If there was any question that the Yankees of the late 90s were building a dynasty, they answered those doubters with a record-breaking regular season before brushing aside Texas and Cleveland en route to their second World Series in three years. This was a team stacked from top to bottom in the batting order and starting rotation, one whom opposing teams could only hope to slow down. The NL champion San Diego Padres couldn’t even manage to do that, finding themselves outclassed from the very first game of what would be a short Fall Classic series.
That’s not to say their opposition were complete pushovers, as John detailed yesterday. With an offense led by Tony Gwynn (admittedly coming off a down regular season by his standards in which he only batted .321 with a 130 wRC+), three-time All-Star Greg Vaughn and his 50 home runs, 1996 NL MVP Ken Caminiti, Hall of Fame closer Trevor Hoffman in a peak season, and a rotation spearheaded by arguably the best pitcher of the late ‘90s in Kevin Brown — whose 36.9 fWAR from 1996-2000 trailed only Pedro Martinez — the Padres certainly had a fighting chance. Right up until they met the Yankees, that is.
Playoffs: Up 1-0 in World Series (122-50 overall)
The Yankees had David Wells on the mound fresh off winning the ALCS MVP after holding Cleveland to five runs across two starts totaling 15.2 innings while striking out 18, but he met his match against a peskier San Diego lineup. A walk and a single started off his World Series, and though he was able to navigate around that traffic in the first, it would prove a harbinger of things to come for the lefty.
In fact, he was lucky that his offense scored first against the vaunted Brown, almost as if doing so gave them confidence that they could come back from the hole their starter would soon put them in. That initial breakthrough came in the second, with the Bombers loading the bases on an infield single by Chili Davis that caromed off Brown’s leg and walks to Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada. It was perhaps a surprise to see rookie Ricky Ledee starting in left given fellow rookie Shane Spencer’s recent exploits, but Joe Torre got a little gun-shy with him after a 1-for-10 ALCS.
Ledee promptly rewarded Torre’s trust, lining a double to right to plate the first two runs of the game. It was the beginning of an impressive Fall Classic from the 24-year-old rookie out of Puerto Rico.
Vaughn would immediately nullify those runs the following inning, smashing a two-run shot to right following Chris Gomez’s leadoff single. Things would only get uglier for Wells in the fifth as despite converting a pair of quick outs, a Quilvio Veras single and back-to-back home runs from Vaughn and Gwynn — his first ever in the postseason — put the Yankees into a 5-2 hole.
Torre managed to squeeze another two innings out of his starter, with Boomer facing the minimum in the sixth and seventh, but he departed the game with a rather unsightly line of five runs on seven hits (three home runs) and two walks with four strikeouts in seven innings.
Across the diamond, Brown had settled down after that nervy second, facing the minimum in the third, fourth and sixth while navigating around a pair of singles by Ledee and Chuck Knoblauch in the fifth by inducing three groundouts with his demon sinker. Perhaps tiring with his pitch count threatening triple digits as he took the mound in the seventh (not to mention his flu-like sinus infection), the Yankees’ fortunes finally turned around. Posada walked and Ledee singled to end Brown’s day, to be replaced by Donne Wall. This was just the matchup the Yankees were looking for, as Knoblauch blasted a three-run homer to level the scores.
Just like that, what seemed like a promising outing from a starter who had authored one of the greatest campaigns in MLB history — Brown’s 9.6 fWAR in 1998 is edged by only 21 pitchers in a single season — turned into a four-run start in 6.1 innings. Jeter singled on the next pitch, forcing Bruce Bochy to retrieve his reliever without having recorded an out.
Mark Langston fared no better. He intentionally walked Bernie Williams after a wild pitch allowed Jeter to take second, and then issued a free pass to Davis before initiating one of the immortal moments of the 1998 season. Battling Tino with the bases loaded, a 2-2 pitch appeared to catch the plate but was called ball three:
On the very next pitch, Tino ensured that Padres fans would be grumbling about that call for decades. Langston’s next pitch was launched to the upper deck for a grand slam, completing the comeback and sending the Bronx crowd into bedlam:
Before you could blink an eye, the Yankees had turned a three-run deficit into a four-run lead with their seven-run seventh.
Jeff Nelson came in for the eighth and allowed two men to reach, forcing Torre to call on Mariano Rivera for the four-out save. A fielding error by Knoblauch allowed Vaughn to score the Padres’ sixth run, but Rivera induced a groundout to strand a pair and head to the ninth, where he would strike out Greg Myers and John Vander Wal and get Veras to pop out to seal the Yankees’ Game 1 victory, 9-6, earning his first of 11 World Series saves in the process.