• Sal Maiorana

Comeback kids sweep three in a row to eliminate the Rangers

NEW YORK (Oct. 2, 1996) – Charlie Hayes couldn’t believe his eyes, but he knew what his mind was telling him.

“When I saw the ball go past McLemore, I said, ‘Wow, we got a win,’” Hayes said after the Yankees completed a come-from-behind 5-4 Game 2 victory when Texas third baseman Dean Palmer fielded Hayes’ sacrifice bunt and threw wildly past Mark McLemore, allowing Derek Jeter to scamper home with the game-winning run in the bottom of the 12th.

In the second or two it took for Palmer to field a ball dampened by a late-night rain and skip his throw past the second baseman who was covering the bag, the Yankees’ season was essentially saved.

“Well, at 0-2 you go down there and you just hope for something crazy to happen,” said Paul O’Neill. “At 1-1, we got a series.”

For a while, it didn’t look like it would be a series at all because Game 2 was looking an awful lot like Game 1. When Juan Gonzalez hit his second home run of the game and third in the first 12 innings of the series, Andy Pettitte stood on the mound at Yankee Stadium, hands on hips with a look of disbelief splashed across his face.

The Yankees magnificent season was in serious jeopardy of imploding as Gonzalez’s three-run blast – on the heels of his solo shot in the first – gave Texas a 4-1 lead.

Having lost the opener, and staring at potentially three games in Texas where New York had lost five of six during the regular season, who better to have pitching a game the Yankees knew they needed to win than Pettitte?

With David Cone inactive for four months, Pettitte had been New York’s ace as he became its first 20-game winner since Ron Guidry in 1985. This was exactly the spot for Pettitte, but then Gonzalez went all-MVP on him and Yankee fans were already gathering their thoughts for the acid-tongued phone calls they’d be making the next day to Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN.

“I was fighting myself,” Pettitte said. “I wasn’t sharp at all.”

Switching into survival mode, Pettitte found a way to regroup. He did not allow another run, and when Mariano Rivera relieved in the seventh and retired all eight men he faced, it gave the Yankees a chance to hen-peck their way back into the game.

Cecil Fielder homered in the fourth to cut the gap to 4-2; Hayes’ sacrifice fly in the seventh made it 4-3; and then Fielder delivered again in the eighth with an RBI single to get Bernie Williams home with the tying run.

“Every pitch was important,” Jeter said of the rally. “The crowd was into it. Every little thing meant something.”

John Wetteland pitched scoreless 10th and 11th innings, but so did Texas’ Mike Stanton, so the game entered a 12th inning that bubbled with drama. The Rangers loaded the bases on a single and two walks off Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson and Kenny Rogers. This forced Torre to bring in righty Brian Boehringer to face Palmer, and with the tension thicker than a Dubliner’s accent, he retired Palmer on a fly ball to right.

Jeter then led off the bottom half with a single, Tim Raines drew a walk, and Hayes stepped into the box against righty Mike Henneman who had entered the game to face him. Torre could have subbed in Luis Sojo or Ruben Rivera to bunt, but Hayes – a player who would attempt just 21 sacrifices during a 14-year career – told the manager, “I can bunt.”

Which he did. And it resulted in the winning run.

“That’s unselfish,” Torre said. “Here’s a guy who has been a big RBI guy his whole career, and he’s sacrificing. That’s this team.”

“If we had lost, we’d have had to go to Texas and win three in a row, and that’s too tough,” Jeter said. “It’s still going to be a struggle, but we like our chances.”

The Yankees went to Texas. Indeed it was a struggle. But they won twice in comeback fashion to capture the series three games to one, their first series victory since the 1981 ALCS.

They rallied to win Game 3 with two runs in the ninth, Jeter leading off with a single and scoring on Bernie Williams’ tying sacrifice fly before Mariano Duncan drove home Tim Raines with a go-ahead single in the 3-2 victory.

Game 4 saw them fall behind 4-0 before winning 6-4 as Williams hit a tying solo homer in the fifth and an insurance solo shot in the ninth to reward six brilliant one-hit shutout relief innings by David Weathers, Rivera and Wetteland.

“We like ourselves,” said Torre. “We respect each other as players and staff. I’ve never seen the likes of this club. They look flat and then something happens as if they were hit with a wet towel. They get shocked back into reality.”

NEXT post on June 6: Jeffrey Maier becomes a Yankee hero.