I’m further breaking up my “what happened in baseball during that year” posts to create two more posts that I’ll do for each year. This one was always the bottom part of my “year in review” post in the past – a summary of the playoffs. I’m also going to break up the statistics posts – I’ll explain my reasoning when I do that post – but, in short, these posts are too long not to break up a bit more!
The ’96 playoffs started off with some controversy. In the throes of the division / wild card race at the end of September, Roberto Alomar got into a heated argument over a call with umpire John Hirschbeck. Alomar spit in the umpire’s face and was given a five-game suspension – to be served at the start of the next season. A bunch of ugly back and forth came out afterward, but Alomar and Hirschbeck did patch things up before the start of the new year. However, the fact that Alomar’s suspension was held off until the next season and not enforced in the next games was a source of controversy.
The division series again had predetermined seeding for the 3 division champions. Because of this, the Yankees didn’t get home field against Texas – despite having a better record. They also lost the opening game in the Bronx after giving up a 3-run homer to MVP Juan Gonzalez. “Juan Gone” hit 2 more dingers in game 2 – but Derek Jeter gave an early glimpse into the playoff magic that would become his trademark. The Yankees scored in 5 different innings, with Jeter coming all the way home from 2nd base after Dean Palmer made an error on a bunt by Charlie Hayes for a “walk-off error” in the 12th inning.
Gonzalez hit another homer in game 3 in Arlington, but the Yankees scored two runs in the top of the 9th to win the game 3-2. Incredibly, Gonzalez hit another home run in game 4 – his 5th in the series, but the Yankees again thwarted the Rangers behind two shots from Bernie Williams to take the series, 3 games to 1.
Baltimore faced off against Cleveland – the best team in baseball and the defending AL champs. Bobby Bonilla’s grand slam led to a route in game 1, and Alomar had a key RBI to give the Orioles a 2-0 series lead. Homers by Manny Ramirez and Albert Belle kept the Indians alive for another game – but Alomar provided a game-winning homer in the 12th inning of game 4 to send the Orioles to the ALCS.
In the National League – the predetermined seeding ended up working out the same way the records did. Atlanta again swept their way into the NLCS behind their talented trio – behind Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine the team gave up only 5 runs in the 3 games. The Cardinals had a sweep of their own – beating out the Padres in 3 close games, all saved by new closer Dennis Eckersley.
The NLCS was a hotly contested matchup that went to the 7-game limit. Starting in Atlanta, Smoltz was excellent in game 1 and led the Braves to a 1-game lead. Maddux gave up 3 early runs in game 2, but settled down until the 7th inning. At that point, a Chipper Jones error eventually led to 5 unearned runs off of Maddux, capped by a 2-out grand slam to Gary Gaetti. Ron Gant managed 2 home runs off Tom Glavine in the next game, and Eckersley got his 4th save of the postseason – the Cardinals had actually made it through the Braves vaunted trifecta of starters with a 2-1 lead! The next game, a triple off the bat of Dmitri Young – who hadn’t even had enough time to qualify as a rookie yet – and a homer by Brian Jordan led the Cardinals to a win over Denny Neagle. The defending World Champions were on the brink of elimination.
After scoring just 10 runs in the first 4 games, Atlanta’s offense woke up in game 5 – scoring two touchdowns worth of runs. Smoltz won his 3rd game of the postseason, as he and the bullpen combined to shut out the Cardinals, 14-0, to send the series back to Atlanta. Maddux was dominant in game 6, and the Braves evened the series to force a deciding game 7. Glavine shut the door on the Cardinals in a blowout even more impressive than game 5. In addition to throwing 7 innings of shutout ball, Glavine had a 3-run triple that blew the doors open in a 6-run first inning.
The Yankees-Orioles series started off in Yankee Stadium with one of the more controversial calls in Series history. With the O’s on top 4-3 in the bottom of the 8th inning, Derek Jeter hit an opposite field fly ball toward the right field wall. 12-year old Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall in attempt to catch the ball, which bounced off his glove over the wall to tie the game. Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco argued vehemently that it should have been fan interference, and replays showed he was probably right. Three innings later, Bernie Williams hit a walk-off home run off closer Randy Myers to give the Yankees the first game of the series.
The Yankees scored twice in the first inning of game 2, but David Wells settled down and Baltimore battled back to tie the series behind a Rafael Palmeiro home run. It was Baltimore’s turn to take a 2-0 first inning lead in the next game, and they still had a 2-1 lead going into the 8th inning. It was all Yankees from there on out, though. Ace Mike Mussina gave up 4 runs, capped off by a Cecil Fielder smash to knock him out of the game. The Yankees won 8-4 in game 4 behind 2 homers from Darryl Strawberry, and a 6-run 3rd inning behind homers from Strawberry, Fielder and Jim Leyritz put the Yankees back in the World Series for the first time since 1981.
To end their longest championship drought since Babe Ruth played in Boston, the Yankees needed to overthrow the defending champion Braves. The Braves boasted the best starting pitching in baseball – but the Yankees had the best bullpen behind closer John Wetteland and phenom setup man – young Mariano Rivera.
It didn’t start out well for the Yankees. Though rain pushed the game back a day, Atlanta maintained their torrid pace from the last 3 games of the NLCS. Not even a rookie yet, 19-year old Andruw Jones became the youngest player to hit a World Series home run in the 2nd inning. He followed that up with another shot in the 6-run 3rd, and Cy Young winner Smoltz dominated the Bronx Bombers to win his 4th game of the postseason (and 28th of 1996). Maddux pitched 8 scoreless innings, and all of a sudden the defending champs were heading home with a 2 game lead.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, game 2 is the last World Series game they’ve won. Glavine and Yankee starter David Cone dueled to a 2-1 game through 7 innings, before a Bernie Williams homer of Greg McMichael gave a cushion that Wetteland wouldn’t relinquish in the 9th. I’ve always felt this game gets overlooked a bit in the history of baseball – if Cone wasn’t so outstanding, the Braves end up with an insurmountable 3-0 lead and who knows what happens to that Yankee dynasty if they don’t win the ’96 Series.
Atlanta bounced back early in game 4, taking a 5-0 lead and knocking Kenny Rogers out in the 3rd inning. They tacked another run on in the 5th. Denny Neagle was on a roll, but a couple of field miscues knocked him out of the game in the 6th inning and got the Yankees to within 6-3. Manager Bobby Cox brought in closer Mark Wohlers in the 8th inning, but he wasn’t up to the task, giving up a dramatic 3-run homer to Jim Leyritz that tied the game. The Yankees completed the comeback when Wade Boggs worked a “pinch walk” off of Steve Avery in the top of the 10th and a mistake by Ryan Klesko netted the Yankees another run and an 8-6 victory.
Smoltz was tasked with switching momentum back to Atlanta in game 5, and he was up to that task. Unfortunately for him, so was 21-game winner Andy Pettitte. The Braves’ hitters and fielder failed them. The only run of this contest was an unearned one that scored due to a mixup between outfielders Marquis Grissom and Jermaine Dye. This was the last game played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Greg Maddux stood between New York and clinching the title at home. And though Maddux was good, he was undone by a poor 3rd inning. After a leadoff double and a ground out got Paul O’Neill to 3rd base, Grissom misjudged a fly ball and Joe Girardi ended up with an RBI triple. Derek Jeter singled home Girardi, and after he stole second, Bernie Williams singled Jeter home. The Yankees couldn’t muster any more runs off of Jeter, but that was all they needed. After his starter gave up just one run through 5+ innings, Joe Torre pulled Jimmy Key and handed the game to his bullpen. Rivera pitched scoreless 7th and 8th innings, and Torre brought in Wetteland to close the series. The Braves managed a run and got the tying runner to 2nd base, but Wetteland got Mark Lemke to pop out and give the Yankees their first title in 18 years. Wetteland won the Series MVP award after becoming the first pitcher to save all 4 wins.