• Sal Maiorana

Torre pulls the strings, Leyritz goes deep, and the Series is dead even

ATLANTA (Oct. 23, 1996) – Of all the games Joe Torre managed, a number that surpassed 4,300 by the time he retired in 2010, one stands above all the others in his mind.

Game 4 of the 1996 World Series when his Yankees staged the greatest post-season rally in the team’s illustrious history to defeat the Atlanta Braves 8-6.

“It was the greatest for me,” Torre admitted, speaking not only of the drama that took place during the 10-inning, 4-hour, 17-minute marathon, but the strategic manner in which he had to return to his roots and manage the game under National League rules.

“Don Zimmer and I were yelling at each other during the game: ‘What’s next? Where’s the pitcher hitting? How many players we got left?’ And I kept saying ‘Isn’t this great?’ and Zim would go, ‘Shaddup.’”

When it was over, the Series was tied at two games apiece, and now there was no doubt in Torre’s mind that his team was going to win the championship.

Every move he made worked, including leaving Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez and Wade Boggs on the bench at the start again as he’d done in Game 3. He used every player on the 25-man roster except Andy Pettitte, David Cone and Jimmy Key, and they all made a valuable contribution.

In every way, it was a season-defining victory for the Yankees, though it certainly got off to a horrible start.

This was the game that was most affected by the Game 1 rainout. Torre had wanted to use a three-man rotation, but when Pettitte didn’t pitch until Sunday and the off day was lost, Torre had no choice but to use shaky Kenny Rogers in this fourth game.

Rogers had been an average pitcher during the regular season and a lousy pitcher in his two postseason starts, knocked out twice inside three innings. Nothing changed here. He was strafed for five hits and five runs in the first three innings before Torre sent him to the showers.

The Braves made it 6-0 in the fifth and history told us only two teams had ever rallied to win a World Series game when trailing by six runs or more, the 1929 Athletics against the Cubs (eight), and the 1956 Dodgers against the Yankees (six). History was about to be altered.

Atlanta’s Denny Neagle cruised through five innings having allowed just two hits. But then Derek Jeter opened the sixth with a single, Bernie Williams walked, and both scored when Cecil Fielder’s single to right caromed past Jermaine Dye and went to the wall. Fielder ended up at second and the big guy chugged in to score on Charlie Hayes’ single. The Yankees were halfway back, and Neagle was out of the game.

Things were quiet until the top of the eighth, and then the excitement never ceased. Mike Bielecki had stopped the Yankee rally in the sixth and blanked them in the seventh, so after 34 pitches Braves manager Bobby Cox felt he’d done his part.

“Why wouldn’t you want to bring in Wohlers?” Cox said when he was asked why he turned to his closer, Mark Wohlers, for a six-out save. “He’s perfectly rested. He’s pitched only once in this series. He’s been in the eighth inning many times this year. It’s the only thing to do.”

The move proved disastrous.

Hayes and Strawberry singled, and after the Braves failed to turn a double play on a grounder by Mariano Duncan, Jim Leyritz whacked an unbelievable game-tying three-run homer just over the left-field wall to tie it at 6-6.

“Easily the biggest hit of my career,” said Leyritz, who the year before had won Game 2 of the divisional series against Seattle with a dramatic 15th-inning solo homer at Yankee Stadium. “My wife is happy because I played that one so many times during the off-season, now I’ve got another one to play.”

Mariano Rivera made it through the eighth without incident, and then the Yankees attacked Wohlers again in the ninth. With two outs Fielder, Hayes and Strawberry – those three guys playing for Martinez, Boggs and O’Neill – all singled, but Duncan lined out to right field to end the inning as the sellout crowd at Fulton County Stadium breathed a huge sigh of relief.

Rivera found trouble in the bottom of the ninth, so Torre brought in Graeme Lloyd to face Fred McGriff and the result was an inning-ending double play started by Jeter, another big moment for Lloyd.

“We feel good about our bullpen,” Torre said. “I feel very confident every time I go to the bullpen. It doesn’t matter who I bring in.”

On to the 10th and Wohlers was gone, replaced by Steve Avery who got two quick outs before Tim Raines walked on four pitches, Jeter singled through shortstop, and Williams was intentionally walked to load the bases.

Boggs was the only position player Torre had left, and this was a perfect spot for him. He pinch-hit for Andy Fox, and the eagle-eyed veteran drew what he called, “Probably the biggest walk I’ve ever had in my 15-year career. I was just wondering if Joe was saving me for the next day. When I saw David Cone grab a bat, and a few other pitchers grab bats, I thought to myself, I’ve really gone down on the totem pole.”

Now trailing 7-6, Cox ordered a double switch. He brought Brad Clontz in to pitch and slotted him into the fourth spot in the batting order, McGriff’s spot, which was already passed. Then he brought in Ryan Klesko to play first base so Klesko would lead off the bottom of the 10th.

This move backfired, too, when Hayes hit a little pop to first that Klesko lost in the lights. The ball fell to the ground, everyone was safe, and Jeter scored an insurance run to make it 8-6.

Lloyd struck out Klesko to open the 10th, then John Wetteland came in and after giving up a single to Andruw Jones, he got Dye and Terry Pendleton on a pair of fly balls to left, both of which Raines caught at the warning track to end the game.

“We’re shocking the world,” Jeff Nelson said.

Cox’s take was a bit different. “We blew the game,” he said. “We just blew it, that’s it.”

NEXT post on June 19: Andy Pettitte outduels John Smoltz in classic Game 5.