Wednesday, June 24, 2009

1996 World Series: Game 4

[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]

Joe Torre had held back David Cone for Game 3, believing it to be the most critical game of a series. That move worked like a charm. But the Yankees still trailed two games to one, making Game 4 nearly as critical. A win would even the Series, but a loss would push the Yankees to the brink of elimination.

The difference between Game 4 and Game 3 was that instead of handing the ball to the gutsy, tested David Cone, the start would go to Kenny Rogers. A native of nearby Savannah, Rogers had signed a four year, $20M free agent contract following the 1995 season, as he, Jack McDowell, and Ken Hill went on a free agent carousel that mirrored a three team trade.

Rogers had been a successful pitcher in Texas, spending his first four seasons as a reliever. Converted to a starter in 1993, Rogers performed well, going 44-25 with a 3.95 ERA (117 ERA+) in his final three seasons in Arlington. The Yankees always seek quality left handed pitching, but almost immediately following the signing there were questions as to whether Rogers had the right mental make up for New York.

1996 got off to a rough start for The Gambler, taking a BP line drive from Tony Fernandez of his pitching elbow early in spring training. He recovered to make thirty starts, going 12-8. He posted an ERA of 4.68, which was actually below league average in a record setting offensive year, good for an ERA+ of 107. But he was a constant tightrope act, allowing nearly 1.5 baserunners per inning, and posting a K/BB of only 1.11. He had been a disaster in his three postseason appearances, allowing 6 ER in 5 IP and failing to make it to the fourth inning in either of his starts.

For Game 4 he was opposed by future Yankee and friend to streetwalkers everywhere, Denny Neagle. Neagle was a deadline pick up for the Braves, and he pitched poorly in his six starts for the Braves, going 2-3 with a 5.59 ERA. But he had been dynamite with Pittsburgh earlier in the year and his final line for 1996 was 16-9, 3.50 ERA 126 ERA+. He had yet to register a decision in the '96 postseason, but entered Game 4 with a postseason ERA of 2.63 over 13.2 IP.

Rogers worked a perfect first, inducing three groundouts. He was an utter disaster thereafter. The Crimedog led off the bottom of the second with a solo shot. Rogers then issued free passes to Javy Lopez and Andruw Jones. Lopez moved to third on a Jermaine Dye flyout to right, then scored on a bunt single from Jeff Blauser. Neagle sacrificed the runners to second and third, then Marquis Grissom cleared the bases with a double. A Mark Lemke groundout ended the inning, but the damage was done. Rogers had spotted the Braves a four run lead.

Rogers returned to the mound for the third, but threw only seven more pitches, yielding back-to-back singles to Chipper Jones and Fred McGriff to put runners on the corners. As he had in Game 1, Torre turned to Brian Boehringer in the early going, and Boehringer faired far better this time around. He set down three in order to wriggle out of Rogers' jam, allowing the Braves fifth run to score on a sacrifice fly. Boehringer followed that with a perfect fourth.

Boehinger gave way to David Weathers for the fifth. He sandwiched two walks between two Ks, before allowing the sixth Brave run on an Andruw Jones double.

Neagle entered the top of the sixth up six runs and cruising. He had gone five scoreless innings, retired the first eight in a row, and allowed just two hits - one of them an infield single. His only hiccup came in the fourth when he walked three, but used a double play and his third strikeout of the night to get out of trouble. He had been close to untouchable, but his luck was about to change.

Derek Jeter led off the sixth with a single and moved to second on a Bernie Williams walk. Cecil Fielder and Charlie Hayes, starting against the lefty in place of Tino Martinez and Wade Boggs respectively, followed with back-to-back singles. An error by Jermaine Dye on the Fielder single allowed Williams to score, and Fielder to move to second then score on the Hayes single. That was it for Neagle; he exited leading 6-3 and responsible for Hayes on first.

The remainder of the sixth turned into a chess match. Terrell Wade relieved Neagle and walked Darryl Strawberry, making it first and second with no one out. Wade gave way to Mike Bielecki. As Jay pointed out yesterday, Bielecki wasn't the Atlanta closer, but he was their fireman. The veteran righty was in the second to last and best season of his 14 year career. He put out the blaze by striking out the side, getting Mariano Duncan and pinch hitters Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez although it took him 15 pitches to do so.

The game stayed at 6-3 for the remainder of the sixth and through the seventh. Jeff Nelson worked those two frames for the Yankees, yielding no hits and a walk against 2 Ks. Bielecki was nearly as effective in the seventh as he was in the sixth, giving up just a walk and notching another strikeout.

In the top of the eighth the whole World Series changed. Bobby Cox turned to his closer Mark Wholers. Hayes and Strawberry led off with back-to-back singles. Strawberry was erased on a fielder's choice from Duncan, leaving runners at the corners with one out. Jim Leyritz stepped to the plate and was about to make a career for himself.

Leyritz had first come up to the Yankees in the disastrous 1990 season, making him the most tenured member of the team. It took him until '92 to stick for good, but one thing Leyritz never lacked for was confidence, even as he hit .182/.300/.221 in '91. His brashness rubbed some the wrong way, but also earned him a measure of respect amongst him teammates, as well as two good nicknames: Elvis and The King. He already had won a bit of a reputation for coming up big in the post-season, as his 15th inning home run ended Game 2 of the 1995 ALDS.

Leyritz had entered the game in the bottom of the sixth, after O'Neill pinch hit for Joe Girardi, and had to face the fireballing Wholers in his first plate appearance of the night. Wholers peppered Leyritz with fastballs approaching 100 MPH and Leyritz struggled to keep up with them. Then, Wholers inexplicably threw a 2-2 slider. He hung it, and Leyritz yanked it over the left field fence to tie the score at six.

Mariano Rivera took over in the bottom of the eighth and worked around a leadoff single to keep the score tied. Wholers made it interesting again in the top of the ninth, allowing three consecutive two out singles to load the bases, before getting Duncan to line out and end the threat.

In the bottom of the ninth, Rivera put two on with one out when Torre summoned Graeme Lloyd to face McGriff. Lloyd was absolutely awful after coming over from the Brewers in an August trade. His ERA was 17.47 and WHIP was 3.00 over 13 appeances. There were rumors that he was damaged goods and there was reason to believe that he was. The initial trade also had former Rookie of the Year Pat Listach going to the Yankees until he was found to be injured, requiring the Brewers to send Ricky Bones to complete the deal.

But as the fall dawned, Lloyd turned over a new leaf. He allowed just one hit and no runs over four appearances and 2.2 IP between the ALDS and ALCS and was perfect through 1.1 IP between Games 2 and 3 of the World Series, striking out three of the four batters he faced. Lloyd continued his superb October by getting a doubleplay grounder from McGriff to send the game to extra innings.

In the tenth, Cox replaced Wholers with Steve Avery. At the outset of the Braves postseason run in 1991 it appeared that Avery would be part of "The Big Three" with Glavine and Smoltz. He went 47-25 from '91-'93 and finished sixth in the '91 Cy Young Award voting. But Avery began slipping in '94 and by '96 he was a sub-.500 pitcher with an ERA slightly poorer than the league average. The arrivals of Maddux and Neagle had bumped him from the postseason rotation.

Avery recorded two quick outs. But Tim Raines drew a walk, followed by an infield single from Jeter that put the go-ahead run in scoring position. Cox elected to intentionally walk Bernie Williams to load the bases. Light hitting Andy Fox was due up, but Torre had one last bullet in his gun.

Wade Boggs was the last position player on the bench. Hayes had started at third with the lefty Neagle starting, and Torre had elected to use O'Neill, Martinez, and even Mike Aldrete for earlier pinch hitting duties. It was almost as if Torre was waiting for this opportunity to come around.

Boggs had suffered through the Red Sox collapse in the 1986 World Series as well as their beatdowns at the hands of the Oakland A's in the 1988 and 1990 ALCS. His arrival in New York was a big part of changing the culture of the organization, and he rewarded the team with two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers in his first four seasons in pintstripes. But Hayes' arrival at the waiver deadline reduced Boggs' playing time. He had gone a combined 3 for 27 (.111) in the AL playoffs, but rebounded to go 3 for 8 between Games 1 and 2 of the Series.

Boggs pinch hit for Fox, and as he had done so often in his career, he worked a full count, then drew a walk to give the Yankees the lead. Cox pulled a double switch, putting Ryan Klesko at first and bringing in Brad Clontz to face Charlie Hayes. Hayes popped up to first, but Klesko made an error, giving the Yankees a two run lead.

Lloyd came back to the mound for the bottom of the tenth. He struck out Klesko leading off the inning, to run his World Series ledger to 2.1 perfect innings with four strikeouts. Torre then called on John Wetteland to get the final two outs. Wetteland gave up a single to Andruw Jones, then ended the game by getting both Dye and Terry Pendleton to fly out to left.

With that, the Series became a best of three.

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