Wednesday, June 24, 2009

1996 World Series: Game 6

[With the Yankees squaring off against the Braves this week, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at the two World Series during which they faced off in the late 90's]

As the Yankees left New York following Game 2, they were trailing in the Series two games to none and had been embarassed in the two losses. Yet Joe Torre had assured George Steinbrenner they would win all three in Atlanta and take Game 6 in New York. Now, five days later and back in New York, Torre was 75% of the way to being prophetic.

Game 6 was a rematch of the last game in New York, Game 2, in which Jimmy Key and Greg Maddux squared off. The 1992-93 offseason was a critical juncture in the transformation of the Yankees from a losing franchise to a championship team. Bernie Williams had just finished his second consecutive half season with the Major League team, and was primed to become the full time centerfielder in 1993. Derek Jeter had just been drafted sixth overall and had made his professional debut that past summer. Mariano Rivera had finished the year in High A Ft. Lauderdale while both Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were transitioning from Low A Greensboro to High A Prince William.

Paul O'Neill was acquired in a trade for Roberto Kelly, opening up centerfield for Williams, and Wade Boggs was signed on the free agent market. But as good as both O'Neill and Boggs would be, neither filled the team's biggest need.

The Yankees were the winningest team of the 1980s, but all they had to show for it was the 1980 AL East title and the AL Pennant in the strike-shortened 1981 season. They were always good, but never great, and it was usually due to a lack of pitching. From 1988, the last Yankee winning season as they entered that offseason, through 1992, the Yankees pitching staff gave up more runs per game than the AL average every year, never finishing better than 11th in the 14 team league. So with a mouth-watering crop of free agent pitchers hitting the market that offseason, the Yankees were hell bent on fixing that problem once and for all.

The team first set their sites on David Cone and Greg Maddux. On December 8th, Cone signed with the Kansas City Royals for a suitcase full of Ewing Kauffman's cash. On December 9th, Maddux chose to sign with Atlanta for less than what the Yankees were offering. So on December 10th, the Yankees settled for Cone's former Blue Jays teammate, Jimmy Key, for 4 years and just under $17M. Key might not have been the pitcher Cone and Maddux were, but as Jay detailed yesterday, he was brilliant in pinstripes and earned every penny of that deal. The Yankee staff would find itself above league average every year of his time in pinstripes. Game 6 of the 1996 World Series proved to be Jimmy Key's final appearance for the Yankees, and it would be the cherry on top of an outstanding four year stay in the Bronx.

Key had it easy through the first three innings. He retired the side in order in the first, allowed just a walk in the second, and a one out double in the third that was left stranded.

In the bottom of the third, the Yankees knocked the air of invincibility off Maddux. Paul O'Neill and his gimpy hamstring led off with a double, then moved to third on a Mariano Duncan groundout to second. Girardi then knocked a triple to deep centerfield, over the head of Marquis Grissom. As O'Neill crossed the plate giving the Yankees a 1-0 lead, Yankee Stadium was literally shaking.

The lineup turned back over to Derek Jeter, who drove Girardi in to make it 2-0. Jeter stole second, then Wade Boggs popped out for the second out of the inning. Bernie Williams then drove Jeter home with a single for his 15th and final RBI of the '96 postseason.

Key gave a run back in the fourth. With one out, he walked Fred McGriff, then gave up back-to-back singles to Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones to load the bases. Jermaine Dye worked a five pitch walk to force McGriff home, but Key then got out of the jam by getting Terry Pendleton to ground into a doubleplay.

In the fifth, Key faced the minimum. Marquis Grissom managed a one out single, but he was erased at second when trying to advance on a pitch that squirted away from Girardi. Replays showed he was clearly safe, and Grissom lost it. He was fortunate he didn't get ejected, making repeated contact with umpires as he protested. Bobby Cox was not so lucky; he got tossed and watched the rest of the World Series from the clubhouse.

Key returned for the sixth and gave up a leadoff double to Chipper Jones. McGriff then grounded to second, moving Jones to third. Torre came out and got the ball from Key. He ended his Yankee career in line to be the winning pitcher in the clinching game of the World Series, the same way he ended his tenure with the Blue Jays.

David Weathers relieved Key. Like Graeme Lloyd, Weathers was atrocious to the tune of a 9.35 ERA in 17.1 IP after being picked up from the Florida Marlins at the July 31st deadline. But also like Lloyd, Weathers put it together in the postseason, working eight scoreless innings of four hit, five K ball in the AL Playoffs. He entered Game 6 having given up a run in 2.2 IP in the Series.

Weathers fanned Lopez for the second out of the sixth and then walked Andruw Jones to put runners on the corners and the potential tying run on base. Torre called on Lloyd to face fellow lefty Ryan Klesko and Lloyd completed his perfect World Series by getting Klesko to pop out.

In the seventh it was time for Torre's Formula. Mariano Rivera, the MVP of the 1996 Yankees, came in from the pen for the eighth and final time that postseason. After a leadoff walk to Pendleton, Rivera put down three in a row. He followed that with a perfect eighth.

John Wetteland, the other half of the The Formula, took the mound for the ninth. He fanned Andruw Jones, then gave up singles to Klesko and Pendleton. Once again, there were runners at the corners and the tying run was on first.

Luis Polonia pinch hit for Jeff Blauser and struck out for the second out of the ninth. But Marquis Grissom temporarly postponed the celebration, singling on the first pitch he saw to make the score 3-2, moving the tying run into scoring position and putting the go-ahead run on base.

Mark Lemke stepped to the plate. The New York native worked a full count. He fouled a 3-2 pitch off to the left side. Charlie Hayes, a defensive replacement for Boggs at third, gave chase and fell into the Atlanta dugout in a futile attempt to snag it. On the next pitch, Lemke popped another foul ball, just behind third base, over by the tarp. Hayes settled under it, hauled it in, and gave the Yankees their first World Series Championship in 18 years and 23rd overall. Wetteland had saved all four Yankee victories and was named the MVP of the Series.

Three years later, they would meet again in the Fall Classic.

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