A.J. Burnett's fifth inning meltdown last night, coupled with another win by the Rays has New York and Tampa Bays knotted atop the AL East. The Rays won last night on the strength of an outstanding Major League debut by stud pitching prospect Jeremy Hellickson. Hellickson went seven innings of two run ball, allowing just six baserunners and fanning six.
That the touted rookie played such a critical role in the Rays climbing back into first for the first time since June 19th reminded of something that happened during the Yankees' stretch run in 1996.
The Yankees had entered a tie for first place on April 28th and never looked back. Three months later, their lead over Baltimore swelled to an even dozen games. But from July 29th through September 16th, the Yanks went just 22-24 while the O's went a blistering 31-15. As Baltimore came to the Bronx for a critical three game series starting September 18th, the lead had shrunk to just three games. The Yankees sent their ace, sophomore Andy Pettitte, to the mound that night. He carried a 21-8 record as he opposed Baltimore's Scott Erickson.
Baltimore took a 1-0 in the top of the first on the strength of Brady Anderson leadoff double, a sacrifice bunt from Robbie Alomar, and an RBI groundout from Todd Zeile. The Yankees used the same blue print to tie the score in the fifth, with a double from Jim Leyritz, a bunt from Mariano Duncan, and an RBI groundout from Wade Boggs. Eddie Murray then singled home Bobby Bonilla in the seventh to put Baltimore up 2-1.
Down to their final three outs and trailing by a run, the Yankees faced Oriole closer Randy Myers in the ninth. Paul O'Neill drew a leadoff walk. Hobbled by a torn hamstring that would plague him for the remainder of the year, O'Neill was lifted for pinch runner Ruben Rivera.
A cousin of the Yankees then set-up man Mariano Rivera, it was Ruben who was more likely to be the future Hall of Famer as the two came up through the minor league system. Ruben won back-to-back MVP awards in the NY-Penn and South Atlantic Leagues in '93 and '94, was named the Yankees minor league player of the year by Baseball America for three years running, was the #2 overall prospect entering 1995, and the #3 overall entering 1996. Though Derek Jeter had beat Rivera to the punch in becoming a Big League regular, the two were considered equally promising prospects by the organization.
Rivera moved to second when Cecil Fielder walked, then scored the tying run on Bernie Williams' RBI single. Mariano held the fort in the top of the tenth. Ruben was due up fourth in the bottom of the inning.
Derek Jeter led off the inning with a base hit. Charlie Hayes bunted him to second, and Tim Raines' groundout moved him to third. With two outs and the winning run just 90 feet away, Rivera stepped into the box for just his 82nd Major League plate appearance. He was batting an impressive .270/.400/.460 on the season, but had been to the plate just 19 times in the three plus weeks since his last recall, going just four for sixteen with three walks in that time.
Former Yankee Alan Mills was on the mound for Baltimore and had two bases open. But he needed just one out to extend the game for another inning, and he had top of his potent line up due to bat in the top half of the eleventh. Mills was going to go after the rusty rookie rather than take his chances with whoever would pinch hit for Pat Kelly (who had run for Fielder the inning before).
Rivera fouled off the first two pitches, leaving him in an 0-2 hole. He battled back to even the count at 2-2, and on the fifth pitch of the at bat he lofted a hump back liner over the head of Robbie Alomar, giving the Yankees the win. The Yankee lead was back to four games; Baltimore would get no closer over the season's final eleven days.
One week later the Yankees clinched their first division title in fifteen years when they took the first game of a doubleheader from the Brewers, a 19-2 rout. Rivera played right field that day, and despite the blowout score, took a pair of opportunities to show off his rocket right arm. The next day he awoke with shoulder soreness, which eventually required surgery the following spring. He never played for the Yankees after that, instead serving as the centerpiece of the package the Yankees shipped to San Diego for the rights to Hideki Irabu in April 1997.
Rivera never fulfilled his promise in San Diego, or in any of his three other Major League stops. He had a chance to rejoin the Yankees as a back up outfielder in 2002, but blew that opportunity when he stole a glove from Derek Jeter's locker during Spring Training and sold it to a memorabilia dealer. After a brief return to the Yankees' minor league system in 2005, Rivera has spent the past four years posting impressive numbers in the Mexican League.
Just as Rivera did fourteen years, Hellickson helped his team to a big victory last night. For Hellickson's sake I hope he fulfills his promise better than Rivera did. For the Yankees' sake, I hope Hellickson's heroics last night prove less decisive than Rivera's were on that September night against the O's.