• Sal Maiorana

John Wetteland's consecutive games saved record dies a terrible death at Fenway

BOSTON (July 17, 1996) – It took the Red Sox more than three months to author a signature moment in the 1996 season, and by the time it happened they were hopelessly out of the race for the AL East division crown.

But that didn’t mean the typical sellout crowd of Yankee haters at Fenway Park couldn’t rejoice as if their beloved but beleaguered team had finally ended their nearly seven-decade long World Series drought.

“A very emotional game,” said Boston’s John Valentin said. “But it’s one win. A good win, but one win.”

Yes, one win, and Valentin was making it clear that even though it came against the Yankees, and it was one hell of a win as it came in one of the craziest games of the season, there wasn’t a whole lot to be happy about in Beantown given the current plight of the Red Sox who were still 15 games behind the Yankees.

The Yankees had trailed 9-2 entering the seventh inning, then were inexplicably ahead 11-9 going to the bottom of the ninth when the unthinkable – at least for this season – happened. John Wetteland blew the save and the Red Sox rallied for three runs to win it 12-11.

Wetteland had converted his previous 24 appearances into saves to set a new major-league record, but in 21 mostly disastrous pitches his ERA soared by more than half a run as he allowed two walks and three hits, the last pair a tying two-out, two-run double by Troy O’Leary and a game-winning seeing-eye ground ball single to right by Jeff Frye that sent Reggie Jefferson scurrying home.

Joe Torre was asked what had been more improbable, the Yankees relentless rally to take the lead, or Boston’s stunning response to pull it out. “I’m not really sure,” Torre said. “That’s a tough one to answer.”

Every reliever has a night like this one, but Wetteland had been on another planet in 1996, the same planet Mariano Rivera would soon become president of for the next decade and a half. In his previous eight outings he’d allowed no runs on six hits, all Yankees victories as they stretched their lead in the division into double digits.

“I was pretty excited while I was watching this game in the bullpen,” Wetteland said. “It was an emotional game. There were ups and downs. I got caught up in it. I was having fun. I thought I was going to nail this thing down and put an end to it. But I was just another hump on the roller coaster. It’s pretty hard to take.”

For most of the night it did not seem like Wetteland’s services would be needed. The Red Sox, looking to win the series, pummeled Kenny Rogers for six runs on five hits and four walks, then knocked around Bob Wickman and Jeff Nelson as well to go up 9-2. They broke a 2-2 tie with four runs in the fifth keyed by Kevin Mitchell’s three-run double and added three more in the sixth as Jose Canseco hit a three-run homer off Nelson.

But in yet another case of the Yankees showing an undying spirit, they refused to lay down. Ruben Sierra ripped a three-run homer off Tom Gordon in the seventh, and Bernie Williams followed a Wade Boggs leadoff single in the eighth with a two-run homer off Mike Stanton to cut the deficit to 9-7.

In the ninth, with Red Sox closer Heathcliff Slocumb in the game, the Yankees surged ahead with a five-hit flogging. Mariano Duncan opened with a double and after Boggs grounded out, Williams, Paul O’Neill, Darryl Strawberry and Tino Martinez singled in succession before Sierra became only the 10th switch hitter in history to reach 1,000 career RBI when he hit a sacrifice fly to complete the four-run uprising.

“It’s that old saying that it’s never over until the fat lady sings,” said Duncan. “When we took that lead, I thought it was one of the most unbelievable comebacks I’ve ever seen.”

And it was, until Wetteland uncharacteristically blew it.

“You expected John Wetteland’s streak to end sometime,” Torre said. “But when you come back with all those runs in the last three innings, that’s the last thing on your mind.”

After Canseco flied out, Wetteland walked Tim Naehring and he said that was the key to the whole thing. “That’s one thing I detest more than anything; walking somebody,” Wetteland said. “It just opens the door for the opposition. It ended up costing me. It ended up costing the whole team.”

Mike Stanley doubled off the Green Monster, and after Mitchell struck out, Wetteland intentionally walked pinch-hitter Jefferson, who was hitting .375, to load the bases. “Jefferson’s been a hot hitter,” Torre said of that decision. “I know what the percentages say about putting the winning run on base, but to pick up 100 points on a batting average is worth the risk.”

Turned out it wasn’t when O’Leary dented the Green Monster to tie it, and Frye finished it.

The Yankees had been 54-0 when leading after eight innings and had won 79 straight dating to Aug. 24, 1995.

Sometimes, shit just happens.

“I can’t describe it,” Torre said. “We were down 9-2, seemingly out of it. Then all of a sudden, we had a life and a two-run lead … and then it disappeared.”

NEXT post on May 7: Daryl Strawberry's triumphant return.