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Game Five of the 1996 World Series was a pitchers’ duel for the ages

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Twenty years ago today, Andy Pettitte pitched the greatest game of his career. So did John Smoltz.

Andy Pettitte

As the start of the World Series approaches, fans can only hope to see a game packed with as much excitement as the one that took place 20 years ago today. The Yankees were coming off an exhilarating comeback win in Game Four, when they erased a 6-0 deficit courtesy of Jim Leyritz, and completed the miracle in extra innings thanks to a patient Wade Boggs and a top-notch bullpen.

Still, nobody knew what to expect in the crucial game five match-up, the last game to ever be played at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. The Yankees sought to continue their newfound momentum after being manhandled by the Braves in the first two games of the series, and sent their ace, Andy Pettitte, to the hill. Atlanta countered with their best pitcher in ‘96, Hall of Famer John Smoltz.

The two starters both contended for the Cy Young Award in the regular season (with Smoltz winning), but they experienced very different World Series outings when they faced off in Game One. Pettitte was rocked in front of the hometown fans, surrendering seven earned runs over 2 13 innings. Meanwhile, Smoltz threw six innings of one run ball en route to a 12-1 shellacking by the Braves.

The big question was how Pettitte would bounce back from his dud in the opener. The 24-year-old responded in dazzling fashion, while Smoltz matched him pitch-for-pitch. What resulted was one of the greatest pitchers’ duels in World Series history.

Pettitte twirled 8 13 innings of shutout baseball, while Smoltz threw eight innings of his own, including 10 strikeouts and one unearned run. Smoltz later declared his Game Five performance the greatest game he ever pitched.

The only blemish for Smoltz was caused by a rare error in the outfield when a fly ball to right-center off the bat of Charlie Hayes was dropped by Marquis Grissom, who was shielded by right fielder Jermaine Dye as the two converged on the fly ball. Two batters later, Cecil Fielder made the Braves pay for their miscue with a double down the left field line to score Hayes. Hayes would be the only player to dent home plate for either team all game.

Meanwhile, a reinvented Pettitte used a heavy dose of fastballs on the outer half of the plate to neutralize the potent Atlanta lineup, who saw a completely different pitcher from the one they faced just a few nights prior. Having seemingly forgotten his Game One disaster, Pettitte carried the Yankees to their third straight win in the series, although it certainly wasn’t easy.

Pettitte ran into trouble in the sixth, after not surrendering a hit until the fifth. With runners on first and second and nobody out, the Braves were poised for a rally. A sacrifice from Mark Lemke was expected, and he indeed squared to bunt. However, the bunt would come back to Pettitte, who charged, barehanded and fired to third to get a sliding Smoltz for the force, all in one motion. It was an amazing display of poise and instinct from the youngster Pettitte, who now just needed a ground ball to escape the threat.

With the dangerous Chipper Jones at the plate, Pettitte would get just that. Jones hit a chopper back to Pettitte, who spun around to feed Mariano Duncan to start the 1-4-3 double play, ending the Braves rally before it could ever begin.

Pettitte was so effective on this night that Joe Torre elected to let Pettitte hit in the top of the ninth with runners at the corners and two out, with the Yanks seeking much-needed insurance. Still, Torre sent his starter to the plate to face fireballer Mark Wohlers, but Pettitte flied out lazily to left. Torre elected to stick with Pettitte so he would have him in the bottom of the ninth to face lefty Fred McGriff. After the game he was having, why not stick with him?

The plan quickly seemed to backfire when Jones led off the bottom of the ninth with a double, and moved to third on a ground ball to first from McGriff. That was all for Pettitte, who had effectively erased the memory of his Game One disaster.

Fans all know the rest, as John Wetteland and Paul O’Neill saved the game for Pettitte, sending the Yankees back to the Bronx with a 3-2 series lead. It was the first World Series victory for Pettitte, and likely his best.

It was a remarkable effort from Pettitte to out-duel the best pitcher in the National League, who was on top of his game for the Braves. Without Pettitte’s Game Five gem, perhaps the Yankees return home trailing in the series, and who knows what would have become of the unforgettable dynasty we now cherish today.

It was the most exciting finale to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium that anybody could have hoped for, except if you’re a Braves fan.