Last night, it appeared as though the Yankees would lose a pitching duel and drop another important game as they fight for a playoff spot. Then, down to their last out in the ninth inning, Alex Rodriguez doubled to tie it up, setting the stage for an unlikely hero: rookie Slade Heathcott.
Once a first round pick back in 2009, Heathcott has had quite the tumultuous road to the majors. Despite all of his personal battles in addition to getting cut from the 40-man roster in the off-season, he made his MLB debut earlier this year, and he was exciting for about a week before the injury bug hit him yet again. He was sluggish upon his return to Triple-A Scranton, batting just .205/.227/.260 in August. He wasn't even promoted right when rosters expanded on September 1st. Yet there he was, taking his first big league at-bat since May 27th with runners on first and second and two outs. Heathcott delivered:
Almost no one saw that moment coming, and that's what made Heathcott's three-run homer perhaps the greatest highlight of the Yankees' season to date. Moments like those make baseball great. Sure, it's one thing to see Albert Pujols belt a towering go-ahead home run in the NLCS. It's not exactly expected given the nature of the game, but it's not surprising, either. Light-hitting Bucky Dent's AL East playoff homer at Fenway in 1978 was almost absurd. Of all the 2014 Giants, Travis Ishikawa (former Yankee great) was somehow the one who won the NL pennant last year.
Few thrills in sports can compare to these lightning bolts out of nowhere. Heathcott's was far from the first in recent Yankees history, too. Since their resurgence in 1995, the Yankees have had a number of clutch moments from unlikely sources. For a month in 1998, nine-year minor league veteran Shane Spencer turned into Roy Hobbs, belting a rookie record three grand slams in September while hitting .373/.411/.910 in 27 games. Then-top prospect Jesus Montero turned a similar trick in September 2011, batting .328/.406/.590 in 18 games and improving his stock enough to eventually be traded for Michael Pineda. Long before he was a seven-time All-Star, Alfonso Soriano's first MLB hit was a walk-off homer for the Yankees in late 1999.
Even more anonymous Yankees found their spotlights in other specific moments.
2010: Greg Golson
The defending champion Yankees were in a tight race for the playoffs with the Tampa Bay Rays. The two teams tussled for the top spot in the AL East and squared off in a pressure-packed three-game series at Tropicana Field from September 13th through the 15th. After suffering the indignity of an extra-innings walk-off homer against Sergio Mitre by Tampa's own shocking savior, Reid Brignac (future Yankee great), the Yankees and Rays played again on September 14th. The Yanks jumped out to a 6-0 lead, only to see rookie Ivan Nova give it all back in a cataclysmic seven-run fifth.
Undeterred, Joe Girardi's club quickly tied it up again and took the lead in the top of the tenth on a solo homer by Jorge Posada. That was all the insurance that Mariano Rivera received. Carl Crawford got the Rays' half of the tenth off to a good start with a single to right. With one out, he stole second base, and on a Matt Joyce fly ball to right field, the speedy Crawford decided to take a risk to get to third base. As a reminder, this was the same man who led the AL in stolen bases four times in the 2000s and had swiped 405 bags since his debut in 2002. So no problem, right?
Enter Greg Golson. A toolsy first round pick by the Phillies in the 2004 Draft, Golson was never able to quite put it all together in the minors and only ended up with 40 big league games to his name over four years, mostly as a reserve outfielder. His one saving grace was his defense, which was powered by a rocket of an arm. Upon catching Joyce's flyball, Golson fired the ball to third base. The throw was right on target and A-Rod put down the tag for a game-ending double play, sealing the win.
Ben Shpigel of the New York Times did a terrific breakdown of the winning play, and Golson seemed just as amazed as everyone else that he managed to pull it off:
"...when I caught it, I looked up he was running. I just didn’t think he was going to be going. It’s not one of those things you expect to happen. One of the fastest guys in the league."
2005: Bubba Crosby
If it wasn't for a short lefty outfielder nicknamed "Bubba," the Yankees' streak of nine straight AL East titles would probably have ended in 2005.
The 2005 Yankees were a ridiculous playoff team. They had one of the worst all-time defenses, only a handful of reliable pitchers, and they were the benefactors of a 10-0, 133 ERA+ run by another nobody-turned-hero, Aaron Small. However, they did have a tremendous offense led by AL MVP A-Rod, prime Derek Jeter, prime Hideki Matsui, and great seasons from Posada, Gary Sheffield, rookie Robinson Cano, and more. Center field was an enigma, though. Bernie Williams was simply not the All-Star he was just a few years prior, and as much as Joe Torre loved him, his poor defense made him nigh unplayable in center.
So for a great deal of the second half, an outfield spot was often occupied by a 28-year-old backup named Bubba Crosby. Like Golson, Crosby was a first round pick who never panned out, so the Dodgers dealt him in 2003 along with reliever Scott Proctor in a trade deadline deal with the Yankees for Robin Ventura. Crosby played in parts of 55 games in 2004 without much success but suddenly found himself basically a starter on a playoff team. Given an opportunity, Crosby had the best month of his career in September, hitting .327/.339/.418. His greatest moment came in a tight game on September 19th against the downtrodden Orioles.
Erik Bedard and rookie Chien-Ming Wang dueled throughout most of it, setting the bottom of the ninth up in a 2-2 tie. Crosby led off against reliever Eric DuBose. He had not homered since April 11, 2004. And yet:
Few walk-off homers in Yankees history have come from such a weak source of power. Crosby's blast won the game, and at the end of the season, the Yankees and Red Sox were tied atop the AL East at 95-67. Since there were no downsides to being the Wild Card back then, MLB simply awarded the Yankees the division title because they were victorious in the season series against Boston. No Bubba walk-off meant that the Yankees could have lost the division. What a guy.
1996: Ruben Rivera
Several years before Bubba and Golson, another former top prospect helped the Yankees to a pivotal late season victory. At the time though, Ruben Rivera was still considered a key part of the Yankees' future. Some scouts even thought he was the Panamanian Mickey Mantle. Prior to 1996, he was far more well-known than his cousin, Mariano Rivera, as Ruben was ranked among baseball's top three prospects in consecutive years by Baseball America. They liked him even more than Derek Jeter. Despite concerns about his makeup, he was a ridiculously talented hitter who was only 22 years old in 1996.
Rivera spent most of '96 in the minors since the big league outfield was already quite fine with Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, Tim Raines, and Darryl Strawberry in the fold. He was displeased, so he struggled with the bat and even suffered a suspension when he left the Triple-A Columbus ballpark in the middle of a game after getting ejected. Nonetheless, he was back with the Yankees in September, and he was solid. During the season, he hit .284/.381/.443 with a 107 OPS+ in 46 games. He made a game-saving diving catch on September 10th in Detroit, and he had his finest moment as a Yankee on September 18th.
The Yankees sought their first division title in 15 years, but they would have to fend off the surging Orioles. Baltimore came to the Bronx just three games behind Torre's crew, so a sweep would mean a tie in the AL East with just 10 games remaining. Scott Erickson outpitched AL Cy Young candidate Andy Pettitte, so manager Davey Johnson gave the ball to Randy Myers in the ninth, hoping to preserve a 2-1 victory and to move within two games of the Yankees. Myers promptly walked O'Neill and Cecil Fielder, so after inducing a pop-up from Tino Martinez, Johnson decided to take no chances and bring in Alan Mills, another fine reliever. Rivera pinch-ran for O'Neill, and he stormed home with the tying run when Bernie singled through the left side.
One inning later, with Mills still on the mound, Rivera stepped up with two outs in the bottom of the tenth and Jeter on third base. A strike away from the 11th inning, he smoked a single to right field, scoring Jeter with the winning run and giving the Yankees a crucial 3-2 victory: