The Yankees salvaged the final game of the series against the Red Sox on Sunday, but a huge reason for their rebound from Mariano Rivera's crushing blown save was reliever Brandon Workman's wildness. With Ichiro Suzuki on third base, he threw one over catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia's head, affording Ichiro with plenty of time to scamper home from third base. (Ichiro later dropped this gem about how easy it was to score that run: "Anyone could make that read, once it got by him. Suzyn [Waldman] could have made it.")
It was the Yankees' first walk-off wild pitch in 36 years, and the bizarre conclusion prompted thoughts about other similarly strange ways of winning a game. Here's the criteria I used to generate this top 10 list:
1) This list is only looking at Yankee wins.
2) The play must have been in the final at-bat of the game. This rule thus excludes weird things to prolong a game, like Mickey Owen's dropped third strike in the '41 World Series, and weirdness in the top of a late inning like this go-ahead balk, but the focus is on the final play. (Disappointingly, the Yankees have never had a balk-off win.)
3) With one exception, none of the plays listed are hits or walks since those plays are typically not that strange. Sure, it was shocking when Jason Giambi hit a come-from-behind walk-off grand slam or the likes of Bubba Crosby hit walk-off homers, but homers themselves aren't really strange.
With the formalities out of the way, here are the 10 craziest endings to a game in Yankees history:
10 (tie). Berra and Hayes get reprieves
9/28/1951 vs. Boston Red Sox and
World Seres Game 6, 10/26/1996 vs. Atlanta Braves
These plays deserve to both be on the list, and they were very alike in tense circumstances, so they both make the list. I put them last because the true weirdness was not the final pitch of the game, but they are both quite worthy.
Near the end of the championship '51 season, Yankees starter Allie Reynolds was working on his second no-hitter of the season. No other Yankee has even thrown two no-hitters overall, and "Superchief" threw his two no-nos in one season. I've written about this game before, so here's an excerpt detailing the hectic final at-bat against Hall of Famer Ted Williams:
Reynolds pitched, and Williams swung. The ball went straight up in the air, behind the plate. He was going to do it! He approached the ball, but his sure-handed catcher Berra moved over a few steps to get it. Yogi got under it, waited... and completely muffed it. The ball bounced off the top of his glove as he closed his mitt a millisecond too early. Williams had new life, and Berra felt awful. When asked if he was upset about the missed opportunity, Reynolds dismissed this idea, saying, "No. I was just afraid I had stepped on Yogi's hand. I asked him and he said I didn't. I saw the wind blowing the ball toward the field." Reynolds was daring enough to throw the exact same pitch to Williams since he had just popped it up. Unbelievably, the .344/.482/.634 lifetime hitter popped it up again to Berra behind the plate. This time, Yogi made sure he didn't miss the opportunity. He caught it for the third out, and Reynolds had his second no-hitter of the '51 season.
A little over 45 years later, another narrow miss on a pop-up carried even greater importance. The 1996 Yankees recovered from an 0-2 deficit against the defending champion Braves by winning three games in a row on the road and they carried a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning of Game 6 at Yankee Stadium. Closer John Wetteland got two outs, but in the process, he gave up a run, put the tying run in scoring position, and allowed the go-ahead run to get on base. The pesky homestar runner Mark Lemke was at bat, but Wetteland got him to pop up on a full count.
The ball slowly moved in the air toward the Braves dugout near third base, and defensive replacement Charlie Hayes approached it. A Braves player was sitting on the top step and didn't move as Hayes neared the pop-up. Unfortunately, it was barely out of his reach as it fell into the Braves dugout and Hayes tumbled into the visitors' dugout as well. Interference could have been called on the pop-up, but it was not and the at-bat continued. Wetteland then got Lemke to pop-up a near-identical pitch toward the third base side again. This time, it stayed in play without a problem, and Hayes caught it to clinch the Yankees' 23rd World Series title, their first in 18 years.
9. Chambliss wins the pennant, crowd storms field
ALCS Game 5, 10/14/1976 vs. Kansas City Royals
The only homer that makes the list is Chris Chambliss's unforgettable walk-off homer to end the 1976 ALCS. It gets docked a little for just being a home run, but the insane crowd storming the field gives it extra credit. Although fans frequently stormed the field in huge celebrations back then, this was perhaps the most chaotic scene in playoff history.
The '76 ALCS was a fantastic and intense playoff series, one of the all-time classics. The best-of-five series went the distance, and it appeared as though the Yankees would wrap up Game 5 with a 6-3 victory. Hall of Famer George Brett had other ideas and tied it up off reliever Grant Jackson in the eighth inning with a dramatic three-run homer. In the bottom of the ninth, the Royals brought asked reliever Mark Littell to get them through another inning and extend the game to extra frames. The bullpen ace had only given up one home run in the past 14 months, and none since early July. Nonetheless, Chambliss was hitting .500 in the series with two homers, and he drove the first pitch over the right-center field wall. The Yankees were off to their first Fall Classic in 12 years. Fans were... excited.
Chambliss could not even round the bases and he had to barrel over fans with his teammates' help to reach the safety of the dugout. Later, he returned to the field with cops to step on the area where home plate had been to make the game-winner official. Howard Cosell said it best, "What a way for the American League season to end!"
('76 ALCS Game 5 box score)
8. Izturis throws one away, Yankees take 2-0 ALCS lead
ALCS Game 2, 10/17/2009 vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
The 2009 Yankees romped to the AL East title and swept away the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series. To reach the World Series, they had to conquer perhaps their greatest playoff rival of the decade, the Angels. No AL team played better against the Yankees during the 2000s, as the Angels were 50-41 against them and eliminated the Yankees in the ALDS both in 2002 and 2005. CC Sabathia threw eight innings of one-run ball to take the ALCS opener at Yankee Stadium, setting the stage for a superb Game 2.
The Yankees took a 2-0 lead off Joe Saunders thanks to an RBI triple by Robinson Cano and a solo homer by Derek Jeter, but the Angels tied it up when A.J. Burnett got a little wild in the fifth inning. Both pitching staffs threw scoreless ball over the next five innings until the Angels scratched out a run in the 11th off Alfredo Aceves on a walk, a bunt, and a go-ahead single to left by Chone Figgins. Angels closer Brian Fuentes entered the game in an attempt to steal home-field advantage away from the Yankees with the series shifting to Anaheim for Game 3, but the first batter he faced was a red-hot Alex Rodriguez.
A-Rod was the star of the Division Series against the Twins; he tied up Game 2 in the bottom of the ninth on a two-run homer off shutdown reliever Joe Nathan and he tied up Game 3 in the top of the seventh with a solo homer against estranged former teammate Carl Pavano. Fuentes led the league in saves in '09 with 48, but A-Rod was undeterred, even after falling behind 0-2. He laced a high pitch toward the opposite field and the short porch in right for his third game-tying homer of the playoffs. Fuentes recovered to retire the next three hitters, and the game continued.
Angels starter Ervin Santana was in the game for his second inning by the 13th. He gave up a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Jerry Hairston Jr., a midseason acquisition to fortify the bench. Brett Gardner bunted him to second base, and the Angels elected to intentionally walk Cano to face Melky Cabrera, who had walked off a few games already in 2009. On the first pitch he saw though, he dribbled a grounder toward the right side near Cesar Izturis. The second baseman got to it, and instead of taking the easy out at first base, he decided to try for a tricky inning-ending double play.
Well that didn't work. Izturis's throw missed shortstop Erick Aybar and sailed into left field, allowing Hairston to score with the game-winning run. It was a walk-off E4 for the Yankees (not the first for them in 2009), and it gave them a 2-0 lead in the series. They of course went on to win the ALCS in six games and then won the World Series for their 27th title. This walk-off error needed to be on this list, but it is not very high since it was a tough play. Regardless, thanks again for trying, Cesar!
('09 ALCS Game 2 box score)
7. Molina an easy target to take one for the team
7/19/2008 vs. Oakland Athletics
Now we're getting into real oddities. The Yankees were in the middle of a weird season, their first with new manager Joe Girardi following longtime skipper Joe Torre's departure after the '07 campaign. More importantly, their team was ravaged by injuries to the ace battery of Chien-Ming Wang and Jorge Posada and ineffectiveness from their widely-hyped "Big Three" pitching prospects Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain, and Ian Kennedy. Only Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte made more starts than Darrell Rasner and Sidney Ponson. Is it any wonder that this team was the first Yankee squad in 15 years to miss the playoffs? (Although under the new playoff system, they actually would have been the second Wild Card. Take a lap, 2008 American League.)
In mid-July though, they were still in contention, and they opened the second half after the All-Star Break with a three-game series against the A's. Mussina won the first game, 7-1, and the second game was tied at two in the ninth inning. With a save now impossible at home, Mariano Rivera entered the game for the Yankees. Mo was in the middle of arguably his greatest season as a closer, a 4.3 rWAR gem with a microscopic 1.40 ERA and 32 ERA-. He had only given up five runs in the first half.
However, number nine hitter Jack Hannahan blooped a base hit to left to lead off the ninth against Mo. Rajai Davis pinch-ran for Hannahan and stole second on the sore-armed Posada, whose season ended after this game. Leadoff hitter Ryan Sweeney gave the A's the lead with a grounder through the left side for a single, scoring Davis. Sweeney stole second, but Rivera struck out the side to end the inning. The Yankees got him off the hook with a rally of their own off Oakland closer Huston Street. A leadoff walk to Jason Giambi was erased when pinch-runner Justin Christian got caught stealing, and Posada grounded out to push the Yankees to the brink of a loss. Cano lined a double to left, and down to their last strike, infielder Wilson Betemit amazingly singled to left to tie it up. (Yes, I am as shocked as you are that Betemit ever did anything worth a damn for the Yankees aside from becoming cannon fodder for Nick Swisher.)
Street got out of the inning and both teams squandered extra inning scoring opportunities until the home half of the 12th inning. Lenny DiNardo was in for his second inning of relief, and he gave up a leadoff single to Jeter. Bobby Abreu hit a swinging bunt in front of the plate that moved Jeter to second while he was thrown out at first. Manager Bob Geren ordered an intentional walk of A-Rod, but DiNardo caused more problems by walking "Yankee Mayfly" Richie Sexson to load the bases for backup catcher Jose Molina. The pudgy catcher entered the game for Posada in the 10th inning and shortly thereafter blew an opportunity to win the game with a runner in scoring position. He fell behind 1-2, but DiNardo bailed him out and ended the day in brilliant fashion on a botched cutter:
It was the Yankees' first walk-off hit by pitch in 43 years, almost exactly to the day. The plunk gave rookie reliever David Robertson his first career win; he later said "I hate to say it, but I'm glad he got hit."
(7/19/08 box score)
6. Walk-off passed ball; thanks, Avila!
4/27/2012 vs. Detroit Tigers
There's not much to say about this game other than that the ending might never have been equaled in franchise history. The Tigers and Yankees played a shootout in April of last year that did not feature much quality pitching. Neither Ivan Nova or defending MVP Justin Verlander were sharp on this night, but despite homer from A-Rod and Russell Martin, the Tigers had a 6-5 lead in the eighth inning. Back-to-back singles by A-Rod and Cano off setup man Joaquin Benoit allowed Mark Teixeira to tie the game up with a sacrifice fly to score A-Rod, who went first-to-third on Cano's single.
Mo pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning, and the Tigers brought in reliever Brayan Villarreal. With one out, Jeter walked, and Villarreal wildly threw ball four to Curtis Granderson, allowing Jeter to move to third on Grandy's walk. With A-Rod up, the count moved to 2-0, and Villarreal threw a fastball that bounced off catcher Alex Avila's glove and moved toward the Yankees' dugout along the first base side:
Jeter crossed home plate with the winning run, and the Yankees won via a walk-off passed ball. MLB.com writer Bryan Hoch reported that the Yankees had not won a game like that in at least 50 years; no one came forward with any other walk-off passed balls in Yankees history, so this game could be the only one to end on such a mistake. Huzzah!
(4/27/12 box score)
I'll be back tomorrow with the five most bizarro finishes in Yankees history. It will be worth the wait, I assure you. If you have any guesses to the top five or thoughts on other crazy endings, leave them in the comments!