[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]
For the second time in four seasons, the Yankees and Braves matched up in the Fall Classic. In 1996 the Braves entered the Series as the defending champions; this time around the Yankees held that distinction. Neither team had missed the postseason since their last October meeting. The Braves were bounced from the NLCS in six games in both of those seasons, while the Yankees lost Game 5 of the ALDS in 1997 and swept the World Series in 1998.
Interleague play was introduced following the '96 Series. As a result, the Yanks and Braves had met every season since their last World Series match-up. In '97 the Braves took 2 of 3 at The Stadium. In '98 they split a two game set in New York then went to Atlanta where the Yanks swept two games. Finally, in July of '99 the Braves once again took two of three in New York, with both teams plating 20 runs over the course of the series.
The Yankees had posted the best record in the AL in 1999, at 98-64 (96-66 pythagorean) while the Braves had the best record in baseball at 103-59 (98-64 pythagorean). The Yankees had lost just one postseason game en route to the Series, the Braves three. The Yankees tied for the AL's best offense and had the second best pitching according to OPS+ and ERA+ respectively. By the same metrics, the Braves were roughly league average in offensive, but characteristically at the top of the heap in pitching.
In Chipper Jones the Braves had the eventual NL MVP, while Kevin Millwood was their ace of the year, finishing third the Cy Young race. Derek Jeter would finish third in the AL MVP voting, but was arguably the best position player in the AL, leading all batters in Win Probability Added. On the mound Mariano Rivera and David Cone finished third and sixth respectively in the AL Cy Young voting. In short, the two teams were very evenly matched.
Game 1 featured an outstanding pitching match up: Orlando Hernandez against Greg Maddux. It was a rematch of the July 16th interleague matchup in which both received no decisions but pitched poorly. El Duque went 4.2 IP, 8 H, 6 R, 6 ER, 3 BB, 3 K, 4 HR. Maddux was no better at 3.1 IP, 9 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 2 BB, 1 K
Despite that start, El Duque led the '99 Yankees in wins (17) and IP (214.1) and was second to Cone amongst starters in ERA (4.12). He started Game 1 in both the ALDS and ALCS as well as the clinching Game 5 of the ALCS. He came to the States with a reputation as a big game pitcher on the strength of his international resume for the Cuban national team, and his performance in the postseason showed that reputation was legit. He entered Game 1 having made five postseason starts, going 4-0, with a 0.97 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, and 30 K in 37 IP.
For the Braves, Greg Maddux took the mound. The 33 year-old led the Braves in wins, going 19-9 with a 3.57 ERA. By anyone else's standards he had an exceptional year, but by Greg Maddux' standards he had slipped a bit. His ERA+ of 125 was his poorest since '91. His 10.6 H/9 remains the worst of his now completed career and his WHIP of 1.35 was better than only his rookie season. But he looked like his old self in the postseason, going 1-1 in 3 starts and a relief appearance, and posting a 2.14 ERA in 21 IP.
Game 1 took place at Turner Field and despite the interleague debacle the previous summer, it proved to be a classic pitchers' duel. El Duque struck out the side in order in both the first and third innings, and worked around a walk in a hitless second. He gave up his first hit of the night on a solo HR to Chipper Jones in the fourth, but followed that with a perfect fifth, perfect sixth, and a seventh inning in which all he gave up he was a leadoff walk. By the time he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the top of the eighth, he had gone seven innings of one run ball, allowing the solo shot as his only hit, and walking two against ten Ks. It lowered his postseason WHIP to 0.98, raised his postseason ERA 1.02 and left him with 40 K in 44 IP.
Through seven, Maddux was nearly as good as El Duque, and benefited from not making the one big mistake Hernandez did. Maddux had faced four over the minimum. He registered perfect innings in the fourth and sixth, worked around singles in the first, third, and fifth, and around walks in the second and seventh. The two runners to make it as far as second base did so via a stolen base.
Just as it had in Game 6 in '96, one slightly poor inning did in Maddux, as the Yankees caught their break in the eighth.. Scott Brosius, with the World Series gods still smiling on him from the year before, led off with his third basehit of the night. With El Duque's spot due and desperately needing a run, Joe Torre called on Darryl Strawberry.
Just over a year earlier, Darryl Strawberry had been diagnosed with colon cancer. It knocked him out for the entire 1998 postseason. When spring training came around in February, Strawberry was in camp, but felt detached from the team, not participating fully and periodically leaving camp for chemotherapy treatments. The plan was for Straw to continue his recovery in Tampa and rejoin the team later in the sesaon. But as the team was breaking camp the isolation forced Straw to turn to old demons. On April 3rd he solicited what he thought was a prostitute only to find she was an undercover cop. While being arrested, he was found to be in possesion of cocaine. Major League Baseball handed down a 140 day suspension. Straw rejoined the team when rosters expanded in September and went on a tear, hitting .327/.500/.612 in 66 PA.
Strawberry drew a walk, an uncharacteristically high third free pass from Maddux on the night. Chad Curtis pinch ran for Straw and the lineup turned over with two on and no out. Entering the inning Bobby Cox sent Brian Hunter to replace Ryan Klesko at firstbase for defensive purposes. Klesko had made a costly error at first in Game 4 in '96, but it was not as costly as the errors Hunter was about to make. Chuck Knoblauch laid down a bunt, but Hunter misplayed it, leaving the bases loaded with no one out and the Yankees best hitter coming to the plate.
Jeter sent a single to left, tying the score and chasing Maddux. Bobby Cox called on Atlanta's inbred/racist/homophobe/moron/closer John Rocker. Paul O'Neill greeted Rocker with a single, plating Curtis and Knoblauch. Hunter committed another error on the cutoff, leaving two runners in scoring position. It was now 3-1 Yankees and still, no one was out.
Rocker intentionally walked Bernie Williams to load the bases, then fanned Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada. 1996 hero Jim Leyritz pinch hit for Ricky Ledee and walked to force Jeter home. Scott Brosius was then finally retired to the end the inning.
In the bottom of the inning the Yankees used Jeff Nelson, Mike Stanton, and Mariano Rivera to get an out each, stranding a Nelson walk at first. Torre's mixing and matching forced Bobby Cox to burn four pinch hitters for two plate appearances. Despite our most recent memories of him, there was a time when Joe Torre was a fairly brilliant tactician. He routinely managed circles around his counterparts in the 1999 postseason.
The Yankees went quietly in the ninth. In the bottom half of the inning, Mo retired the leadoff man, then allowed a single and a walk to bring the tying run to the plate with one out. But Mo struck out Brian Jordan and got Greg Myers to foul out to Brosius to end the game. The victory not only gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead in the Series, but ran their World Series winning streak to nine games, with five of the victories coming against the Braves, and four of them coming in Atlanta.