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Even though they failed to advance to the World Series for the third time in four years the previous season, the Yankees made only one significant move heading into the 2006 campaign, signing outfielder Johnny Damon to a free-agent contract.  The Yankees not only expected to improve themselves by signing Damon, but they also hoped to weaken the rival Boston Red Sox by signing the speedy centerfielder to a four-year, $52 million deal.

The acquisition of Damon did indeed add an element of speed to New York’s already powerful offense.  However, it failed to address the team’s greatest need, which was pitching.  The Yankees did virtually nothing during the off-season to improve their mediocre pitching staff, which finished ninth in the American League the previous year with a team ERA of 4.52.  New York’s staff fared no better during the early stages of the 2006 season, often forcing the team to outscore its opponents.  Fortunately for the Yankees, they had the American League’s best lineup, allowing them to frequently bludgeon opposing teams into submission.  However, New York’s situation became far more precarious when sluggers Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui both suffered wrist injuries that forced them to miss most of the season.  Sheffield ended up hitting only six home runs and driving in just 25 runs in only 39 games, while Matsui finished the campaign with only eight homers and 29 RBIs in just 51 contests.  Matsui suffered the additional indignation of having his 1,768 consecutive games played streak come to an end – a streak that began back in Tokyo when he played for the Yomiuri Giants. 

Nevertheless, New York’s deep bench, which included rookie Melky Cabrera and aging veteran Bernie Williams, who spent his last year in pinstripes, kept the team afloat until the trade deadline.  At that juncture, the front office completed a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies in which New York acquired outfielder Bobby Abreau and pitcher Cory Lidle for four minor leaguers.  While Lidle made only moderate contributions to the Yankees over the final two months of the season, Abreau helped spark their offense down the stretch, hitting seven homers, driving in 42 runs, stealing 10 bases, batting .330, and compiling a .419 on-base percentage in 58 games with the club. 

New York kept pace with Boston until the two teams met for a five-game series in Fenway Park in mid-August that went a long ways towards determining the eventual outcome of the A.L. East.  In a scene that must have reminded Red Sox fans of 1978’s “Boston Massacre,” the Yankees swept the series from the Red Sox, outscoring them by a combined margin of 49-26 in the process.  New York cruised the rest of the way, winning the division with a record of 97-65, 10 games ahead of second-place Toronto, and 11 games in front of third-place Boston.   

The Yankees posted the American League’s best record over the course of the regular season despite finishing the year tied for sixth in the junior circuit with a team ERA of 4.41.  With 42-year-old Randy Johnson struggling much of the year, Chien-Ming Wang emerged as the ace of the staff.  The Taiwanese right-hander finished 19-6 with a 3.63 ERA, en route to earning a second-place finish in the Cy Young voting.  Meanwhile, despite winning 17 games, Johnson posted an ERA of 5.00.  Mike Mussina was the team’s only other reliable starter, going 15-7 with a 3.51 ERA.  Mariana Rivera continued to perform brilliantly in the bullpen, earning a spot on the A.L. All-Star Team by saving 34 games and compiling a 1.80 ERA.

New York’s potent offense led the league with 930 runs scored and finished second with 210 home runs.  Johnny Damon posted solid numbers in his first season in pinstripes, finishing the campaign with 24 homers, 80 runs batted in, 115 runs scored, 25 steals, and a .285 batting average.  Jorge Posada hit 23 homers, drove in 93 runs, and batted .277.  Jason Giambi led the club with 37 home runs, knocked in 113 runs, and scored 92 others.  Despite being booed by Yankee fans much of the year for his inability to come through in clutch situations, Alex Rodriguez earned A.L. All-Star honors by batting .290 and finishing among the league leaders with 35 home runs, 121 runs batted in, and 113 runs scored.  Robinson Cano earned his first All-Star selection by driving in 78 runs and finishing a close third in the A.L. batting race with a mark of .342.  Derek Jeter finished just ahead of his double play partner, in second place, with a batting average of .343.  He also knocked in 97 runs, stole 34 bases, and placed among the league leaders with 118 runs scored and 214 hits.  Jeter earned a spot on the A.L. All-Star Team, his third straight Gold Glove, and a close second-place finish in the league MVP balloting.

The Yankees subsequently faced the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS, getting off to a fast start in the Series by winning Game One by a score of 8-4.  After taking an early 3-1 lead in Game Two, New York surrendered three unanswered runs, losing to Detroit by a final score of 4-3.  Detroit’s lineup hammered New York’s pitching staff in the final two contests, enabling the Tigers to eliminate the Yankees from the playoffs in four games.  The Yankees received tragic news just four days later, when they learned that a plane piloted by Cory Lidle crashed into a high-rise apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, instantly killing the pitcher. 

By Bob_Cohen
 

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Tagged:
2006 ALDS1, Alex Rodriguez, Bernie Williams (New York Yankees), Bobby Abreu, Chien-Ming Wang, Cory Lidle, Derek Jeter, Detroit Tigers, Gary Sheffield, George Steinbrenner, Hideki Matsui, Jason Giambi, Joe Torre, Johnny Damon, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera, Melky Cabrera, Mike Mussina, New York Yankees, Randy Johnson, Robinson Cano

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