Friday, December 15, 2006

The Greatest World Series ever played: #40

1996 - The Most Famous Hanging Slider of All-Time

For years, Yankees fans spent Octobers in an unusual way - watching the games on TV. In 1996, it had been 15 years since the Yankees had been to the Fall Classic, and 18 since they won. The Boss, the fans, and even Billy Crystal was getting restless. In 1995, they showed flashes of resurgence. In '96, they put it all together thanks to a new-look lineup. Gone was Don Mattingly, stalwart for years in pinstripes. In came a slugger made for Yankee stadium, Tino Martinez, who bashed his way to 25 home runs and 117 rbis on the season. Gone was the offensive black hole named Pat Kelly. In came Mariano Duncan, who hit .340 in a season to remember. The Yankees no longer relied on Black Jack McDowell or Sterling Hitchcock to start 50 games. Veterans Jimmy Key and Kenny Rogers were now on the staff. Most importantly, however, was the emergence of 3 young players who would form the foundation of the dynasty to be. Outfielder Bernie Williams went from a helpful outfielder with promise to a legitimate MVP candidate, hitting .305 with 29 HR and 102 rbi. 24 year old starter Andy Pettitte emerged as the ace of the staff, winning 21 games. Finally, a rookie shortstop named Derek Jeter took the league by storm. It was no coincidence they trusted him with a single digit jersey. Those aren't too easy to come by in Yankee Stadium. After starting the playoffs on a bad note with a loss to the Rangers, the Yankees rallied to 3 straight wins by a total of 4 runs. After dispatching of division rival Baltimore in the ALCS, Yankee nation was primed for it's first World Series appearance since the Reagan administration.

The National League's representative, however, was no spring chicken, so to speak. The Atlanta Braves had been here before. In fact, they'd won the National League in 4 of the last 5 years and were reigning champs. After sweeping the Dodgers in the first round, the Braves ran into trouble in the championship series with St. Louis. Atlanta ace John Smoltz beat the Cards in game one, but the redbirds reeled off three straight wins against Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Denny Neagle. Atlanta badly needed to make a statement in game 5 and send the series back to Atlanta. It did. An offensive barrage led to 14 runs while Smoltz held St. Louis scoreless. Game 6 offered Maddux a second chance, and he delivered a 3-1 victory. In game 7, Atlanta never gave the Cards a chance. Atlanta batted around in the first frame, scoring 6 runs on a hit batsmen and 5 hits, including a Tom Glavine triple. Glavine and two relievers held St. Louis scoreless and the Braves cruised to a 15-0 win and a chance to repeat. Atlanta carried one of its best teams to the postseason in '96, led by its legendary three starters. Tom Glavine (15-10, 2.98) and Greg Maddux (15-11, 2.72) had gotten the spotlight for years, but '96 was the year of John Smoltz, who proved nearly unbeatable on his way to a 24-8, 2.94 season. He notched 10 strikeouts in a game 12 times in his memorable season and was the clear #1 for the Braves. The Atlanta lineup was much the same as in '95, except with the addition of a superb teenage outfielder named Andruw Jones.

Game one took the teams to Yankee Stadium, and excitement was high. Smoltz' control was a bit off, issuing 5 walks, but Atlanta quickly deflated the New York crowd. In the 2nd, 19 year old Andruw Jones homered in his first at-bat, becoming the youngest player to hit a home run in the World Series. In the following inning, the Braves added to the lead with an offensive outburst. After 2 singles and a sac-bunt, with two men in scoring position, the Yankees brought the infield in, anticipating a bunt from Atlanta star third baseman Chipper Jones. Jones ripped a two run single, took 2nd on the throw, and promptly stole 3rd. Fred McGriff brought him in with a single, making it 5-0, and after a Javy Lopez walk, the young Jones was up again. This time he hit a 3 run homer, becoming the only player not named Gene Tenace to homer in his first two WS ab's. The score was 8-0, and the Yankees didn't recover. Atlanta cruised to a 12-1 victory.

With its wealth of starters, Atlanta sent out another ace in game two, Greg Maddux. The Yankees avoided any big Atlanta innings, but Fred McGriff drove in a run in each of his first three at-bats, and Maddux dominated. The Braves won 4-0, taking a huge 2-0 Series lead and, more importantly, were headed back to Atlanta.

In game 3, Atlanta trotted out yet another ace, Tom Glavine, the hero of the previous World Series. David Cone held Atlanta scoreless for 5 innings while New York built a 2-0 lead. In the 6th, Atlanta threatened, loading the bases with 2 outs. Ryan Klesko then drew an rbi walk which brought NLCS MVP Javy Lopez to the plate. Cone induced an inning-ending pop-up, however, and the Yankees held onto a 2-1 lead. Atlanta pinch-hit for Glavine in the 7th and replaced him with Greg McMichael in the 8th. McMichael immediately gave up a single to Derek Jeter and then a homer to Bernie Williams. This sealed the game for the Yankees, who would go on to win 5-2.

Game 4 featured the Gambler, Kenny Rogers, going up against Denny Neagle. Rogers proved ineffective, and a dismal 2nd inning was nearly New York's undoing. Fred McGriff led off with a homer, Mariano Duncan failed to cover first on a Jeff Blauser bunt, and Marquis Grissom ripped a two-run double. The Braves had a 4-0 lead and yet another rout appeared to be on. Atlanta added insurance runs in the 3rd and 5th, and seemed to be on cruise control until a controversial 6th inning. Derek Jeter popped up into foul territory in right field, but the RF umpire interfered with Jermaine Dye's attempt to catch it, giving Jeter a second chance. He singled, Bernie Williams walked, Cecil Fielder hit an RBI single which also brought in Williams on a Dye error, and Gerald Hayes hit another RBI single. The lead was suddenly cut in half, and the Braves went to the bullpen, bringing in young Terrell Wade. Wade issued a walk to Darryl Strawberry and out trotted Bobby Cox again, this time bringing in Mike Bielecki, who admirably notched 3 straight strikeouts. One of Bielecki's strikeout victims was Paul O'Neill, pinch hitting for catcher Joe Girardi. In the bottom of the 6th, the Yankees brought in backup Jim Leyritz to take over at backstop. In the 8th, Atlanta brought in ace reliever Mark Wohlers to seal the deal. On the first play, Gerald Hayes hit a dribbler down the third base line. Rather than fielding and throwing out Hayes (whose speed can be clocked with a sundial), Jones waited to see if the ball went foul. It didn't, and the Yankees had a baserunner. Strawberry singled, and Duncan hit a hard grounder which wasn't fielded cleanly. It wound up as a force, and the Yankees had men on 2nd and 3rd. Next up was backup catcher Leyritz. On what would be remembered as one of the greatest World Series moments of all time, Leyritz connected on a hanging slider for a game tying, three run homer.

The game went to extra frames, when Atlanta reliever Steve Avery surrendered another run in the 10th. A mental error by reliever Brad Clontz led to a Ryan Klesko error later in the inning and John Wetteland closed out the wild, 8-6 Yankee victory. The series was tied, and Atlanta's momentum was completely gone.

Game 5 proved to be another one for the ages, but not for momentum shifts and big home runs. Rather, game 5 was a matchup between two 20 game winners who pitched like 20 game winners. Young Andy Pettitte pitched the game of his life, as did John Smoltz. Neither allowed an earned run, but in the 4th inning, Atlanta suffered yet another defensive gaffe as Marquis Grissom dropped a flyball and the Yankees capitalized with a run. It was all they needed, and Pettitte held the Braves in check before giving way to Wetteland in the 9th. The Yankees had done the impossible, winning all three in Atlanta, taking the series lead, and sending the series back to New York needing only to win one more.

Game 6 featured a rematch of Maddux-Key, and the Yankees struck first. A 4-hit 3rd inning gave them a 3-0 lead. Maddux got back on track and left it up to the offense. In the 4th, a Jermaine Dye bases-loaded walk cut the lead to 3-1. In the 5th, however, after Marquis Grissom was called out trying for a double, Bobby Cox went out to argue and on his way back to the dugout was ejected. This drew a bit of controversy as Cox was finished making his case and the ejection was certainly delayed. The Braves wouldn't pose a threat until the top of the 9th. Klesko singled, Terry Pendleton singled, and Atlanta had runners at 1st and 3rd. After a Luis Polonia strikeout, Marquis Grissom hit a single, scoring Klesko and sending pinch runner Rafael Belliard to 2nd. With 2 outs and a runner in scoring position, Mark Lemke came to the plate. Lemke had a reputation for clutch postseason hitting but couldn't come through, popping up in foul territory to third baseman Charlie Hayes. The Yankees had dropped two at home but won 4 straight against one of the best pitching staffs ever assembled. The heroes of the series were John Wetteland, who saved all 4 wins, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, and of course Jim Leyritz.

Why was the Series great? It had several great contests, including the Leyritz shot in game 4 and the amazing pitching duel in game 5. Andruw Jones made history and the series ended with a one run win with a man in scoring position.

Why wasn't it great? 4 straight wins by the Yankees, and the first three games weren't particularly exciting. Also, the series was marred by some terrible defense from both teams. Still, one of the better 4-2 series in memory.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

The 41 Greatest World Series Ever Played: #41

1969 - Amazin'

Since their inception in 1962, the New York Mets were the laughing stock of baseball. In 1962 they were the worst team to ever play, winning only 40 of their 160 games. They endured a lovable loser tag for years, until 1969. In the summer of '69, the Mets overcame a poor start to make a push for the playoffs. The Chicago Cubs, however, still led the division in mid August by 9 1/2 games. They were playing so well, shortstop Ernie Banks remarked that the Cubs should play extra games just for fun. "Let's Play Two" doomed the Cubs, who completely fell apart in September, clearing the way for the Mets to blow past them on their way to an 8 game lead in the brand new National League East. In the first ever NL Championship Series, the "Amazin's" swept the Atlanta Braves, 3 to 0, and were headed to an improbable first World Series appearance.

Baltimore's road to the World Series was quite different. Just three years earlier, the O's had won the 1966 World Series and then established themselves as the prominent team in the American League. They cruised to an AL West championship by 19 games, winning 109. Like the Mets, the Orioles swept their opponent in the ALCS 3-0. Heading into the Series, the Orioles were the clear favorite to win the title.

Game one saw a matchup of Cy Young winners, Mike Cuellar, who won 23 games, against New York's young ace, Tom Seaver, himself a winner of 25. However, on Seaver's second pitch, Orioles rightfielder Don Buford launched a home run to right field. As he rounded 2nd base, he told Al Weis, "You ain't seen nuthin' yet." With a lineup that featured stars Boog Powell, Frank Robinson, and Brooks Robinson, Buford had good reason to be confident. Cuellar pitched well and Baltimore cruised to a 4-1 win, prompting many to predict a short, quick series. They would be right.

In game two, the Orioles sent out their other 20 game winner, Dave McNally. Like game one, the Mets were sending out a young gun, this time Jerry Koosman. Like Seaver, he was in his third season. Like Seaver, Koosman's inexperience was supposed to work against him. McNally was on target, but Koosman matched him unexpectedly. Mets OF Donn Clendenon led off the 4th with a home run against McNally while Koosman stifled the O's, not allowing a hit for 6 innings. In the 7th, however, Baltimore struck, tying the game. In the 9th, McNally's dominance ran out. He gave up 3 straight singles and Ron Taylor shut the door on the O's with a scoreless 9th. The O's had managed only 2 hits in the 2-1 loss, and the series was tied heading to New York.

The Orioles put their trust in young star Jim Palmer in game 3. Unfortunately, they weren't ready for the Tommie Agee show. Agee did his best Don Buford impression and led off the game with a home run. Mets starter Gary Gentry helped himself out with a two-run double in the 2nd, and he wouldn't allow a hit until the 4th inning. In the 4th, however, the Baltimore all-star lineup threatened, putting runners on 1st and 3rd with two outs. Ellie Hendricks ripped a shot to center, but Agee came from nowhere to make a stunning snowcone catch.

Three innings later, Agee would match the feat, making a diving catch with runners on to bail out Gentry yet again. Agee's play in game 3 was arguably the turning point of the series, leading New York to a 5-0 victory and a 2-1 Series lead.

Game 4 saw a rematch of Cuellar and Seaver, and Tom "Terrific" lived up to his nickname, scattering 6 hits and holding the O's scoreless for 8 innings. In the 9th, however, with only a one run lead, Seaver ran into trouble. Back to back singles left runners at the corners with future Hall of Fame 3B Brooks Robinson at the plate. Robinson hit a line drive to right, but Ron Swoboda was there, making a diving back-handed catch. Frank Robinson would tag up to tie, but the catch saved the inning as Seaver got out of the jam. Seaver came back out in the 10th and continued to baffle O's hitters. In the bottom half of the 10th, Don Buford misplayed a Jerry Grote hit which allowed him to reach second. It wouldn't be the end of Baltimore's defensive struggles. With two men on, pitcher Pete Richert fielded a sacrifice bunt and skimmed the runner with the throw, sending the ball into right field. The go-ahead run came around, Earl Weaver argued to no avail, and the Mets were suddenly up 3-1 in the series.

Game 5 featured a rematch of game 2's talented starters, McNally and Koosman. The Orioles got to Koosman early when McNally hit a 2 run homer in the 3rd, followed up by a Frank Robinson solo shot. McNally cruised until the 6th, when a famous play took place that changed the course of the game. Cleon Jones jumped out of the way of a shoestring pitch, but immediately claimed it hit him. After examining the ball, evidence of shoe polish was found, and Jones was awarded first base. Donn Clendenon, the next batter, hit a two run homer to get the Mets back into the game. In the 7th, 2B Al Weis homered (don't you think he wished he could've jogged by Don Buford at that moment and smiled?) to tie the game. In the 8th the Mets scored twice on doubles and a key error by Boog Powell. Koosman remained on the mound and finished out the 5-3 win, finishing what was seen by many to be the closest thing baseball had to a miracle. The "Miracle Mets" not only beat the Baltimore Orioles, but did so in 5 games.

Why was this series great? The key defense of the Mets, the underdog story, the great pitching on both sides.

Why not as great as others? The games weren't particularly close or didn't come down to the last atbat very much. The Mets won by 3 games, so there was never a sense of shared urgency out on the field. That said, this is the greatest 5 game series ever played. Amazin' indeed.