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Revisiting one of the biggest regular season home runs in Yankee history

26 years ago today, Pat Kelly became an unlikely hero, hitting one of the most clutch home runs in Yankees’ regular season history.

Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees (C) hugs tea Photo credit should read GREIG REEKIE/AFP via Getty Images

The Yankees entered the final weekend of the season in 1995 in a precarious position. While the Seattle Mariners and California Angels were battling for the AL West division title, the Yankees were competing with whichever of those teams did not win the division for the American League’s first-ever Wild Card spot. On Friday, September 29, the Yankees stood one game behind Seattle and one game ahead of the Angels in the standings with three games to play. That game on the 29th against the Blue Jays wasn’t “technically” a must-win game, but it would certainly do until the must-win game showed up.

If you’re thinking that it isn’t unusual for a team to be in a tight race with two other teams for a postseason berth, you’d be right. However, the level of expectations for the Yankees coming into the 1995 season and how the season played out is what made this game against Toronto a pressure cooker.

Coming off a 1994 season in which they posted the AL’s best record, the Yankees came into 1995 as the favorites to win the AL pennant. Yet on June 10th, after an 8-22 stretch, the Yankees were dead last in the AL East and held the second-worst record in the AL. They were able to right the ship somewhat over the summer, then went on a 22-6 stretch to give themselves a chance to salvage the season heading into its final weekend.

Adding to the tension on this Friday night was that the Yankees were sending a promising but untested 23-year-old rookie to the mound. “We like this Pettitte kid, but can he be trusted in a big spot?” was what most Yankee fans were thinking that night. Additionally, Wade Boggs, the Yankees’ All-Star, Gold Glove-winning third baseman who was sporting a .412 OBP, was sidelined with a tight hamstring. The latter issue forced utilityman Randy Velarde into the lineup at third base and put Pat Kelly — a man with a strong glove and feeble bat – into the lineup at second base.

Turns out Yankees fans didn’t need to worry about the rookie pitcher, as Andy Pettitte threw eight innings, allowing only three runs. The problem that had Yankee fans white-knuckling it heading into the ninth inning was that Yankee hitters weren’t hitting. After eight frames, the Yankees had managed only five hits (four of them singles) off of Toronto’s Juan Guzman and Tony Castillo and were unable to get a run across the plate. As a result, the Yankees headed into the ninth inning, trailing 3-0 with a four-percent win probability. Given Seattle and California were both playing sub .500 teams that evening, it appeared we were all lined up to have a soul-crushing weekend.

Yankee captain Don Mattingly led off the ninth with a line-drive single into right field. Jays’ reliever Tony Castillo then followed that by issuing a walk to catcher Jim Leyritz, which brought the tying run to the plate in Randy Velarde, with nobody out. The hope Yankee fans started to feel was switched to breath-holding pretty quickly, as Velarde hit a hard ground ball to Jay’s shortstop Alex Gonzalez for what appeared to be a tailor-made 6-4-3 double play – instead, the ball went into left field. Gonzalez’s error allowed Mattingly to score, sent Leyritz to third, and put Velarde on first base representing the tying run.

Yankees manager Buck Showalter sent Mike Stanley to the plate to pinch-hit for shortstop Tony Fernandez, and Stanley responded by lining Castillo’s first pitch to deep right field. Although Jay’s right fielder Robert Perez made the catch, the ball was deep enough for Leyritz to tag and score, making the score 3-2 Toronto.

Now with one out, and the tying run at first base, Pat Kelly – he of the 68 OPS+ and .333 SLG – stepped into the batters’ box. “Pat has been frustrated,” said Showalter after the game, explaining why he didn’t pinch-hit for Kelly. “But the last three or four games, he’s been swinging the bat better. I just liked Pat in that situation.”

Then with two balls and two strikes, Pat Kelly summoned his inner Bucky Dent and did this:

Kelly sent a fastball out over the plate into the left-field stands, giving the Yankees a 4-3 lead. It wasn’t quite like Bucky Dent earning himself a new nickname in Boston, but it was certainly one of the most impactful regular-season home runs in Yankee history. The fact that it came from Pat Kelly, who despite the lack of offensive production, was always a popular player with the Yankees, made it even more meaningful.

After closer John Wettelend pitched a drama-free 1-2-3 ninth inning, the Yankees and Kelly had grabbed themselves an enormous win out of the jaws of defeat and gave us fans one of the most memorable regular-season moments in team history.

As I’m sure you know, the 1995 Yankees did go on to clinch the AL’s first-ever Wild Card spot. (The Angels went on to win their final three games, so the Yanks’ come from behind win on Friday night turned out to be even bigger in hindsight.) The Wild Card spot gave Don Mattingly his first and only postseason appearance, and Donnie Baseball for his part brought the mid-80s version of himself into the ALDS against Seattle, smoking line drives all over the park, leading the Yankees to a 2-0 series lead. (My therapist advises me not to discuss what happened in the rest of the series.)

Yet despite the frustrating end to the 1995 season, Pat Kelly gave Yankee fans a moment they’ll never forget. Even though the season ultimately didn’t finish the way anyone around the Yankees wanted it to, it certainly gave us all a glimpse of what was on the horizon for the team.