 240 hits (No. 13 all-time), 121 runs scored, 39 doubles, six triples, 25 home runs, 28 stolen bases and an unprecedented 100 RBI, all from the leadoff spot, the first player ever to reach the century mark from the top of the order.
He was eighth in the A.L. MVP voting and won a Silver Slugger award.
In a word, Erstad in 2000 was incredible.