• Sal Maiorana

Jeter wasn't yet known as Mr. Clutch, but his big hit beat the Red Sox

NEW YORK (Sept. 21, 1996) – The official clinching of the AL East by mathematical standards would not occur for another four days in the form of a 19-2 evisceration of the Milwaukee Brewers.

But for all intents and purposes, the Yankees ended the quest for their first division title since 1980 – one that had become laborious and tension-wracked during the final six weeks – on a beautiful Autumn afternoon in the Bronx with the arch-rival Red Sox playing the role of the conquered.

“It’s a big one to win,” said Joe Girardi after the Yankees trimmed their magic number to five. “These are bad games to lose. It’s very disheartening to lose games like this because you’re physically beat, mentally beat, and you look up at the scoreboard and you’re beat there, too.”

The Yankees didn’t lose – even on a day when they had trailed almost all the way and left a whopping 20 men on base – because Paul O’Neill tied the score with a bases-loaded single in the eighth, and then Derek Jeter delivered the dagger in the 10th with a bases-loaded single up the middle that produced the winning run in a wild 12-11 shootout.

“These guys don’t quit,” Joe Torre said. “It’s why we are where we are. And how many times are we going to say, ‘How about that kid, Derek Jeter?’”

Well, the answer to that would be a lot over the next 20 years, long after Jeter was considered a kid.

The soon-to-be-named AL rookie of the year capped his three-hit, three-RBI day by golfing a Joe Hudson 1-2 sinker that chased home Wade Boggs. In the process, Jeter extended his personal hitting streak to 14 games and raised his season batting average to .318.

“We were out there for a long time,” said Jeter. “It seemed like no one wanted to take the game. It was one of those games where you figured the team that batted last would win. I’m just glad that it’s over.”

So was Girardi, who was standing in the on-deck circle knowing that with the bases loaded and two outs he wasn’t going to be batting in the 10th, but he might have to go back behind the plate for the 11th inning in a game that had already gone four hours, 45 minutes.

“I was going to offer him money if he hit it,” said Girardi. “He’s a refreshing young player. He plays the game like you should. He’s humble.”

All told, the teams combined for 23 runs on 34 hits including five home runs, four of those swatted by the Bronx Bombers. Fifteen pitchers contributed 18 walks to the offensive orgy as 405 pitches were delivered.

“If you don’t hit your spots, teams like this are going to kill you,” Torre said of the Red Sox, though Boston manager Kevin Kennedy could have said the same thing about the Yankees. “We’ve seen this stuff all year. They tell us this is what the fans want to see. Maybe in a few years when I’m sitting in the stands I can enjoy it, too. I’m in the dugout now and it’s not fun. It’s nice now, but my heart was jumping out of my chest.”

Jimmy Key, who had given up just four earned runs in his last three starts, got mauled for six runs on eight hits and two walks, the big blow a three-run fifth-inning double by Jose Canseco that was part of a five-run explosion which gave Boston a 6-1 lead.

And then it got all kinds of crazy. The Yankees answered with three of their own as Tim Raines homered and Jeter had a two-run double down the line in left. Boston came back with two in the top of the sixth off Ricky Bones, and New York responded with three off Pat Mahomes – current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ father – with another three-spot as Raines hit his second homer and Cecil Fielder ripped a two-run shot to cut the deficit to 8-7.

The Red Sox added three in the seventh off Dave Pavlas and Jeff Nelson only to see Tino Martinez’s two-run double in the bottom half key a three-run retort.

“There’s going to be days like this where no matter what you throw

up there, they’re going to hit it,” said Girardi.

Finally, a threesome of Yankee pitchers – Dave Polley, David Weathers and Graeme Lloyd – managed to blank the Red Sox in the eighth, something Boston’s Heathcliff Slocumb couldn’t do as he loaded the bases before O’Neill’s tying RBI single.

John Wetteland then pitched two shutout innings and in the 10th, Boggs singled, Fielder and Bernie Williams walked, and Jeter ended it.

“Once we tied the game up and with Wetteland and 50,000 people screaming for us, I figured something good was going to happen,” said O’Neill.

The teams went on to split the final two games of the series and after a rainout, the Yankees swept the Brewers in a doubleheader, the first game serving as the clincher. In between games they celebrated with bottled water, sandwiches and pizza – there was a second game to play, after all – while the manager cried tears of joy.

“You’re trying to temper your emotion, and I found out I couldn’t,” said Torre. “I got very choked up. At this stage of my career, that I thought was over last year, to know that we have a lot of veterans going for this thing, this could be the start of my greatest experience in baseball.”

How prophetic would that comment turn out to be?

NEXT post on May 30: The postseason gets off to a bad start.