• Sal Maiorana

Put a star next to this epic two-game sweep of the Orioles

BALTIMORE (May 1, 1996) – As the last night of April transitioned into the first morning of May, Paul O’Neill was still standing in the visitors’ clubhouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards trying to digest what he had just been a part of.

Andy Pettitte was tagged for nine runs, eight earned, before he’d recorded an out in the second inning, and on most nights that’s not the type of start your team recovers from. And yet, here was O’Neill saying, “This is one of those games you put a star beside and look back on at the end of the year” because the Yankees roared back to win 13-10.

“It’s a good team win,” O’Neill continued, a victory that moved the Yankees a half-game ahead of Baltimore in the AL East standings.

And then the very next night there was a second game to put a star next to. After blowing an early 5-1 lead and allowing Baltimore to tie it in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees persevered into the 15th inning before Tino Martinez hit a grand slam to trigger a five-run uprising that resulted in an 11-6 victory.

Never again following this two-game sweep were the Yankees out of first place, and the only time they were tied – with the Orioles as it turned out – was for two days in late May.

It took nine hours and 55 minutes for New York to twice dispatch the Orioles – the first one set a new major-league record for longest nine-inning game at four hours, 21 minutes, and the second, which needed six extra innings, took five hours, 34 minutes.

“Who would’ve thought we’d play a longer game than last night?” said Orioles manager Davey Johnson following his team’s second gut-wrenching loss. “Four and a half hours, 5 1/2 hours, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Neither had Joe Torre, and while it was still very early in the season, the importance of what happened in these two games was not lost on him. It was clear that Baltimore was probably going to be the Yankees’ chief competition in the division, and winning these two interminable games, Torre knew, could be quite important by the end of the year.

“That’s a tough loss for Baltimore,” said Torre. “When you play that many innings, have that many people on base and don’t win in your yard, it can be very frustrating.”

He then took a moment to marvel at his own club’s resiliency.

“Everybody in spring training asked about our character,” he said. “I don’t think after these two games that anybody can question the character, class and ruggedness of this team. These two games were special.”

And no one showed more resiliency and character than Pettitte. After getting bombarded in the first game, retiring only three of the 13 batters he faced, when the second game went to overtime and Torre had already used six pitchers, Pettitte volunteered his services.

Baltimore had tied the game at 6-6 in the bottom of the ninth when second baseman Mariano Duncan committed his third error which allowed Gregg Zaun to reach base. Soon Zaun was on third after a sacrifice and a wild pitch by John Wetteland, and then he was trotting home on Roberto Alomar’s long sacrifice fly.

On to extra innings where Jim Mecir – who had quietly come to New York along with Martinez and Jeff Nelson from Seattle – made his Yankee debut in the 10th and gave Torre three eventful innings of shutout ball. Pettitte then entered in the 13th and looked like a different guy from the night before. He shut out the Orioles over the final three innings, long enough for Martinez to deliver the winning blow.

In the six extra innings that were played the teams combined to strand 15 runners, but finally in the 15th, the Yankees broke through. Wade Boggs led off with a single, Derek Jeter walked, and after an O’Neill ground out moved them up, Ruben Sierra walked to load the bases.

Up came Martinez, and when Jimmy Myers left one over the heart of the plate Martinez drove it over the wall in left-center, the second-latest grand slam in major-league history trailing only Boston’s Clyde Vollmer who hit one in the 16th inning in a 1951 game against Cleveland’s Bob Feller.

“When you stay up that long, it’s a shame to lose,” said Martinez, who had grounded into an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the 13th. “I was disappointed I didn’t do the job earlier. I just wanted another chance. But I was too tired to be mad about (the double play).”

The first game was perhaps even more uplifting for the Yankees. O’Neil’s two-run first-inning homer got things started well, but Baltimore responded with three runs off Pettitte in the bottom of the first.

After the Yankees regained a 4-3 lead in the second, the Orioles brought home a six-pack in their half, the big blows a solo homer by Chris Hoiles, a two-run single by Bobby Bonilla, and, after Pettitte had been lifted, a two-run double by Cal Ripken who was the first batter to face Scott Kamieniecki.

No lead is ever truly safe at Camden Yards, though, and the Yankees scored five times in the fifth to tie the game, Joe Girardi driving in two with a single, Jim Leyritz two more with a home run. New York then took the lead for good in the seventh when Martinez crushed a three-run homer.

“It takes time to come together and find an identity, and I think we did that,” said Martinez of the two-game sweep. “Once you establish yourself as a team that never gives up, that’s what wins championships.”

When Martinez arrived in Baltimore he had 10 RBI on the season and he nearly matched that, driving home eight in these two games while raising his once miniscule average to .247.

Almost lost in the shuffle was the performance of outfielder Gerald Williams who had six hits in the second game, just the second Yankee to ever do that, the first being Myril Hoag – that’s right, Myril Hoag – in 1934. Williams also had two hits in the first game, giving him eight for the series.

In all the Yankees had 24 runs on 37 hits, and Torre reiterated, “It’ll be two games I’ll never forget.”

NEXT post on April 13: Shocking news on David Cone.