• Sal Maiorana

David Cone turns into a strikeout machine

NEW YORK (June 14, 1998) – David Cone was locked and loaded with the ideal response when he was asked to explain how he had struck out a combined 26 batters in his two most recent starts. “Maybe the old dog has learned some new tricks,” he said with a smile, the inference not lost on the reporters standing before him in the home clubhouse following the Yankees’ 4-2 victory over Cleveland. Cone had missed a start in early June because his mother’s dog bit him on the right index finger. When he returned to the mound on June 7 he showed no ill effects as he dominated the hapless Florida Marlins. Against a team that had been gutted following its World Series championship just eight months earlier and saw its record fall to 17-44, Cone allowed one run on two hits and two walks while striking out 14, the third-highest total of his career. His challenge was far more significant against the AL Central-leading and defending AL champion Indians a week later, but Cone was equally brilliant in a start that was pushed back two days by rain. “This was a great barometer to see where you are,” Cone said. “It’s a great tester. To be able to face a good team and to be able to shut them down and give your team a chance to win makes it all the more special.” This was the first clash since the Indians’ divisional round playoff series victory in 1997, and Cone had a particular interest in pitching well because he certainly hadn’t the last time he faced this feared lineup. In Game 1 the Indians knocked him around for six runs in just 3 1/3 innings, though his teammates rallied to win 8-6. It proved to be his last appearance of the year and soon thereafter, he was on an operating table getting his shoulder repaired. This time, Cone was in complete command from the start. He went eight innings and gave up just a run on four hits and two walks while fanning 12, including Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome twice each. Combined with his previous outing, Cone’s 26 whiffs were a personal-best two-game run. Prior to the dog bite, Cone was still trying to find consistency coming off his surgery and wasn’t really succeeding. In his first 10 starts, with his shoulder aching, his record was a sublime 7-1, but that was due more to the team behind him as the Yankees scored 88 runs in those games. Cone’s ERA was 5.59, startling when you consider the worst season-long ERA of his career to date was 3.71 way back in 1987, his first year with the Mets. “The dog bite I had on my finger probably helped me,” he said, now not really joking because he may have been right. “It was a blessing. It gave me a little extra rest, gave my shoulder a break. It also made me throw my fastball and curveball a lot more. I’ve been stubborn to feature everything. I think it’s nice to go back to the basics. It seems my stuff is sharper. I think the extra rest at this point in my career is probably better than working on a regular schedule.” Perhaps the most relieved member of the organization was Joe Torre, who admitted his early-season concerns about what he was seeing from Cone were probably misplaced. “We were too rash in worrying about him, and I’m as responsible as anybody of making too much of his early starts,” Torre said. “He was just gaining arm strength.” Even though the weekend rain reduced this to a one-game series, it nonetheless counted as a series victory for the Yankees, and that meant they were able to set a new major-league record with their 24th consecutive non-losing series. It began following the season-opening two-game sweep in Anaheim and would end a few days later when the Orioles took two of three at Camden Yards. “Both teams feel they’re the best teams in the American League right now,” Cone said of the Indians, who he figured the Yankees would have to go through at some point in the postseason. “That’s not to be demeaning to the other teams that are in contention, but on paper, the Yankees and the Indians are the teams to beat.”

NEXT POST on July 28: Subway Series gets off to a rollicking start.