Monday, January 25, 2016

Best Postseason Win: New York Yankees

A fair number of these posts have begun with a description of the featured team's ill-fated history. No team bears a greater culpability for those tales of woe than the Yankees.

But that's not to say the Yankees have been uniformly successful throughout their history. They took about 20 years to win their first AL pennant (depending on whether you date from the league's beginning in 1901 or the first season played by a New York AL franchise in 1903), and they've had two other extended downturns, failing to make the postseason from 1965-75 and from 1982-93. The 1994 team likely would have broken the second streak, as it had the best record in the AL, but the strike resulted in cancelling the postseason altogether. All told, from 1965-94, the Yankees made only five playoff appearances, winning four pennants and two titles.

(Yes, at this point in the post you are allowed - nay, encouraged - to offer gratuitously insincere sympathy for the past suffering of Yankee fans.)

Postseason or not, the '94 Yankees certainly seemed to indicate a franchise that was turning its fortunes back around. And in 1995, the reversal continued, as the team went 79-65 and claimed the inaugural AL Wild Card.

The three division winners in the AL were the Indians (100-44), Red Sox (86-58), and Mariners (79-66, having staged a furious rally during the late stages of the year and won a single-game playoff to capture the AL West crown over the Angels). I remember that Wild Cards weren't allowed to play a first-round series against teams from their own division (until the recent doubling of the Wild Card made that rule logistically unfeasible). I do not, however, recall why the Wild Card Yankees were matched against the Mariners, rather than the obviously superior Indians.

Whatever the reason, the result was a pair of exemplary series, one of which managed to produce the best of the Yankees' 224 postseason wins to date.

1995 ALDS Game 2: Yankees 7, Mariners 5 (15). Seattle's Andy Benes was making his first career postseason start; it would not be his last of the year (we've already covered another one), and he would also return to the playoffs on multiple future occasions as a Cardinal.

New York's starter was also making his October debut, and would also go on to make a few more playoff appearances as a big leaguer. His name was Andy Pettitte.

The only runner to reach in the first inning was Paul O'Neill, who singled in the inning's bottom half. The second inning was rather lievelier, starting with a one-out walk to Jay Buhner. Buhner was then picked off one pitch before Mike Blowers drew a walk; Tino Martinez singled Blowers to second before Dan Wilson hit into a force to end the rally. Don Mattingly led off the home second with a single and moved to second on a groundout before being left there.

The scoring opened in the top of the third on a home run by Vince Coleman, who homered about once every 200 plate appearances in his career, and at age 33 had just one regular season longball left in his bat. One out later, Ken Griffey Jr. singled and Edgar Martinez walked, but Buhner fouled out to end the inning. Randy Velarde led off the bottom of the inning with a walk and was left at first; Mattingly's walk in the bottom of the fourth made him the only runner on either team to reach in that inning.

Pettitte worked around a Joey Cora single in the top of the fifth, and the Yankees tied it in the bottom of the inning when Wade Boggs walked and Bernie Williams doubled him home. Seattle pulled ahead again in the top of the sixth thanks to the Martinezes, as Edgar doubled and Tino singled him home. But New York responded swiftly in the bottom of the inning, as Ruben Sierra and Mattingly hit back-to-back homers, putting the Yanks ahead for the first time and chasing Benes from the mound. Bill Risley relieved and plunked Jim Leyritz, but retired the other three Yankees he faced in the inning.

The see-saw swung back the other way in the top of the seventh, starting with a one-out double by Cora. Coleman reached on an infield hit, with Cora holding at second. Luis Sojo then singled to score Cora and send Coleman to third, tying the game at 3. Griffey flied to left, bringing Coleman home with the go-ahead run, but Sojo attempted to advance to second on the throw home, and Boggs cut off the throw and cut the trail runner down to end the inning. Norm Charlton then relieved in the bottom of the seventh and yielded a game-tying homer to Paul O'Neill.

Bob Wickman replaced Pettitte in the top of the eighth and worked around a Buhner single. Charlton saw Leyritz reach on an error in the bottom of the inning, but gave up nothing else. Alex Diaz led off the top of the ninth with a pinch single and was bunted to second, but John Wetteland supplanted Wickman and left him there. Charlton worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the inning, sending the game to extras at 4-4.

Wetteland worked around a Buhner double in the top of the tenth; Sierra reached on an error in the bottom of the inning, but was erased on a double play ball from Mattingly. Wetteland kept the bases free of Mariners in the eleventh, and Jeff Nelson replaced Charlton and returned the favor in the home half of the inning.

(As a side note, it's remarkable how much bullpen usage has changed even in the last 20 years. Charlton was Seattle's closer, and he was brought in for the seventh inning and used for four innings, even after giving up a game-tying homer in his first inning of work. Wetteland, New York's closer, was called on in the eighth inning of a tie game and stayed on the mound deep into extras. Even in the playoffs, neither of those things would ever happen today.)

In the top of the twelfth, Wetteland retired the first two Seattle hitters, then allowed a tiebreaking homer to Griffey; after Edgar Martinez singled, Wetteland was pulled and the inning ended with the next hitter. Nelson walked Boggs with one out in the twelfth, and was pulled for Tim Belcher; Boggs was simultaneously replaced by pinch runner Jorge Posada. Williams walked as well, but O'Neill flied out, putting Seattle one out from taking the game. Up next was Sierra, who doubled Posada home to tie the game; Williams came around trying to score the winning run, but was thrown out at the plate, ending the inning.

The Mariners put nobody on base in the top of the thirteenth; Mattingly led off the bottom of the inning with a single and was bunted to second, but advanced no further. Seattle went down on three straight strikeouts in the fourteenth, and New York threatened again when Russ Davis led off with a single, but Williams hit into a double play, defusing the rally before it could begin. In the fifteenth, Edgar Martinez and Griffey both singled, but Doug Strange and Tino Martinez were retired to leave them on. Belcher then walked Pat Kelly and gave up a walkoff two-run homer to Leyritz in the bottom of the inning.

Let's start with the obvious: this is a marvelous baseball game. The scoring margin was within a run for every play until the walkoff homer, and there was a mid-game sequence of five half-innings in which the score went from 1-0 to 1-1 to 2-1 to 3-2 to 4-3 to 4-4. After that, the game stayed there until the twelfth, when both teams scored a run, and the Yankees had the winning run thrown out at the plate in the bottom of the twelfth before finally taking the game three innings later. There are things that make the game more exciting than WPL can properly adjust for - most notably, the game-tying double with the winning run thrown out at the plate, which WPL treats as one discrete event rather than a rapid-fire series of massive changes. Despite that deficiency, this is still the highest-rated postseason game ever played by WPL.

With that said, it's still fair to wonder why I picked this game for the Yankees. Recall the other factors that I've sometimes used to override the system's choices. For instance, there's the importance of the game - the Yankees have played 21 World Series that have lasted 6 games or more; Game 2 of an LDS would have to grow significantly to qualify for even small potatoes status for this franchise. Or the team going on to win the title - they lost the LDS in '95, but they have won the World Series in 27 other years, so they're not short of choices in that regard either. Indeed, the Yankees have seven games in the postseason WPL top 100 that come from years in which they went on to win the title, including two of the top 15.

So, why this game (outside of the cachet of being #1)? Well, remember in the intro, how I mentioned that it was Andy Pettitte's postseason debut? He wasn't alone. Jorge Posada also made the first postseason appearance of his Yankee career in this game (as a PINCH RUNNER; Posada would pinch run only two more times in his 17 big league seasons, once in 1996 and the other time in 2011, his final year). This game may not have led directly to a title, but it was planting a few seeds of future championships.

And there was one other guy, too. As mentioned in the recap, John Wetteland was pulled after Ken Griffey Jr. homered with two outs in the twelfth. Since their odds of victory were pretty low at that point, the Yankees relieved him with probably the last pitcher in their bullpen - a 25-year-old rookie who'd performed badly in 10 starts, then moved to the bullpen and walked 10 batters in 17 relief innings. He recorded the last out in the twelfth, and stayed in after New York tied the score; he then set Seattle down 1-2-3 in the thirteenth, and struck out the side in the fourteenth. The Mariners finally put a couple of runners on in the fifteenth, but left them there, giving the rookie a line of 3.1 innings, 2 hits, no walks, and 5 strikeouts. He would make two more appearances in the series, and keep Seattle off the board in both of them. And he would then proceed to play a fairly noteworthy role in five Yankee world titles over the course of the next decade and a half.

So, why this game? Because WPL picks it as the most exciting postseason game ever played, and because it's the exemplary postseason debut of Mariano Rivera, the greatest postseason pitcher of all time.

The Yankees' honorable mention section could essentially be described as "baseball history." For the sake of relative brevity, we'll keep this down to one game per decade.

1920s: 1926 World Series Game 5. Yankees rallied to tie in the ninth and win in the tenth, backing up an extra-inning complete game from Herb Pennock.

1930s: 1939 World Series Game 4. Scoreless through six; Yankees take a 2-0 lead in the seventh, Reds rally to lead 4-2 going into the ninth, Yanks tie it at 4, then win 7-4 in 10 to finish off the sweep.

1940s: 1941 World Series Game 4. Dodgers rallied from 3-0 down to lead 4-3 going into the ninth. With two outs and the bases empty, catcher Mickey Owen drops strike 3; the Yankees go on to score four runs to win 7-4, and won the series in the next game.

1950s: 1956 World Series Game 5. Perfect game from Don Larsen.

1960s: One of the two decades in which the Yankees have won a postseason game, but don't have one in the WPL top 200. Best option is 1961 World Series Game 3, as the Yankees came back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits and won 3-2 in the ninth.

1970s: 1977 World Series Game 1. Yankees rally to tie at 2 in the sixth, then take a 3-2 lead in the eighth; Dodgers tie it in the ninth. Yankees win in 12.

1980s: The other non-top-200 game, 1981 ALDS Game 1 was a fairly generic 5-3 comeback win.

1990s: 1996 ALCS Game 1. The Orioles rallied twice early to tie the game at 1 and 2, then pulled ahead 4-2. The Yankees would tie it in the eighth, courtesy of what could charitably be called a fan-assisted home run by Derek Jeter, The teams combined to leave three runners in scoring position in the ninth and tenth innings before Bernie Williams walked off with the game in the eleventh.

2000s: 2009 ALCS Game 2. Tied at 2 after 5 innings; both teams blew multiple shots with runners in scoring position and the game went to extras. The Angels pulled ahead in the eleventh, but Alex Rodriguez led off the bottom of the inning with a homer to tie it. LA left runners at first and second in the twelfth; the Yanks left the bases loaded. In the thirteenth, the Angels left two runners in scoring position, and New York took the win on a walkoff error.

2010s: 2012 ALDS Game 3. Yankees trailed 2-1 going into the ninth, when Raul Ibanez (pinch hitting for A-Rod) homered to tie the game. Three innings later, Ibanez went deep again to win it.

Up next... nothing! At least, nothing in the Best Postseason Win series, which now draws to a close. Unless another baseball idea grabs my attention in the immediate future, I'll be turning my full attentions back to tennis for the moment.


  1. Eric,

    The pairings were determined ahead of time. The WC played the AL West winner, while the AL East and AL Central winners met. What's even better, the 100-44 Indians did not have HFA in any of its three series. SoSH

    1. Best I can tell, the Indians did actually have home field for at least the LDS round. The Yankees-Mariners series had a 2-3 structure for home field, rather than the usual 2-2-1 you see in a best-of-5. I assume the other series would have worked the same way had they lasted the full five games.

      Why the Indians didn't have home field in the ALCS, though, I have no idea.

    2. You're right about the first round. It was 2-3. But HFA, like the pairings, was decided beforehand, and simply distributed to the AL West winner. I don't know what would have happened if either of the WC teams had won their first-round series, though I assume HFA would have gone to the division champion. That was also the year all four first-round games were played at the same time, at least the first two games, so Indians fans in Columbus, Ohio didn't get to see the first Tribe playoff game in 41 years (I believe Reds games were the choice there). SoSH