The Yankees did not have to wait long after clinching the ALDS against the Rangers to see who they would face for the American League pennant. In fact, it would be decided that same day--October 5th.
When the playoff matchups were set, the Cleveland Indians were the easy favorite to repeat as AL champions. The squad that won 100 games with a .644 winning percentage in '95 was almost entirely back, and they easily paced the league again with 99 victories in the regular season. The team they faced in the Division Series, the Wild Card-winning Orioles, would have finished 11 1/2 games behind them, so they expected to roll on through to the ALCS. Baltimore hadn't even made the playoffs in 13 years.
The only problem was that the O's didn't play along. They bombed Cleveland ace Charles Nagy in the opener for a 10-4 victory and suddenly had the shell-shocked Indians on the verge of a sweep thanks to an eighth inning rally in Game 2. Cleveland stayed alive when Armando Benitez surrendered a late slam to Albert Belle (just one of many times Benitez would fail in the postseason), but one out away from forcing Game 5, Indians closer Jose Mesa allowed a game-tying single to Roberto Alomar.
Alomar was lucky to even be playing due to an ugly incident where he spit at umpire John Hirschbeck in a late September game; the umpire's union wanted him suspended for the postseason. Yet here he was. A couple innings later, an Alomar homer off Mesa sealed Cleveland's fate. It would be an all-AL East American League Championship Series.
The ALCS Opponent
There was no mystery how the Orioles got as far as they did in 1996--they could friggin' mash. Playing half their games in cozy Camden Yards, an incredible seven different players hit at least 20 homers. Some were Hall of Fame caliber (Alomar, Cal Ripken Jr., and Rafael Palmeiro), and some were just veterans with pop (Bobby Bonilla, B.J. Surhoff, and Chris Hoiles). Their 257 combined homers pulverized the previous MLB record of 240 and still ranks fourth all-time.
Then... there was Brady Anderson. A 32-year-old leadoff hitter whose game was mostly based around doubles, steals, and walks, Anderson broke out with a then-team record 50 homers, shocking the baseball world. He had never hit more than 21 homers in one season, and he would never hit more than 24 in any season afterward. Baseball is a funny game.
The rotation had some big-name starters in Mike Mussina, David Wells, and Scott Erickson, but none of these occasional Cy Young contenders had standout years. They were only around league average in '96. The bullpen was a relatively successful mix of veterans like Randy Myers and Jesse Orosco and younger arms in Benitez and Arthur Rhodes. There was no beating around the fact that if Baltimore made it to its first Fall Classic since 1983, it would be on the strength of the bats.
There it is--this image and video represented the defining moment of the ALCS in just the opener. I've written at length before about this tremendous game, so for more details, check that out. This is the SparkNotes version.
Neither Erickson or Andy Pettitte was sharp that evening, as they both gave up a bunch of hits and walked several batters. Homers by Anderson and Palmeiro had helped put Baltimore on top, 4-2. In a seventh inning rally that sent Erickson to the showers, Darryl Strawberry walked with the bases loaded to make it one-run game, but Benitez blew Mariano Duncan away to preserve the lead.
One inning later, Benitez was back and fanned Jim Leyritz to put the Yankees five outs from an early deficit in the series. Then, rookie Derek Jeter lifted a high fly ball to the opposite field, slowly drifting back to the short porch fence. Right fielder Tony Tarasco seemed to track it well at the warning track, but an excited 12-year-old Yankees fan named Jeffrey Maier leaned over and snared the ball from above Tarasco's head.
Umpire Rich Garcia completely botched the call, ruling it a home run and infuriating the Orioles. Maier became a folk hero and the game was tied. John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera held Baltimore at bay for the next three innings, setting it up for Bernie Williams, fresh off his 1.567 OPS series in Texas. On the third pitch in the 11th from Randy Myers, Bernie went boom:
The second game featured a pitching matchup between two men who later became best friends in pinstripes: David Cone and David Wells. The Yankees got the upper hand with two runs in the first with three straight singles to begin the game, though a double play from Cecil Fielder limited the damage. O's third baseman Todd Zeile countered with a two-run homer to deep left in the third that tied it up.
Cone and Wells kept the duel alive for four more innings. They had both wilted somewhat but kept the opposition's offense off the board. Then in the seventh, Alomar smoked a one-out double to left, and Palmeiro blasted the game's decisive blow, a two-run homer to right. Baltimore now led, 4-2; both sides tacked one more run apiece to send it to the ninth.
Orioles manager Davey Johnson's bullpen was weary, particularly since Myers, his closer, had thrown 1 2/3 innings the night before. The rust showed, as Jeter grounded a single through the left side to lead off the ninth and one out later, he walked Williams on five pitches. Johnson made the decision to hook Myers in favor of Benitez. Even though the latter had actually thrown more pitches in Game 1, he stared down the potential winning run at the plate and retired both Fielder and Tino Martinez to give the O's a much-needed win.
The ALCS was now in Baltimore, where remarkably, the Yankees went 6-0 in the regular season. Jimmy Key was tasked with matching zeroes with Mussina, their ace. He got off to an inauspicious start when Anderson led off with a single and Zeile launched a two-run homer. The Orioles had a two-run lead after just five pitches.
Key immediately settled down; those two runs would be Baltimore's only highlight of the night. The lefty was in complete command, pitching eight more scoreless innings after the Zeile homer, holding this powerful lineup to one hit and one walk for the rest of the game.
Mussina held that slim lead, allowing the Yankees just four hits and one run through seven innings. He quickly got the first two outs in the eighth, and Baltimore was a mere four outs from a 2-1 lead in the series. Then out of nowhere, it all fell apart for the O's.
The rally began, as it so often did, with Jeter, who lined a double down the right field line. Williams lined Moose's next pitch to left field for an RBI single, tying the game. Martinez smacked a double of his own, this time to left field, and things got weird. Surhoff unleashed a strong relay throw from left to Zeile near the third base bag, and Williams held at third. Then, Zeile inexplicably threw the ball into the ground thinking about a play at second. Bernie bolted:
It was a pure instinct play, and Williams beat the throw home from Ripken, giving the Yankees a 3-2 lead. Fielder finished off the craziness by crushing a two-run home run to left field, ending Mussina's night. After a scoreless inning each from the masterful Key and Wetteland, the Yankees won 5-2 and took control of the series.
The fireworks from the previous night seemed unlikely to stop with the Game 4 pitching matchup: Kenny Rogers vs. Rocky Coppinger. Neither had seasons to remember on the mound. This night would be no different.
Jeter led off the game with a double and two batters later, Williams belted a two-run homer. The Orioles countered with an Anderson-led rally for one run in the bottom half of the frame, and Strawberry punched back with a solo homer to begin the second inning. The catcher Hoiles responded this time, taking Rogers deep in the bottom of the third to make it 3-2, Yankees.
Then in the fourth, Strawberry grounded a two-out single, and O'Neill went yard. Rogers showed his gratitude by issuing a walk to Ripken, a wild pitch, and a single to Pete Incaviglia. Torre had seen enough enough and went to David Weathers. A Surhoff single and a groundout pushed two more runs across, and it was a one-run game again.
There it stayed until the top of the eighth. Williams hit a ground-rule double off Alan Mills with one out, and Martinez ruined the lefty vs. lefty strategy with a single off Orosco. In came Benitez, and in came Bernie for some insurance on a Fielder groundout. Strawberry followed with a huge blast to left field, putting the Yankees on top, 8-4, and sealing the game.
Clinching day would be all Yankees. Erickson and Pettitte both threw zeroes in the first two innings, but the Bronx Bombers exploded in the third.
Leyritz led it off with a home run to left. Luis Sojo grounded out, but both Jeter and Wade Boggs singled. Williams reached on an error to score a run, and after a fielder's choice, "Big Daddy" went deep. Fielder's three-run bomb made it 5-0, and Strawberry immediately followed with a solo shot of his own.
Pettitte had a 6-0 lead, and that was all he needed. The young southpaw twirled eight innings of three-hit, two-run ball, giving it straight to Wetteland for the ninth. It was everything Torre could have wanted from him.
Wetteland walked Zeile and two outs later, the Orioles launched the final homer of their incredible season, a two-run clout by Bonilla. It was still only a 6-4 game though, and they were down to their final out. It happened to be Ripken, their future Hall of Famer and franchise icon. It did not matter:
For the first time since 1981, the Yankees were going back to the World Series. The man with the most joy was their beloved manager, Torre, who had played or managed in over 4,000 major league games without ever reaching the Fall Classic.
Now, he was finally going there, thanks to a wonderful crew led by ALCS MVP Bernie Williams, who hit .474/.583/.947 with five extra base hits in the victory. It was an unbelievable feeling for the team and its first-year skipper.