• Sal Maiorana

An awful loss that foretold the frustration that was to come

KANSAS CITY (Aug. 2, 1996) – When Darryl Strawberry hit his dramatic game-winning two-run homer at Yankee Stadium on July 28 to beat the Royals 3-2, the Yankees moved to a season-high 23 games over .500 and increased their lead in the AL East to the high-water mark of 12 games.

At that point it looked like New York was going to coast home to the division title and would be spending the month of September fine-tuning the rotation, getting the bullpen some rest, and making sure the regulars in the lineup were healthy and ready to go for October.

But then August happened.

After playing so well for so long, in the eighth month on the Julian and Gregorian calendars the Yankees were mostly abysmal. They lost 17 of 30 games, during which their lead over the Orioles shrank to an uncomfortable four games.

Even the Red Sox, a team that started the season 3-15 and was 17 games out at the end of July, had pulled within 7.5 games of the Yankees and the old rivals would play eight times in the final 10 days of the schedule.

A glimpse of what was to come in August occurred at Kaufmann Stadium when the same Royals who New York had walked off less than a week earlier turned the tables on the Yankees in crazy fashion.

The teams played nine scoreless innings before the Yankees scored three times in the 10th, only to see Kansas City rally for four in the bottom of the 10th to beat Mariano Rivera 4-3.

“This game has a way of biting you in the rear end,” Joe Torre said. “The peaks and valleys are very tough at times. We seemingly had the game in hand and it got away from us.”

It was a terrible loss, so bad that Torre called it the worst of the season, and what made it so shocking was that for the second night in a row, Rivera melted down. The previous night in Texas he was touched up for three runs on five hits, but the Yankees managed to hang on for a 6-5 victory. In this one, he gave up four runs on four hits and a walk while retiring only two of the seven batters he faced.

Before these two games Rivera had an ERA of 1.49, a .170 batting average against, and he’d gone 11 straight appearances without allowing a run.

“Their hits found the holes,” said Rivera’s, whose ERA jumped to 2.28. “Even with all these things that have happened, I feel good. I feel I’m in command of my game. It hurts a lot to blow a lead like that. We tried our best to win that game and we blew it. I blew it.”

The fireworks in the 10th inning came after Dwight Gooden and Royals starter Kevin Appier had pitched brilliantly, each throwing nine-inning shutouts and allowing a combined nine hits.

“How do you figure a game like this,” said Gooden following his best outing since his no-hitter.

Against Royals closer Jeff Montgomery, Cecil Fielder led off the top of the 10th with a towering 420-foot home run into the waterfalls in left-center. Then with two outs, Joe Girardi singled, stole second, and raced home when Derek Jeter legged out an inside-the-park home run, the first by a Yankee since Alvaro Espinoza on July 21, 1990, in Minnesota.

Filling in for closer John Wetteland who had taken ill between Texas and Kansas City, Rivera had nothing, and throwing 43 pitches the night before probably had something to do with that.

He gave up a leadoff single and a one-out walk before back-to-back singles by Mike Sweeney and Jose Offerman made it 3-2. Rivera whiffed Craig Paquette for the second out, but then Keith Lockhart grounded one past third and down into the left-field corner. The tying run scored easily and when Gerald Williams inexplicably threw the ball into second base, Offerman, who had stopped at third, was able to race home with the winning run.

“My job was to get the ball back into the infield,” Williams said. “I accept full responsibility for the decision-making.”

Indeed, as Gooden said, how do you figure a game like this?

NEXT post on May 13: Swept by Seattle as August swoon continues.