Yankees close in on title

Thursday, October 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Evan Grant / The Dallas Morning News

NEW YORK – They stand now on the precipice between greatness and immortality.

All that remains for the New York Yankees is one more win, one more chance to turn a lead over to a bullpen that has driven them to three world championships in the last four years.

On Wednesday, the Yankees rode a well-traveled road to a 3-2 win over the cross-town New York Mets in Game 4 of the Subway World Series at Shea Stadium. They took an early lead, then put that lead in the bullpen's vice-like grip.

As a result, the Yankees lead the best-of-7 series, 3-1. They can wrap it up Thursday in Game 5 at Shea and become the first team in more than a quarter-century to win three consecutive world championships. The last team to win three straight was Oakland from 1972 to '74.

In addition to solid pitching, timely hitting and experience, history appears to be on the Yankees' side now. Of the 40 teams that have taken a 3-1 lead, 34 have won the World Series.

"If we win, I think we'll realize later exactly what we've done," said outfielder Paul O'Neill, who may be on his way to the Most Valuable Player award for the series. "When you are on the road, you keep your eyes focused on it, but we know we are one win away from something special.

"You want to play it right now; you don't want to go home. But we know that last win can be very tough. Nobody gets a prize for winning three."

The Yankees, who won the World Series in 1996 in the last two years, seem to understand that. In those three world championship runs, the Yankees never lost after getting to their third win.

After dropping a 4-2 game to the Mets on Tuesday, the Yankees got right back on track. On the first pitch of the game, Derek Jeter homered. The Yankees scored single runs in each of the next two innings with O'Neill, who is 9-for-16 in the series, starting one rally with his second triple of the Series. Jeter started the third-inning rally with a triple of his own.

The Yankees have rebounded all season. After struggling through September and losing home-field advantage for the playoffs, the Yankees faced an elimination game at Oakland in the Division Series. They came back from a disheartening Game 4 loss to win that series.

They lost the first game to Seattle in the American League Championship Series, then won four of the next five, overcoming a 4-0 deficit in the clinching game.

On Wednesday, just when it looked like the Mets might be getting back into this thing, the Yankees showed resilience again.

"I think bouncing back after last night was important," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "Tonight's game was really tough. We needed every single bit of contribution we got from every pitcher out there."

It began with starter Denny Neagle, who allowed only a two-run home run to Mike Piazza through the first four innings. Then, after Neagle got the first two outs of the fifth on four pitches, Torre went to David Cone to face Piazza again.

Cone, who had pitched only one inning in the playoffs, got Piazza to pop to second. In a failed effort to bury the Mets for good, Torre pinch-hit for Cone in the top of the sixth. That forced the Yankees to turn to the heart of their bullpen: Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton and Mariano Rivera.

Over the last two World Series runs, they have been impregnable but have looked vulnerable on occasion this year.

Not on Wednesday.

Nelson got out of the sixth after allowing a leadoff single to Todd Zeile. After Nelson got the first out of the seventh, he walked pinch-hitter Lenny Harris. Then it was Stanton's turn. He struck out back-to-back hitters to end that threat.

And then came Rivera, who entered the game with a 4-0 record and 17 saves in 39 career postseason appearances. He allowed only a single over the final two innings to pick up the save.

"I don't really want to talk about me," O'Neill said when asked a roundabout question about the pitching. "[Neagle] had a great game. Cone got in, had a great game. [Rivera] had a great game.

"This is the time of year where you don't talk about yourself. You talk about the New York Yankees."

You most certainly do.