• Sal Maiorana

Mariano Rivera's cousin, Ruben, saves the day in Detroit

DETROIT (Sept. 10, 1996) – When the Yankees walked into Tiger Stadium to begin a seven-game road trip, their lead in the AL East had dwindled all the way to 2.5 games, the slimmest margin they’d enjoyed since June 18.

And if not for a smart tactical decision made by Joe Torre in the bottom of the ninth inning of the first game against the Tigers, it would have been 1.5 games and collars would have really tightened in a clubhouse that was already under immense pressure.

Paul O’Neill had been battling hamstring soreness, so with the Yankees ahead 9-8 and John Wetteland – having just returned from a three-week stay on the disabled list – on to close the game, Torre replaced O’Neill in right field with rookie Ruben Rivera.

It was a big spot for Mariano Rivera’s 22-year-old cousin who spent most of the first two months in the minors, and then went back down for more than two months at midseason before his call-up on Aug. 26.

They always say the baseball is going to find you, and with Wetteland having issued back-to-back one-out walks to put the game in jeopardy, naturally the ball found Rivera. Fortunately for the Yankees, he knew what to do when it did.

Bobby Higginson hit a line-drive to the right-center gap that appeared destined to find grass and go to the wall which likely would have ended the game. Instead, Rivera got a great jump, and using speed that O’Neill did not have sore hamstring or not, dove headlong and made a spectacular backhand catch, a stunning play not only for the grace by which it was made but in the moment it was made.

“That catch could be the turnaround of our season,” said Bernie Williams, who had a great view as he was coming over to back up in case Rivera couldn’t come up with it. “It was the best catch I’ve seen all year, especially with what it meant to the ballclub.”

When Wetteland induced Mark Lewis to ground out to Derek Jeter to end a tense nine-pitch struggle, the Yankees had a humongous 9-8 victory which offset Baltimore’s win over the White Sox earlier in the evening.

“It’s a tremendous athletic play,” said Wetteland, who notched his league-leading 39th save but first since Aug. 5. “That play is a lot harder than people realize, a sinking line drive to his opposite side. When he made that play and I got the ball back, I knew I had to pick up the team. The save goes to me, but the assist for this game goes to him.”

Rivera had made a few sparkling defensive plays since his latest recall as Torre had been using him as a late-inning defensive substitute in both right and left field. But this one was above and beyond what even Rivera thought he was capable of.

“I was very surprised, I never thought I would catch that ball because it was so far away from me,” Rivera said. “From the start I said I have to catch that ball. When I saw the ball, I dove. I couldn’t feel the ball in my glove. I don’t know how I caught it. I’m serious.”

Torre wasn’t sure, either, but it all happened so fast he never had time to ponder the difficulty factor. “I never even had a chance to hold my breath on that play,” Torre said. “The first-step quickness he showed there was simply unbelievable.”

The Yankees had lost two of three games at home to Toronto before an off day prior to the start of the Detroit series. Torre decided to hold a meeting and for 25 minutes he tried to convince his team to calm down, play with confidence, and regain control of their season.

Since getting to 23 games above .500 on July 28 when their lead was 12 games, they played seven games below .500 and lost 9.5 games in the standings, so Torre told reporters afterward, “I just thought it was the appropriate time to do it.”

Mariano Duncan, for one, agreed. “Joe hasn’t said much all year; he’s been quiet. I think we needed that. He just told us there are 20 games left and now it’s time to put it all together.”

It looked like the speech worked as Derek Jeter led off the game with a triple and four hits later they were up 3-0. But then struggling Dwight Gooden took the mound and the first four men reached base. By the time he’d thrown his 30th pitch of the inning the Yankees were down 4-3 to a team that was 43 games below .500.

“It’s all dead,” said Gooden, who was yanked before the first inning ended, the shortest start of his career. “The last couple of starts there’s nothing in there.”

Eventually, after ex-Yankee Ruben Sierra exacted a little revenge on Torre with a two-out RBI triple to tie the game at 8-8 in the sixth, New York pushed ahead the winning run in the eighth.

Williams and Tim Raines singled and ex-Tiger Cecil Fielder – playing his first game in Detroit since being traded six weeks earlier – rolled a grounder to third. Given his lack of speed it was looking like an inning-ending double play, but Raines took out Lewis at second with a rollover slide that is essentially outlawed today, and Lewis’ relay to first was late which allowed Williams to score.

“I knew I had to do something,” said Raines. “If they get the ball off on that play, then I didn’t do my job.”

Torre, of course, loved it. “That’s good, hard baseball,” he said. “Old-fashioned baseball won us a game tonight.”

From here, the Yankees won five in a row and six of seven on the trip through Detroit and Toronto, but they gained only a half-game on the Orioles who remained in hot pursuit.

And then it was back home to New York where, as fate would have it, the Orioles – winners of eight of their last night games – would be waiting for a three-game series that everyone knew could turn the tide in the race.

“We have been in first place a long time, and we want to stay there,” Torre said on the eve of the series opener. “Lately, the Orioles have been playing lights out and we’ve been playing to protect the lead. We don’t want to just make the playoffs, we want to win the division.”

David Cone, who would be getting the ball in the first game, said, “This is the way it was supposed to be, us and them, neck and neck, at the very end of the season. I don’t see this as a negative that we aren’t 12 games up anymore.”

NEXT post on May 23: Ruben Rivera saves the day again.