Thanks to the efforts of all the previously mentioned contributors, the 1996 Yankees secured the American League East division title with 92 victories. The eventual Wild Card-winning Orioles had trimmed the lead from 12 games on July 28th to a mere 2.5 games in mid-September, but Joe Torre's club stayed the course and clinched with a 19-2 blowout victory over the Brewers on September 25th.
Although winning their first division title since 1981 was nice, it did not come with any improved luxuries from what the Yankees experienced as a Wild Card in the previous year. The playoff format in those days was set before the season, so even if a team had a better winning percentage than their opponent, they still might not receive home field advantage.
Indeed, the AL West champion was predetermined to have the edge on the AL East champion. As luck would have it, the Yankees were indeed jobbed; their opponent only had 90 victories, but home field advantage lied in Texas.
The ALDS Opponent
The 1996 campaign was the 25th season the Rangers spent in Texas. Yet they had never made the postseason and only once came within five games of a playoff spot. The franchise drought was technically in its 36th year; the Rangers had been born in 1961 as the AL's second incarnation of the Washington Senators.
After 11 dismal seasons in the nation's capital and with many fans uninterested in supporting a poor team, owner Bob Short moved the team to Arlington, Texas in 1972. Great players like Nolan Ryan, Fergie Jenkins, and Buddy Bell came and went, but there was no October baseball.
The Rangers' fortunes changed in the early '90s, as GMs Tom Grieve and Doug Melvin pieced together a talented young roster led by right fielder Juan Gonzalez, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, and center fielder Rusty Greer when they moved into a gorgeous new ballpark in 1994. Despite amusingly being 10 games under .500, they led the AL West at the time the players' strike hit, depriving them of a shot at their first playoff berth. They finished 4.5 games behind the Mariners and Angels during the exciting conclusion to '95, but '96 would be their year.
Gonzalez, already a two-time home run leader, mashed a career-high 47 homers in '96 while hitting .314/.368/.643 to swipe AL MVP honors from a breakout star in Seattle named Alex Rodriguez. Add in huge years from Ivan Rodriguez (6.1 WAR), Greer (.332/.397/.530), third baseman Dean Palmer (38 homers), and new ace Ken Hill (250 2/3 innings with a 70 ERA- and 6.6 WAR), and Texas had a potent club.
Skipper Johnny Oates would end up sharing Manager of the Year honors with Torre. They took first place in mid-April and held onto it all year long, fending off a late charge from Seattle. The Rangers were a playoff team for the very first time, and with 221 dingers on the year, they were a formidable foe for any pitching staff.
The AL MVP was the story of the Division Series opener. Although the Yankees scored a run off the Rangers' John Burkett in the bottom of the first when a leadoff single by Tim Raines was followed by a Wade Boggs double and a Bernie Williams groundout, the high-octane Texas offense took over in the fourth. Undaunted by David Cone in his comeback from an aneurysm, Rodriguez singled to begin the inning and Greer walked. That set the stage for Gonzalez, who incredibly hit .541/.564/1.054 against the Yankees in 10 games that year. Boom--3-1, Texas.
A two-run deficit would not have been a problem for the Yankees, but Cone still had no outs. Will Clark followed with a single, and after striking out Mickey Tettleton, Palmer showed off his power with a two-run bomb of his own. The Rangers led by four and the inning effectively sealed it. The Yankees scratched out 10 hits off Burkett, but he frustrated them all night by stranding baserunner after baserunner, holding them to 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
Before they knew it, the game was over and Burkett had thrown a complete game 6-2 victory. Little did Texas know that this would be their only playoff win for 14 more years.
It did not take long for Gonzalez to again seize the spotlight with more dominance against the Yankees. Andy Pettitte would be the Cy Young Award runner-up that year, and not even he could stop "Igor." Two more homers* put Texas on top in the third inning by a score of 4-1.
*ASIDE: Gonzalez's first homer was a missile down the left field line, and a fan who was in foul territory literally reached over in front of the foul pole. He caught the ball, and tried to make the case that it was foul. Um...
On the bright side, the NBC broadcast of the homer did lead to a pretty incredible rendition of Faces in the Crowd:
You do you, guys. Especially "Participant Kid." He rules.
Anyway, Gonzalez's bomb put the Yankees in dire straits. They needed a comeback off the intimidating Hill, and quickly, lest they want to go to Texas on the brink of elimination. A Cecil Fielder solo homer in the fourth cut the lead to 4-2, and a few innings later, Hill ran into trouble when he drilled Jim Leyritz and gave up a Derek Jeter single to begin the seventh. Hill departed in favor of Dennis Cook, who retired the next three batters but allowed one run to score on a sacrifice fly.
The Yankees were just six outs from an 0-2 deficit in the series. That was precisely when Gonzalez's childhood friend from his native Puerto Rico turned it all around. Bernie Williams was so close with Gonzalez that when the Yankees brought him to a summer baseball academy in Connecticut at age 16, Williams had nervously asked if he could bring his pal Gonzalez to also play and keep him company. It was late in the process and the team had to decline, though the lost possibility of both Gonzalez and Williams in the lineup later had George Steinbrenner fuming.
Fortunately, Steinbrenner still had Williams, and he began the eighth against reliever Jeff Russell with a single. Then on a deep Tino Martinez fly to left, Bernie got aggressive, tagging up from first base to get into scoring position. It was out-of-the-box thinking that became pivotal to the game when Fielder singled Bernie home to tie the game at 4-4.
Torre did his best to preserve the tie by deploying all the best bullets his elite bullpen had to offer. Mariano Rivera pitched 2 2/3 innings in relief of Pettitte and closer John Wetteland added two of his own once it reached extra innings. It took four pitchers to wiggle out of a bases-loaded threat in the 11th, but Brian Boehringer induced a fly ball to right from Palmer to escape. It all paid off in the bottom half, as Jeter lined a leadoff single, moved to second on a Raines walk, and scored the game-winning run in stunning fashion:
Charlie Hayes had only intended to move the runners over, giving either Williams or Paul O'Neill a chance to win the game. Instead, Palmer failed to get any kind of grip on the bunt, chucked it away, and that was that. The series was tied en route to Texas.
Stoked for the first home playoff game in franchise history, Rangers fans were immediately silenced by Bernie Williams. With two outs in the first, "Bernie went boom" off Darren Oliver down the right field line over Gonzalez's head and into the seats. In the bottom half, Rangers fans were left just as helpless with Williams as Yankees fans were with Gonzalez. Greer had sent a long drive to deep center field that appeared to be heading over the wall, but Bernie incredibly brought it back:
So Bernie's blast was the only run through the first three and a half innings. Against Jimmy Key in the fourth though, Gonzalez got his revenge with his fourth homer of the series. While Williams kept squaring up the ball against Oliver, no one else in the Yankees lineup did much of anything. That opened the door for Texas to move in front.
In the fifth, shortstop Kevin Elster drew a walk, then stole second and advanced to third on an all-around bad play--it wasn't a good throw from Joe Girardi and Jeter had a brain lapse and forgot to cover the bag anyway. Darryl Hamilton couldn't get the run in, but "Pudge" Rodriguez took care of business. A double to right brought Elster home to give Texas a 2-1 lead.
Oliver carried that advantage into the ninth with a four-hitter. Three outs from facing the brink of elimination again, Jeter and Raines notched back-to-back singles. Suddenly, the tying run was 90 feet away with Jeter at third base, and the hottest hitter in the Yankees' lineup was at bat. Oliver departed in favor of Mike Henneman, but Williams got the job done anyway with a sacrifice fly to deep right. The game was tied.
Henneman retired Fielder and decided to intentionally walk Tino Martinez in favor of unsung hero Mariano Duncan. The man who coined the team catchphrase "Das it!" effectively said "Das it!" to the game, smoking Henneman's first pitch to center field for the go-ahead single. Wetteland worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth to finish off the exhilarating 3-2 road win by fanning Hamilton. Now that's a rally.
Kenny Rogers got the nod for the potential clincher against his former team. He had once been perfect in Texas; he did not channel those memories on this day. In the first, he gave up a scorched line drive single to his old batterymate Rodriguez, and after a Greer fly ball, walked Gonzalez on four pitches. He only escaped unscathed when Will Clark's liner found Jeter's glove at shortstop. The next inning, Texas dropped two runs on four hits.
Torre had already seen enough; bench coach Don Zimmer urged him to not let the game get away from him if he felt like Rogers wasn't going to be his best option, particularly with the scalding hot Gonzalez due up next. Torre decided to try to at least get the platoon advantage with the righty Boehringer against Gonzalez. Well...
Gonzalez was just in a series for the ages. No one in major league history has ever hit five home runs in a four-game series other than Gonzalez, who hit .438/.526/1.375. All told, in '96 against the Yankees, Gonzalez crushed an unbelievable 10 homers in just 58 plate appearances. It was pure dominance.
An error by Jeter, a walk, and an RBI single by Mark McLemore made it 4-0, Texas. It seemed like Game 5 was inevitable. Then, that Bernie Williams character showed up again to ruin Rangers fans' dreams.
Leading off the fourth against Bobby Witt, Williams lined a single to center. Though not normally a good base stealer, he challenged the missile arm of "Pudge" and survived to make it to second. Martinez walked and Fielder singled Bernie home. O'Neill flew out, but Duncan laced a single of his own to center, scoring Tino. Like Torre, Oates couldn't deal with his starter under such high pressure anymore and pulled him. Danny Patterson let the third run across anyway on a weak grounder by Jeter to score Fielder.
While the inning ended, Bernie soon took over the game. He led off the fifth with a game-tying solo blast off Roger Pavlik. Reliever David Weathers kept Texas at bay, allowing the Yankees to push the go-ahead run home in the seventh on cacophony of singles. They were capped by Fielder's seeing-eye grounder through the left side that scored Raines.
As Rivera quickly extinguished the Rangers' once-promising season with two scoreless innings, Williams fittingly provided the finishing blow. Bernie switched to the right side of the plate against future teammate Mike Stanton, a lefty, and launched his second homer of the game. He had now homered from both sides of the plate for the second time in his playoff career, and he ended the series hitting .467/.500/1.067.
Wetteland did his customary drama in the ninth, immediately walking Rodriguez to bring the tying run to the plate. That wasn't too much of a problem with Greer, who lined out to center.
However, the next batter was Juan Gonzalez, dead-set on keeping both his team and his insane series alive. Wetteland smartly gave him nothing good to hit, walking him on five pitches to take his chances with Clark. The former All-Star flew out to left field. The last hope for Texas was Palmer, who unquestionably had the power to win the game with one swing.
Wetteland bore down, moved ahead of Palmer 1-2, and spun a curveball toward the outer part of the plate. Palmer swung over it, and Wetteland won the battle. The Yankees had their first series victory in 15 years and were headed to the ALCS. Not even Juan Gonzalez could deny them now.