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When a lefty Yankees third baseman fueled a wild comeback in 1986

Faced with injuries and a playoff race, Lou Piniella deployed a unique strategy to spark a rally for the Yankees.

New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

It is not every day that you see a lefty-throwing fielder play an infield position other than first base. But on August 29, 1986, the Yankees were faced with a hole that only one man could fill.

By late August of 1986, the Yankees were in a fight to stay in the AL East race, trailing the Boston Red Sox by six games in the standings. Time was running out on the ball club, making every game crucial. A few days prior the Yankees got routed by the Oakland A’s 11-4, but the bigger loss came when starting third baseman Mike Pagliarulo came up lame with a hamstring injury in the eighth inning. The injury came at an inopportune time for a struggling Yankees offense that was heading out west for a road trip.

Down a starter in the infield, the new-look Yankees defense included starting shortstop Wayne Tolleson shifting to third and backup infielder Mike Fischlin starting at shortstop. Don Mattingly and Willie Randolph manned their usual positions on the right side of the infield as the Yankees got set to take on the Seattle Mariners at the Kingdome.

The Yankees offense got off to a hot start, posting three runs in the first inning on a Mattingly home run. Rickey Henderson followed that up with a two-run blast of his own in the second off of Mark Langston. Unfortunately for the Yankees, Ron Guidry failed to make it out of the second inning, surrendering five runs in just 1.1 innings of work. Seattle tacked on another three runs when Brian Fisher relieved Guidry in the second. Bob Shirley did not fare much better against Seattle’s offense, which posted four more runs in the fourth against the lefty reliever. The Yankee’s promising start had vanished, and a team fighting for their place in the playoffs saw themselves down 12-5 heading into the fifth inning.

With the Yankees in desperate need of offense, it was clear that manager Lou Piniella would scratch and claw to get back into the game by any means necessary. He did just that in the fifth. The Yankees would start off the inning with a Ricky Henderson home run. That at-bat sparked a rally that included three big hits, two walks, and two errors by Seattle. All in all, the Yankees put six runs on the board, cutting the Mariners lead to one. However, the Yankees were in a peculiar spot, as Piniella had used a pinch-hitter three times in the inning to keep the rally alive, including for starting shortstop Mike Fischlin.

Already faced with limited infield bodies in the infield, Piniella calculated a plan to fill out his defense for the remainder of the game. Shift Wayne Tolleson back to shortstop, put Dan Pasqua at first base, and move Don Mattingly to… third base.

You read that correctly, the nine-time Gold Glove-winning, left-handed, slick-fielding first baseman was asked to play third. It was the first time in his career playing the hot corner. And sure enough, in the bottom of the fifth, Jim Presley hit a groundball to Mattingly, who ranged to his left and fired to second to start an inning-ending double play. The call by Phil Rizzuto says it all.

Mattingly was continuously tested throughout the game, tallying two more assists in the sixth inning and again in the eighth. Dan Pasqua homered for the Yankees in the seventh to tie the game at 12-12. Then Juan Espino (who also entered in the fifth inning as part of the pinch-hitting barrage) doubled in the ninth to drive in Dave Winfield and give the Yankees the lead. A fitting end to the game saw Mattingly make another play in the ninth to seal the game for the Yankees. Despite Mattingly’s play at third, Rickey Henderson was critical of the move by Piniella, saying, “I thought it was a joke”, citing the importance of every game heading down the stretch.

Mattingly would finish the game with six assists and six putouts between first and third base. It would be one of only three times that Mattingly would appear at third base—all of which occurred within that same series against Seattle. The Yankees would ultimately fall short of the division that season, finishing 5.5 games behind the Red Sox.

It is fun to find unique nuggets like this game within a long and plentiful career such as Mattingly’s. This one-off moment showed how athletic he was and the trust that Piniella had in his ability to get the job done no matter what.

References

New York Times

Baseball Reference