• Sal Maiorana

Torre's lineup changes, and a gem from Cone, turn the Series

ATLANTA (Oct. 22, 1996) – This was the night when the World Series began to turn for Joe Torre and the Yankees because when their 5-2 victory was complete, there was nothing the Braves could do to stop the inexorable transfer of momentum that took place.

Because of the rainout that pushed back Game 1, there was no off day for travel between the second and third games, so both teams hopped on planes immediately after Game 2 had ended, arrived in Atlanta at about four in the morning, and were right back at it later that day.

Seeking more favorable matchups with lefty Tom Glavine on the mound for Atlanta, Torre made three decisions that tested his mettle and raised some eyebrows, but as with everything else in this magical season, they were moves that worked.

Torre sat down struggling Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Wade Boggs – all left-handed batters – and replaced them with Darryl Strawberry (also a lefty) in right field, Cecil Fielder at first, and Charlie Hayes at third.

Benching O’Neill was a particularly vexing call for Torre, but he had been hobbled by a pulled leg muscle and just wasn’t swinging the bat well. Martinez would have played first if the game were at Yankee Stadium, but without the use of the designated hitter in the National League park, Torre went for the matchup with Fielder. Same thing with Hayes for Boggs, a simple righty vs. lefty percentage play.

“You just try to put people in there who you think can help you that particular night,” said Torre.

The less obvious move was one he had made before the Series even started but was now going to pay dividends. In setting up his rotation, Torre went with Andy Pettitte and Jimmy Key in the first two games, mainly because both were left-handers, usually the best stratagem at Yankee Stadium, though it hadn’t worked out.

But also, just in case the Yankees lost the first two games, Torre wanted the gritty David Cone for the desperate third game. Torre knew Cone had spent the off-season fretting over his failure to put away the deciding game in the 1995 divisional series against Seattle.

The Yankees had taken a 4-2 lead into the eighth inning of that game, but Cone gave up two runs, the tying marker coming when he threw a 3-2 forkball in the dirt with the bases loaded. The Yankees went on to lose in 11 innings, but Cone blamed himself for not protecting the lead. Now Cone would get a golden opportunity to make amends.

Like he so often did in a big spot, Cone delivered, and it was a new series. He was dynamite for six innings and he left with a 2-1 lead having allowed just four hits, the only run coming in the sixth when he lost the plate and walked three batters.

“It’s as important a game as I’ve ever pitched,” Cone said. “This wasn’t do-or-die, but without a doubt it was important. I think we were a little embarrassed in New York. We had nothing to lose so we came down to Atlanta and let it all hang out.”

Tim Raines opened the game with a single, was bunted to second by Derek Jeter, and scored on Bernie Williams’ single to give New York its first lead of the series and it was the first time Atlanta had trailed since the end of Game 4 of the NLCS.

Strawberry came through win an RBI single in the fourth, and after Cone yielded his only run, Williams gave the bullpen some breathing room in the eighth when his two-run homer – his sixth of this postseason tying a major-league record – keyed a three-run outburst against reliever Greg McMichael.

And then a key moment arose in the bottom of the eighth with an unlikely hero emerging. Following a scoreless seventh, Mariano Rivera faltered in the eighth as Marquis Grissom led off with a triple and Mark Lemke followed with a single. Rivera struck out Chipper Jones, but with lefties Fred McGriff and Ryan Klesko due up, Torre made an eyebrow-arching move, calling on lefty Graeme Lloyd.

Lloyd, of course, had struggled terribly when he first arrived in a trade from Milwaukee in late August, but what was overlooked is that in eight September appearances he’d done exactly what he was brought in to do – shut down lefties.

He gave up only one run in the final month, and in his first five postseason assignments he was unscathed in 3 1/3 innings. That spotless record remained intact as he retired both McGriff and Klesko, then turned it over to Wetteland to close it out in the ninth.

“My general manager’s pretty smart, huh?” Torre said, standing up for Bob Watson who had been vilified early on regarding the Lloyd acquisition.

“Everybody knows that coming to New York, being injured and all, not being able to pitch well, was one of the most trying times in my life,” said Lloyd. “But tonight meant a lot to me.”

It was Torre’s first World Series win, and though he still trailed two games to one, just as he had told George Steinbrenner the night before that the Yankees would come to Atlanta and win all three, everyone could sense the switch in the cosmos.

NEXT post on June 16: The greatest game Joe Torre ever managed.