• Sal Maiorana

Pettitte outduels Smoltz, and O'Neill saves the day in Game 5

ATLANTA (Oct. 24, 1996) – A little more than a month earlier, Joe Torre had made a defensive outfield switch that ultimately helped save a game the Yankees desperately needed to win.

It was Sept. 10 in Detroit when they were in the midst of a free fall in the standings, their 12-game lead in the AL East down to 2.5, so with Paul O’Neill battling a sore hamstring, Torre sent rookie Ruben Rivera out to right field in the ninth inning.

As fate would have it, Rivera made a remarkable diving catch that enabled New York to win the game and it proved to be a turning point as the Yankees found their sea legs over the last three weeks and won the division.

In the bottom of the ninth inning in Game 5 of the World Series, Torre did not have that option. Rivera, who played in the divisional series, had been left off the 25-man roster for the ALCS and World Series, so with the Yankees clinging to a 1-0 lead, O’Neill, still slowed by the hamstring, was stationed out in right.

Naturally, what do you think happened in this magical Yankees season where everything always seemed to work out?

Atlanta’s Luis Polonia hit a screaming line drive into the right-center gap and somehow, O’Neill found enough in those sore legs to make a superb, game-saving catch which secured a sweep of the three games in Atlanta – just as Joe Torre had promised George Steinbrenner.

“When Luis hit it,” Jim Leyritz said, “I said, ‘Oh no. No.’”

As for O’Neill when he saw the ball headed toward the alley? “Oh my God might have gone through my mind a few times.”

Where Game 4 had been wild and crazy, the pivotal fifth game was a classic pitchers’ duel between John Smoltz and Andy Pettitte, the two men who had started in Game 1.

Although Smoltz was a righty, Torre couldn’t take Cecil Fielder and Charlie Hayes out of the lineup so Tino Martinez and Wade Boggs sat again, but he did come back with O’Neill in place of Darryl Strawberry.

Like so many strings Torre pulled, he came out looking like a master puppeteer. Fielder wound up with three of New York’s four hits including an RBI double in the fourth that drove in the only run, and then O’Neill saved the night with his running catch that closed the doors on the soon-to-be-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

“We’ve just got a lot of special things going on,” said Pettitte, who pitched brilliantly into the ninth without allowing a run on five hits and three walks. “I think we’re destined to win this thing now. A lot of little things have happened, a lot of little breaks have gone our way and we’ve taken advantage.”

For instance, in the fourth when Hayes hit a fly ball into right-center that Marquis Grissom dropped for a two-base error, putting him into position to score on Fielder’s double.

Then there was the bottom of the ninth. Chipper Jones led off with a double and after Pettitte got Fred McGriff to ground out to second with Jones moving to third, John Wetteland entered. With the infield in, Wetteland induced Javy Lopez to hit a sharp grounder right to Hayes at third and Jones was unable to score.

Torre ordered Wetteland to intentionally walk the dangerous Ryan Klesko which would set up a force at second, even though Klesko represented the winning run. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox called on Polonia to pinch-hit for Jermaine Dye, and after fouling off six straight fastballs, he slashed a drive into right field that at first looked like a routine out until the ball kept carrying and it turned out to be anything but routine.

“When it kept going and going, that’s when my heart started pounding,” said O’Neill. “Tino came up to me afterward and said the guy on first would’ve scored, too. I hadn’t even thought of that, but it kind of gave me a sick feeling.”

Two pitches before, Yankees coach Jose Cardenal had waived O’Neill several steps toward the gap in right because Polonia wasn’t getting around on Wetteland’s fast ball.

“If it wasn’t Wetteland pitching I never would’ve moved Paul,” Cardenal said. “But if I had waited to move him, we would’ve been in trouble. When I saw the ball, I figured the game was over. Then I saw Paul stick with it. He had a good angle. I knew then he had a chance.”

Three games, three victories, and the Yankees were going home looking to close out perhaps the most improbable of what they were hoping would be their 23rd world championship.

“We’ve been going over the destiny kind of thing, and so far, it’s getting kind of eerie,” said Boggs. “The twilight zone is starting to evolve.”

NEXT Post on June 20: The Yankees are world champions once again.