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The overlooked season-saving 1996 Yankees/Rangers classic

The legendary ‘96 Yankees might have been eliminated long before the Fall Classic had it not been for ALDS Game 2.

New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter (C, with helmet) is Photo credit should read STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Rain in the New York City area has washed away the expected matchup between the Yankees and Rangers tonight, and there’s a nonzero chance that it will continue into tomorrow, too. Thursday was a scheduled off-day, and it’s already strange to see back-to-back days of no Yankees baseball; we might well end up with three. (Update: Yep!)

So instead of wallowing in being unable to watch the likes of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton whack the ol’ ball around the yard, I thought that it would be fun to look back on a Yankees/Rangers playoff game. My primary Yankees/Rangers postseason memory unfortunately involves New York falling apart in the 2010 ALCS, so rather than remembering that disappointing attempt to repeat, I’m journeying back further to the dynasty years. The Rangers were effectively the Yankees’ playoff patsies in the ‘90s, as the Bombers squared off with them in the ALDS three times and won each series. The Yankees’ pitching was so overpowering in 1998 and 1999 that in both sweeps, they combined to hold the Rangers to a single run in three games.

However, that wasn’t the case in 1996, and there were no precedents. As previously chronicled, the ‘96 Yankees went on to do remarkable things that October, but at the start of the ALDS, there was a lot to prove. It was almost a brand new world entirely in the Bronx, as while the Yankees were in their second straight postseason, the makeup of the team had quite a few changes from ‘95, including manager Joe Torre (who had never won a playoff game). Even the holdovers were coming off agonizing heartbreak after squandering a 2-0 ALDS advantage against Seattle. The Yankees hadn’t won a playoff series in 15 years, and they were facing a talented Rangers team that upset the Mariners to capture an AL West division title for the first time after 24 seasons in Texas.

Juan Gonzalez
1996 AL MVP Juan Gonzalez

Johnny Oates went on to share Manager of the Year honors with Torre, and his Rangers presented a legitimate challenge. Juan Gonzalez might have captured the MVP through a gaudy RBI total (take your pick as to whether Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez got robbed more), but there was no denying that he was an absolute menace of a slugger at the peak of his powers with 47 homers. They had a future Hall of Famer in Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate, plus other strong hitters in Rusty Greer, Dean Palmer, and former NL MVP Will Clark. While the Rangers were not known for their pitching, the rotation’s front three of John Burkett, Ken Hill, and Darren Oliver had all posted commendable seasons in ‘96, led by Hill’s 145 ERA+ and 6.6 rWAR.

Although the Yankees got to host the first two games of that ALDS, the Rangers quickly indicated they weren’t going to be intimidated by October baseball at Yankee Stadium or an established postseason performer in David Cone. They lit into the clubhouse leader of the Yankees’ staff for six runs on eight hits and two walks over six innings of work, draining the life out of the boisterous crowd in the Bronx. Burkett pitched a complete game in the 6-2 victory, and Gonzalez put Texas on top with a three-run homer off Cone that continued his dominance over New York pitching in 1996.

As announcer Bob Costas referenced, Gonzalez had hit .541/.564/1.054 with 5 homers in just 10 games against the Yankees in ‘96. That trend would continue throughout this ALDS matchup too, as he tied a then-postseason record with five homers in a single playoff series. The final dinger count was 10 homers in 14 games, including October. Good gravy. The Yankees could not get him out, and it was a serious problem.

Entering Game 2, the Yankees were behind the eight ball. Another loss would put them in an 0-2 deficit in the best-of-five, and while Seattle had demonstrated that coming back from such a hole was possible just 12 months prior, the Mariners got to do so back at home in the Kingdome. Given the ALDS format at the time, the Yankees would’ve been tasked with winning three games in a row on the road at The Ballpark in Arlington, where they had struggled in recent years and the Rangers had played .617 ball (a 99-win pace) all year long. Given the penchant for October heroics later revealed by these dynastic Yankees, could they have done it? Maybe! But it would’ve been awfully difficult.

Anyway, no one had foresight of what this Yankees team would become. They just really needed to win this showdown at Yankee Stadium. At the very least, Torre could feel good about who he was sending to the mound for Game 2, as Andy Pettitte’s breakout in ‘96 nearly won him a Cy Young Award. If Cone couldn’t tame Gonzalez and the Rangers, perhaps the 24-year-old southpaw could.

Ah! Well. Nevertheless.

To put it politely, the Yankees were in dire straits as they trailed Texas, 4-1, entering the fourth. Their one run had only come about because of back-to-back walks at the start of the second. The hitters didn’t exactly take great advantage of that scoring opportunity, as the run scored on a couple weak grounders, the latter of which was an easy double play ball that became a fielder’s choice RBI simply because Hill threw high to second base.

In the fourth, the Yankees turned to their key trade deadline acquisition to put a legitimate dent on Hill’s stat line. Power hitter Cecil Fielder had walked as part of that second-inning rally, and this time, he made a statement with a blast of his own to counter Gonzalez. The score was now 4-2, Texas.

A one-out opportunity in the fifth with Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter on second after a double went by the wayside. Hill retired Wade Boggs and Paul O’Neill on fly balls, and though Bernie Williams led off the sixth with a walk, the former Expo wriggled out of that spot, too.

To Pettitte’s credit, he had recovered after the second Gonzalez homer. The Rangers had runners in scoring position in both the fourth and fifth, but the lefty stranded them and pitched a perfect sixth to boot. He departed with one out in the seventh in favor of his incomparable setup man, Mariano Rivera, and few could have expected that Pettitte would last that long after his earlier frustrations with Gonzalez. Unsurprisingly, Rivera was dynamite in relief, retiring eight batters in a row to keep the Texas bats at bay through the ninth.

Meanwhile, the Yankees continued to put runners on against the Rangers, and in the seventh, they cashed one in. Hill plunked Leyritz and allowed a single to Jeter to start the inning, and Dennis Cook relieved him. Tim Raines bunted the runners over, and pinch-hitter Charlie Hayes lifted a sacrifice fly to bring pinch-runner Joe Girardi home. It was a one-run ballgame.

O’Neill fouled out to end the inning, but the Yankees immediately came back for more in the eighth against veteran right-hander Jeff Russell. Williams lined a single to right, and Tino Martinez lifted a deep enough fly down the left-field line that Bernie was actually able to tag up and advance to second. The heads-up play proved to be pivotal when Fielder came through once again, this time with a smash through the right side.

A bad read from pinch-runner Andy Fox led to a double play after a lineout to center by Mariano Duncan, but the game was tied and Yankee Stadium was fully back to life.

Perfect frames from Rivera and Russell in the ninth sent this game to extra innings and somehow pushed the stakes even higher. How could the Yankees come back in this series if they squandered this golden opportunity for a walk-off win, especially with a much stronger bullpen than Texas?

As was his wont, closer John Wetteland increased the collective blood pressure of Yankees fans by putting the Rangers’ leadoff man on in both the 10th and 11th. As was also his wont, Wetteland escaped the sticky situation both times. Facing future teammate Mike Stanton, the New York offense fell short, tallying two-out walks in both innings and not much else.

The marathon marched on to the next inning, when Torre had to use four (!) different pitchers to hold the Rangers scoreless. His attempt to go lefty-on-lefty with Graeme Lloyd against Darryl Hamilton to lead off the 12th was rendered pointless when the outfielder singled to center. Jeff Nelson relieved and his slider helped generate crucial back-to-back strikeouts of Rodriguez and Greer, but Gonzalez grounded a single to move Hamilton to third.

Once again, Torre got cute with lefty-on-lefty by bringing normal starter Kenny Rogers in to face Clark. Once again, he got burned, as Rogers walked him on four pitches to load the bases. Desperate to finally win his first career playoff game, Torre called down to the bullpen for a third time to bring in Brian Boehringer with 38-homer man Palmer on deck. The 57,156 fans in the Bronx only exhaled when Palmer’s fly ball landed in O’Neill’s glove; for a moment, it seemed like Bernie might collide with him.

After all those pitchers had been used, the onus was even greater on the offense to plate a damn run and win the game. It helped that as Stanton passed the 30-pitch mark in his relief outing, he began to tire with two eventual Cooperstown honorees up next. Jeter laced a single to center and Raines patiently waited out a walk to move the winning run into scoring position.

Oates made a pitching change to bring in Mike Henneman to face Hayes, who happened to be terrible against righties. Torre played it safe, as he knew that Hayes could get a bunt down and better hitters were on deck in O’Neill and Williams. At that point, a simple fly ball could win the game. The sacrifice was on, and thanks to a little 12th-inning rain, the grass was wet.

The third baseman Palmer prepared to retire Hayes at first ...

... only to see his poorly-gripped throw sail down the line.

Just like that, the ballgame was over as Jeter crossed home plate with the winning run. The series was tied and Yankee Stadium was delirious. Duncan, who had coined the Yankees’ “We play today, we win today, dassit” ethos, spoke for the exhausted-but-delighted mood of an entire fanbase and clubhouse after the walk-off:

“We were all jumping up and down in the dugout when it happened,” Mariano Duncan said. “I’m sure they would have been, too. We could not afford to lose this game.”

Buoyed by this zany win, the Yankees overcame more Gonzalez home run heroics to win both games in Arlington. A ninth-inning rally capped by a big hit from Duncan in Game 3 turned a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 victory, and Bernie went off for a pair of homers in Game 4 to give the Yankees a 6-4 win with Fielder notching the go-ahead single in the seventh. They were moving on to the ALCS.

At last, the nightmare of 1995 was almost fully behind them. More playoff drama awaited in the later rounds and particularly when they trailed the Braves in the World Series. As a result, this 1996 ALDS matchup has been somewhat lost to the ages. Fans who followed this team (and the players themselves) will surely remember the stress, but the quick historical accounts tend to skip straight to the Fall Classic. The road to even reach the Jeffrey Maier Game in the ALCS wasn’t easy though, and this preposterous night should not be forgotten.