Before Game 5 rolled around, Andy Pettitte didn't have the most spectacular resume as a postseason pitcher. In 30 2/3 innings he had given up 29 hits and walked 15 while only striking out 11. As a result, he had allowed 21 earned runs, translating to an ERA of 6.16. His one solid playoff start, an eight inning, two run effort against Baltimore in Game 5 of the ALCS had been more recently overshadowed by the runaway train that bowled him over in Game 1 of the World Series.
As was the case in that game, his opponent was John Smoltz, who was well on his way to establishing a postseason resume which might be the best of all time, behind Mariano Rivera. After what was his finest season as a starting pitcher, Smoltz had already notched wins in all four of his postseason starts, allowing 5 runs in 30 IP (1.50ERA).
Due to the Game 1 rainout, this was the fourth straight day on which a World Series game occurred. As your average armchair prognosticator might predict, this would weigh more heavily on the position players who had taken the field all four days than the starting pitchers, and set the stage for a classic October pitchers' duel.
Regardless of the outcome, Game 5 of the '96 series was going to be the final event ever held at Fulton County Stadium, which amplified the electricity even beyond a World Series game which would determine which team went ahead 3-2. Smoltz took the hill in the top of the first and struck out the side in order, sending the home crowd into a frenzy. Pettitte countered by getting Marquis Grissom and Mark Lemke to swing through strike threes and then retiring Chipper Jones on a long fly to left.
Smoltz and Pettitte both allowed baserunners in the second inning, but each avoided trouble with two groundouts and a punchout. Smoltz tallied his fifth and sixth strikeouts in the third inning while Pettitte worked around a walk to Marqius Grissom and stranded him at second after a stolen base.
Leading off the top of the fourth, Charlie Hayes poked a ball towards the gap in right center. It was placed directly in between centerfielder Grissom and right fielder Jermaine Dye. As the two converged, Grissom called Dye off, but instead of getting out of his way, Dye stepped in front of Grissom, creating an unintentional screen for his teammate. Grissom momentaily lost track of the ball and it bounced off of his glove. Grissom was charged with the error, although if you were to ask Jermaine Dye, he would probably accept the blame. It would prove to be a costly mistake.
After a Bernie Willaims ground out moved Hayes to thrid, the Braves brought the infield in for Cecil Fielder. Big Daddy smashed a one-hopper off the left field wall, driving in Hayes and leaving Fielder on second base. It was an unearned run, a designation which only matters on paper.
Pettitte allowed base runners in the bottom of the fourth, fifth and sixth innings but was helped out by a caught stealing and two double plays.
Smoltz did the same in the fifth through seventh using three strikeouts and a double play to avoid further damage. However, after those seven innings, Smoltz had already thrown 126 pitches. Mike Bielecki had been used for two innings the night before and instead of bringing him out in a game the Braves were losing, Bobby Cox opted to leave Smoltz in. It turned out to be a good decision and he mowed down the Yanks on nine pitches in the top of the eighth.
Pettitte, by contrast, had only thrown 88 pitches. He got behind all four hitters in the frame 1-0, but needed only two pitches for each of them. Jeff Blauser flew out to left, pinch hitter Mike Mordecai grounded out to short, Marquis Grissom singled to center but Mark Lemke grounded out to Charlie Hayes for the third out.
Mark Wohlers came in for the ninth and walked Paul O'Neill with one out. Paulie was erased by a Mariano Duncan force out. This brought up Jim Leyritz with Andy Pettitte on deck. Wohlers intentionally walked the catcher, and instead of using Wade Boggs or Tim Raines, Torre opted to allow Pettitte to bat so he could face Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff in the bottom of the inning. Pettitte hit a flyball to left and went back to the dugout to grab his glove.
He got ahead of Jones 1-2, but Chipper laced a double down the left field line to lead off the inning. Torre stuck with his plan and left Pettitte in to face McGriff, who grounded out and advanced the runner to third. Pettitte's night was done as Torre summoned John Wetteland to face Javy Lopez and try to get out of the jam. With Mariano Rivera at his disposal, Torre almost never called on his closer to get out of a tight spot in the middle of an inning.
Wettleland got Lopez to ground out to third base, holding the runner and putting the Yankees two outs away from living up to the seemingly impossible promise Torre made to George Steinbrenner after losing Game 2. Cox pinch hit lefty Ryan Klesko for righty Andruw Jones and Torre responded by giving Klesko a free pass and putting the winning run on base. He made another unorthodox decision that had the potential to look awfully foolish if the game did not go his way.
Jermaine Dye was due up next and to that point in the postseason was hitting .163 and had only drawn one walk. Cox summoned Luis Polonia and although he had yet to reach base in the '96 playoffs, had appeared in two World Series before. Polonia fouled off six straight fastballs from Wetteland, causing first base coach Jose Cardenal to shift the defensive alignment left, on the hunch that Polonia would be unlikely to pull the ball. Wetteland delivered another fastball up in the zone which Polonia redirected into the gap in right-center. With the runners going on contact, Klesko would have likely scored from first base had the ball landed. However, due to the keen repositioning by Cardenal, O'Neill tracked down the ball just in time, and made the catch before his momentum carried him into the wall.
The only run of the game was unearned, an unfortunate occurrence that had only befallen three other teams in World Series history: the 1905 Philadelphia Athletics, the 1921 Yankees and the 1986 Mets.
Amazingly, the two biggest plays of the game took place in almost the same spot on the field, both ending up, against all odds, in favor of the Yankees. If either of those go the other way, the Yanks would have been staring down 3-2 deficit on the plane ride home and would have had to take both games at Yankee Stadium. Instead the needed to win only one of them to clinch their first Championship in 18 years.