The Yankees ended the last century atop the baseball world. They've started the new one in the same place. The Subway Series made its final stop Thursday night as the Yankees pushed across two runs with two out in the top of the ninth to beat the Mets, 4-2, at Shea Stadium.
The Yankees won the series, four games to one, and became the game's first back-to-back-to-back champions since the Oakland A's did it from 1972-74. It was the Yankees' 26th world championship and their fourth in five years, an unprecedented run in the era of free agency.
"When you win the first one of these three (in a row), it's great because it takes so much to do it," said manager Joe Torre. "Then you win two in a row and it's a special thing. You never really fathom that you're going to be back there again. You figure there's going to be a rock in the road somewhere."
There were plenty of rocks during a season that culminated with Luis Sojo's RBI single off Mets starter Al Leiter that drove in Jorge Posada with the winning run. That's why, as the champagne flowed freely in the Yankees' clubhouse, this one had a little deeper meaning.
It was by far the toughest of the Yankees' recent titles. They won just 87 regular-season games, the second-lowest total in history for a champion (the '87 Twins won 85). They lost the opener of the division series to Oakland and had to win Game Five on the road. They were six outs away from falling in a 2-0 hole in the ALCS against Seattle before rallying to win that series.
"Every year is a different story but I'd be lying if I said this one wasn't more gratifying," said Series MVP Derek Jeter, who homered for the second straight game to forge a 2-2 tie in the sixth. "We struggled this year. We had tough times. Winning isn't easy. We've made it look easy. It's something that's very difficult to do."
As Commissioner Bud Selig presented George Steinbrenner with yet another championship trophy, tears were flowing down the face of the red-eyed Yankees owner. Same with Torre.
The players chanted "threepeat, threepeat" while the champagne corks popped. They also chanted "Who Let the Dogs Out? Woof. Woof," in mocking the song played regularly at Shea.
"I'm so proud to be part of this team, a team of winners," said outfielder Paul O'Neill, who hit a team-high .474 in the series. "You can put us in the same breath as other great teams. We've accomplished so much."
Thousands of Yankee fans rimmed the field-level seats for nearly an hour after the final out, screaming and chanting their favorite players' names as they emerged from the clubhouse to do interviews and celebrate.
The party was borne out of a ninth inning that looked like it was on the road to nowhere.< It took Leiter just nine pitches to strike out Tino Martinez and O'Neill. One more out and the Mets would go to the bottom of the ninth looking for the run to extend the series to Game Six Saturday in the Bronx.
Leiter never got the out.
Posada worked the count full, taking a close pitch on the inside corner for ball three, before drawing a walk. Then Scott Brosius pulled a 1-1 pitch to left for a single to put two on with two out.
Lefty John Franco was set in the bullpen. Leiter had thrown 141 pitches - an unheard-of number in the era of specialized relief pitching and five-man rotations - but he stayed in the game to face Sojo with pitcher Mike Stanton on deck.
"I wasn't going to bring in a right-handed pitcher to face (Luis) Polonia (who would have pinch-hit for Stanton) or for Sojo," Mets manager Bobby Valentine said solemnly. "It was either Al or Johnny and rather than Johnny going three days in a row, I decided to go with Al.
"I thought that striking out those first two guys, and the pitches he threw to Posada, made me think he had plenty. I was wrong. It was the wrong decision, obviously."
"I thought Bobby made the right choice," Torre said. "That's an emotional choice that nobody should second-guess. He put his blood and guts into that."
Leiter did the same with pitch No. 142, a cut fastball. It wasn't enough. Sojo grounded it up the middle past Leiter, who dived to his right. It was a ball with eyes: Shortstop Kurt Abbott dived headlong to his left and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo moved to his right to no avail.
The ball bounded into center field and most of the Yankees bolted out of the third-base dugout urging Posada home.
"I was running, going all out," Posada said. "I don't think I even saw (third-base coach Willie Randolph). I went right through him."
Posada slid home with the go-ahead run and the throw from center fielder Jay Payton hit him in the leg and bounded into the Yankees dugout. That allowed Brosius to trot home with an insurance run as Sojo clenched his fists in glee at second base.
"I said to El Duque (Orlando Hernandez), "I want to hit with a man on base,' " Sojo said. "I saw (first-base coach) Lee Mazzilli and he told me to stay back, trust your hand and try to hit the ball up the middle. All my career, I don't hit Al Leiter good. He (Mazzilli) told me to hit the pitch down the middle and everything would work out good for us."
That's certainly the case when closer Mariano Rivera enters the game. After Stanton pitched a 1-2-3 eighth to earn his second win of the series, Rivera took over in the ninth and set a Series record with his seventh career save.
Rivera struck out pinch-hitter Darryl Hamilton but walked Benny Agbayani. Alfonzo flied out to right, bringing up Mets catcher Mike Piazza.
Piazza, who was 2 for 4, took a strike and then lofted a towering fly ball - but to the wrong part of the ballpark - dead center field.
"I just screamed, "No!' " Torre said.
"I wasn't that worried," Rivera said. "He got a good part of the ball but he had a good part of the field, too. When I saw the ball dying, I knew it wasn't going anywhere."
"It was a special moment, big-time special," Rivera said.Just like this group of Yankees.