Tuesday Night Open Thread

Here is tonight’s open thread. The Knicks are playing their first game with their new coach, and both the Devils and Islanders are in action too. There’s also some college hoops on the schedule as well. You folks know how these things work by now, so have at it.

Kuty: Yanks have reached out to free agent Carlos Torres

(Hunter Martin/Getty)
(Hunter Martin/Getty)

According to Brendan Kuty, the Yankees have reached out to former Mets reliever and free agent right-hander Carlos Torres. Torres elected free agency last week after being designated for assignment when the Amazin’s needed a 40-man spot for Yoenis Cespedes. Roughly 20 teams have contacted him already, including clubs in Asia.

Torres, 33, has spent the last three seasons working mostly as a swingman with the Mets. He has a 3.59 ERA (3.94 FIP) with a 21.9% strikeout rate and a 7.3% walk rate in 241 innings during that time. Last year Torres had both the highest ERA (4.68) and lowest FIP (3.53) of his three seasons in Flushing, weirdly.

The Yankees traded swingman Adam Warren earlier this offseason and they’ll head into Spring Training with three open bullpen spots. (Maybe four depending on Aroldis Chapman‘s suspension.) They do have a ton of internal candidates though. I count 20 bullpen candidates between the 40-man roster and non-roster invitees.

Right now the Yankees have six starters and Brian Cashman confirmed whichever one doesn’t make the rotation will likely be the long man, assuming everyone stays healthy. Torres has a rubber arm — it seemed like the Mets were bringing him out of the bullpen for multiple innings every other day — and he would add swingman depth in case a starter gets hurt.

The Yankees have not yet signed a Major League free agent this offseason and I don’t think that will change now. If they wanted Torres on the 40-man roster, they could have simply claimed him off waivers. It’s not like he’s making a ton of money. (He agreed to a $1.05M salary to avoid arbitration before being designated.) Chances are the Yankees want him on a minor league deal.

Beyond the top six starters, the Yankees have Bryan Mitchell and journeymen Anthony Swarzak and Tyler Cloyd as rotation depth. Luis Cessa, Chad Green, and Brady Lail are in that mix as well. If the Yankees can bring in Torres on a minor league deal, great. Never a bad idea to bring in more depth. He’s not a sexy name but he’s a capable last guy in the bullpen.

Sherman: Yankees fielded calls about Dustin Ackley this offseason

(Adam Hunger/Getty)
(Adam Hunger/Getty)

According to Joel Sherman, the Yankees fielded calls from teams looking to acquire Dustin Ackley earlier this offseason. Interestingly, Sherman says teams wanted Ackley to play first base. That seems … weird. A lot of his value is tied to his ability to play several different positions.

The Yankees acquired Ackley from the Mariners for Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez at the trade deadline last year. Flores and Ramirez were essentially role players, not cornerstones, and both will be out of minor league options this coming season. Point is, they didn’t have much trade value. The Yankees got Ackley relatively cheap.

Ackley, 28 later this month, hit very well in his limited time with the Yankees (161 wRC+), though I have a hard time thinking his value increased substantially during his two months in pinstripes. (One month really, since he was hurt in August.) Ackley’s been around a while and he has a track record, and it’s mostly not good.

It makes sense to listen to offers for Ackley the same way it makes sense to listen to offers for any player. You never know when a team will really love a guy and make a shockingly big offer. Realistically, the Yankees weren’t going to get anything better than Flores and Ramirez types. They still have plenty of those too.

Ackley is more valuable to the Yankees on the roster than anything they could have probably gotten in a trade this offseason. Greg Bird‘s recent injury makes Ackley the only backup first baseman now, so he’s pretty important, especially since Mark Teixeira is known to visit the DL from time to time.

Three notable 2016 Spring Training invitees and three notable omissions

Kaprielian. (Staten Island Advance)
Kaprielian. (Staten Island Advance)

Spring Training is now a little more than one week away, and late last week the Yankees announced their list of non-roster invitees. A total of 25 non-roster players will be in camp this year. Some are top prospects (Aaron Judge, Jorge Mateo), some are depth players (Pete Kozma, Donovan Solano), and some are simply there to catch bullpens (Kyle Higashioka, Francisco Diaz).

As always, some non-roster invitees are more notable than others. There are also some notable omissions are well; players who were not invited to camp even though it appears they may be in position to help the big league team in the near future. Non-roster invites can give us a glimpse into how the Yankees value certain players in the organization. Here are three notable invitees and three notable omissions.

Three Notable Invitees

RHP James Kaprielian: Last year’s first round pick comes billed as a quick-moving college starter, and the invitation to Spring Training indicates the Yankees plan to put Kaprielian on the fast track. It’s not often the Yankees bring their top pick to camp in his first pro season. They did it last year with Jacob Lindgren, though that was a special case because he’s a pure reliever.

Aside from Lindgren, I can’t find the last time the Yankees did bring their top pick to big league camp in his first full pro season. Not even Ian Kennedy and Joba Chamberlain were Spring Training invitees in 2007. The Yankees have committed to getting younger and building from within over the last year or so, and inviting Kaprielian to big league camp in his first season after the draft shows he’s a big part of that plan. They want to get him to MLB in a hurry.

RHP Brady Lail: The argument can be made Lail is as high as seventh on the Yankees’ rotation depth chart. He reached Triple-A last season, and with Adam Warren now in Chicago, Lail could soon be in position to soak up long man innings. It’s not a sexy job but that’s how many pitchers get their foot in the big league door. The Yankees are inevitably going to need to dip into their system for spot starts at some point in 2016. Lail’s more of a command guy than a stuff guy, and this spring he’ll have a chance to show the MLB coaching staff what he can do. It’s an opportunity for Lail to put himself on the map for an early season call-up.

LHP Tyler Webb: Webb was actually in big league camp last year, and there’s a chance he may have been called up as part of the bullpen shuttle last summer had he not suffered a season-ending finger injury in late-June. He’s healthy now though, and last season the Yankees showed everyone is a candidate for the shuttle. They added players like Diego Moreno, Kyle Davies, Matt Tracy, Joel De La Cruz, Caleb Cotham, and Nick Goody to the 40-man roster at midseason so they could serve as a fresh arm. Webb figures to be in that mix in 2016. The Yankees have no shortage of bullpen candidates. Leaving Webb in minor league camp after the injury and giving his spring innings to someone else would have been easily justifiable. The Yankees are bringing him to Spring Training because they want to see if he can help in 2016. They didn’t forget about him following the injury.

Three Notable Omissions

Austin. (Presswire)
Austin. (Presswire)

OF Tyler Austin: Yeesh. What a fall for Austin. He was in big league camp every year from 2013-15 — 2013-14 as a non-roster player and 2015 as a member of the 40-man roster — but he was dropped from the 40-man last September, slipped through waivers unclaimed, and was not selected in December’s Rule 5 Draft. And last week, when Greg Bird went down with his shoulder injury, Brian Cashman said Austin was not a candidate to play first base in Triple-A.

Injuries and a lack of production — the two are surely related to some extent — have caused Austin’s stock to plummet the last few seasons. It wasn’t too long ago that he was a top 100 prospect (No. 77 in 2013 per Baseball America) and any team could have had him and his two option years last September for nothing more than the $50,000 waiver fee, yet they all passed. Now Austin wasn’t even invited to big league camp.

RHP Cale Coshow: I guess Coshow not getting an invite makes sense. The Yankees have a ton of relievers in camp already — I count 20 bullpen candidates, including 15 righties — and there are only so many innings to go around. Coshow had a fantastic 2015 season though (2.45 ERA and 2.80 FIP in 114 innings) and is one of the hardest throwers in the organization, so I thought it was likely he would get an invite to camp so the big league coaches could get a look at him. Even with those 20 bullpen candidates in camp, there’s a non-zero chance Coshow makes his MLB debut at some point this summer as part of the bullpen shuttle.

LHP Chaz Hebert: Last year was a breakout season for Hebert, who had a 2.55 ERA (3.11 FIP) in 133 innings and reached Triple-A. Then again, the Yankees sent him to the Arizona Fall League for extra innings and a longer look, didn’t add him to the 40-man roster in November, and he slipped through the Rule 5 Draft unclaimed. Still, a young lefty who can start is a nice piece to have in the organization, and given his proximity to MLB, there’s always a chance Hebert could get the call in an emergency at some point in 2016. The Yankees felt they didn’t need to get a look at him in big league Spring Training first, however.

Scouting The Free Agent Market: David Freese

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

As the offseason winds down, teams are currently in bargain hunting mode trying to find that last piece or two to round out their roster. The Yankees have grabbed low-cost veterans like Eric Chavez, Brian Roberts, and Raul Ibanez at this point of the offseason in recent years. They weren’t counting on them for huge impact, just quality depth.

The Yankees have already announced their list of non-roster Spring Training invitees, but the roster building doesn’t end there. The team can still add players and may indeed make a minor pickup or two in the nine days between now and the open of camp. Veteran third baseman David Freese remains unsigned, and with Greg Bird now out for the season, the Yankees could use corner infield depth. Is Freese a potential fit for that role? Let’s look.

The Offense

Freese, 33 in April, has been rather consistent the last three years, putting up a wRC+ in the 105-110 range each season from 2013-15. Both his BABIP (.321) and strikeout rate (22.4%) have held fairly steady these last few years, but his walk rate is trending down (9.0% to 7.4% to 6.6%) while his ISO (.119 to .123 to .163) is trending up. Here are his platoon splits from 2013-15:

PA AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ BABIP BB% K% GB% FB% Soft% Hard%
vs. RHP 1,127 .257/.321/.375 100 .327 6.7% 24.0% 54.2% 24.8% 14.9% 36.2%
vs. LHP 375 .268/.349/.451 127 .303 10.7% 17.9% 48.7% 28.7% 14.7% 37.4%

Freese is a right-handed hitter, as you may have guessed from the splits. He’s also a ground ball hitter, which explains the higher than league average BABIP and generally underwhelming ISO. Ground balls sneak through for hits more often than fly balls, but they rarely go for extra bases.

Last season Freese put up a .257/.323/.420 (110 wRC+) line overall, and his splits had reversed from his career norms. He was basically average against lefties (104 wRC+) while having more success against righties (112 wRC+). That looks very much like a one-year blip based on the rest of his career — it was a 92 wRC+ against righties and a 153 wRC+ against lefties as recently as 2014 — and not the new normal, but stranger things have happened.

The lack of interest this offseason suggests teams do not see Freese as a player capable of producing at an average or better clip against both righties and lefties. Those guys usually find jobs, especially at an in-demand position like third base. Going forward, it’s best to project Freese as a platoon bat, and if he performs better than expected, great.

The Defense

For the vast majority of his career, the defensive stats have rated Freese as an average to slightly below-average third baseman. He had one disaster year in 2013 (-14 DRS and -16.5 UZR) but has otherwise hovered within a run or two of average. For what it’s worth, the UZR components say it’s all due to a lack of range. Freese turns double plays fine and avoids errors, but he’s a statue. Not much range at all.

Freese has played some first base in addition to third base, mostly earlier in his career, which is kind of a big deal as far as the Yankees are concerned. The Bird injury means they’re out a Grade-A piece of depth at first base. Freese played nine games at first with the Cardinals from 2009-11 plus a bunch more in the minors, and I’m guessing he would have seen some action at first with the Angels the last two years if not for Albert Pujols and C.J. Cron.

The defensive stats at first are meaningless given how little time Freese played there. As we’ve seen the last few years, first base is not as easy as it seems. The Yankees have thrown a lot of players at first for short periods of time (Chase Headley, Kelly Johnson, Brendan Ryan, Brian McCann, etc.) and all struggled with the transition to some degree. Freese at least has some familiarity with the position. He wouldn’t be going in blind.

Injury History

Only once in his six full MLB seasons has Freese managed to play 140+ games. That was the 144 games he played in 2013. Freese is good for at least one DL stint per season. Check out the list of injuries:

  • 2015: Non-displaced fracture of right index finger. Missed close to six weeks.
  • 2014: Fractured right middle finger. Missed three weeks.
  • 2013: Lower back strain. Missed three weeks.
  • 2012: Right and left ankle sprains. Missed ten games in September but didn’t go on the DL because of expanded rosters.
  • 2011: Broken left hand. Missed two months.
  • 2010: Right ankle tendon reconstruction surgery. Missed a little more than three months.
  • 2009: Left heel debridement surgery. Missed two months in minors.

Not great. He’s had surgery on both ankles/feet and breaks in both hands/fingers. Any team that signs Freese would have to have a decent Plan B at third base because he’s going to miss time. His history suggests staying healthy over a full season just isn’t happening. The best predictor of future injury is past injury, after all.

Contract Projections

It is late in the offseason, and at this point the remaining free agents are going to end up with contracts smaller than expected. Howie Kendrick just took two years and $20M. That’s ridiculous. It’s a fraction of what he’s worth. Bargains are out there. Here are some early offseason projections for Freese:

Freese would certainly jump on three years and $30M right now. That’s 150% of Kendrick’s deal! He’d probably take the two years and $18M as well. Martin Prado and Justin Turner will be the best available free agent third basemen next offseason. Would Freese take a one-year deal and try his luck again next winter? He might not have a choice at this point.

Wrapping Up

Although he is four years older, I prefer Juan Uribe to Freese, but Freese could potentially fill a similar role as the backup third baseman and righty bat off the bench. He can’t play second like Uribe, but the Yankees have depth at that position in Dustin Ackley and Rob Refsnyder. They need first base depth in the wake of Bird’s injury and Freese may be able to provide that. (Uribe may be able to as well.)

(Harry How/Getty)
(Harry How/Getty)

Looking around the league, I count eight teams that have an opening for either a starting third baseman or a most of the time third baseman: Angels, Indians, Astros, Braves, Reds, Brewers, Pirates, and Padres. Some of those teams are more realistic fits for Freese than others. The rebuilding Braves, Reds, Brewers, and Padres aren’t going to spend money on a veteran third baseman, for example.

The Yankees have yet to sign a Major League free agent this offseason but I don’t think they’re opposed to the idea completely. They can’t be. You have to be willing to act if a favorable deal comes along. My guess is Freese would have to come on similar terms as Stephen Drew last year ($5M for one year) for the Yankees to have any interest. And even then Freese has to be willing to accept a bench role.

As with most position player free agents this offseason, Freese looks like an okay fit for the Yankees but the Yankees don’t seem to be a fit for Freese. The Angels, Indians, and Pirates all stand to offer more playing time and Freese may consider those clubs more likely to contend in 2016 than the Yankees. At some point someone will sign him, right? I would be surprised if he has to settle for a 13th position player on the roster job at this stage of his career.

Monday Night Open Thread

In his weekly Sunday Notes column, David Laurila passed along a quote from Andrew Miller praising Alex Rodriguez. “You hear our hitters talk about his insights, whether it’s pitch sequencing or lineup matters. Whatever it may be, Alex has a really advanced grasp,” said Miller, among other things. Make sure you check it out. A-Rod has always stood out as an incredibly smart and instinctual player. Now that Barry Bonds has a big league coaching job, I can’t help but wonder if Alex has a real chance to remain in baseball as a coach or manager after he’s done playing.

Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Rangers and Devils are playing (each other), plus the Nets are in action and there’s some college basketball on the schedule too. Talk about those games, A-Rod’s awesomeness, or anything else right here.

Flashing Back to Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS

We have one last Retro Week article left over after it was delayed late last week. Enjoy our final flash back to the 1996 Yankees.

(Getty)
(Getty)

You guys know what game this is: The Jeffrey Maier game. It’s probably the most well-known 1996 Yankees game given its aura of controversy, the division rivalry, and the game’s classic nature.

The 1996 Baltimore Orioles were a powerhouse – their 257 home runs were, at the time, an all-time ML single season team record. It helped that Brady Anderson had a freakish 50 HR year but then again, they also had prototypical power suppliers like Rafael Palmeiro (39 HR), Bobby Bonilla (28), Roberto Alomar (22), and Cal Ripken Jr. (26) in their lineup. Along with the Mariners and Indians, the O’s offense was one of the most fearsome in the ML.

The same couldn’t be said about their pitching staff though. Baltimore had a 5.15 team ERA, which ranked 21st out of 30 ML teams – also making them the first team in ML history to advance to playoffs with staff ERA over 5.00. Simply said, they had below league average results for an above-average team. Staff ace Mike Mussina was the only starter with an above-average ERA+ (103) and guys like David Wells, Scott Erickson, Rocky Coppinger and Kent Merker all had ERAs over 5.00.

The 1996 Yankees, on the other hand, didn’t really have offensive superstars but they were a very solid bunch. Mike’s article from Wednesday summarized it well: “The Yankees were not an offense reliant on one or two players. Superstars are good, but depth is important, and one through eight the 1996 club put together quality at-bats and produced.” The team produced a slash line of .288/.360/.436 – not the most powerful but they hit for a good average and got on base.

The pitching staff had an ERA of 4.65, which seems high (17th in ML) but that didn’t mean that the group was without talent. For the postseason, Yankees were ready to send out David Cone, Jimmy Key and Andy Pettitte – three pretty reliable names. Kenny Rogers, who had an average year, could scratch out a nice one or two as a no. 4 guy. The bullpen had one of the best tandems of the team history – Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland – to secure victories for New York. The overall staff had flaws but they had potential to come up big throughout the postseason.

NBC broadcasted Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS with Bob Costas, Joe Morgan and Bob Uecker in the booth. The internet was not as big back then as it is now (also I was only five years old that year) so I have no idea how that troika of broadcasters were received among listeners, but based on this Baltimore Sun article, it sounds like they were crowd-pleasers.

Costas is within an elite group of sportscasters whose presence enriches a telecast. Some Baltimoreans supposedly have detected a Yankee bias in his call, but that’s a complaint from people in need of a clue.

As for Morgan, the Hall of Fame second baseman has no peer among baseball analysts. In every telecast, Morgan provides a clinic of inside information and insight for those knowledgeable about baseball as well as the casual fan.


Uecker, the voice of the Milwaukee Brewers, commercial pitchman and erstwhile actor, is the comic foil, trading on his sad-sack playing days.

The former catcher has a keen sense of humor, which is needed when Costas and Morgan take baseball so seriously. However, the network would do well to let Uecker tone down that act and do some serious analysis.

Pitching matchup: Scott Erickson (13-12, 5.02 ERA, 222.1 IP) vs. Andy Pettitte (21-8, 3.87 ERA, 221.0 IP)

Erickson was a guy who had seen his share of ups and downs leading up to his age-28 season. In 1991, his second ML season, he pitched to a stellar 20-8 record with a 3.18 ERA, earning an All-Star nod and finishing 2nd in the AL Cy Young vote. In the next five seasons, he would have three with ERA+ below league average (including 1993, when he led the league in losses with a 8-19, 5.19 ERA record).

During the middle of 1995 season, Twins traded “unhappy” Erickson to the Orioles for hard-throwing Frankie Rodriguez (no, not K-Rod). Erickson, who was 4-6 with 5.95 ERA before the trade, threw to a 9-4, 3.89 ERA with the O’s. The talent was there – he just needed a change of scenery. And what scenery it was to be with the Orioles. Even though the 1995 Orioles only finished 3rd in AL East, they were poised for a big 1996. Not only did the O’s hire a very experienced manager in Davey Johnson, but they also went out and signed free agents Randy Myers, B.J. Surhoff and Roberto Alomar, and traded for David Wells to bolster the team.

In 1996, Erickson, like the rest of the Baltimore pitching staff, had an inconsistent season. Up to August 31, the righty had a 9-11 record with an unspectacular 5.45 ERA while allowing a .305/.363/.456 slash line to hitters. For the month of September, however, he showed signs of life by finishing off the season with a record of 4-1, 3.19 ERA in 6 starts.

Andy Pettitte was riding the upswing of his then-very young career. The 24-year old had just finished his second ML regular season after winning a league-leading 21 games and being named to All-Star team for the first time. Along with David Cone, who was the veteran ace of the rotation, Pettitte was starting to be considered as the possible second one in Bronx. George Vecsey of New York Times had a pretty lofty words for the lefty.

But isn’t there room for two aces on a staff? Pettitte’s natural and sincere deference to his elders wisely keeps the pressure off himself. He is no Keyshawn Johnson screaming for the football after one professional catch, no pro basketball rookie demanding a starting job.

Twenty victories. Stop and think about it. Pettitte was the first pitcher to win 20 games in the major league with a designated hitter in every lineup and a smaller strike zone than the National League…

Expectations for Pettitte for the 1996 playoffs were high and eager, understandably so. The game against the O’s would be his second career postseason start (he started a game versus Mariners in the 1995 ALDS, allowing 4 ER in 7 innings in a loss). The Yankee team itself, coming off winning the AL East division and the ALDS against Texas, was confident yet feeling challenged to face the divisional foe Baltimore in ALCS. Not only the Orioles were a good team but also New York wanted to shake off the bad juju of losing the 1995 ALDS in the worst possible way.

“You don’t want to get to the playoffs and lose every year,” Paul O’Neill said. “I knew we were going to make the playoffs, but we’re not where we ant to be yet. We have some steps left.”

The Game

The game was scheduled to start at 4:08 p.m. on October 9, 1996. A sellout crowd of 56,495 people showed up at the Yankee Stadium II. In the top of the first, Pettitte struck out Anderson and grounded out Zeile to start things off. As Roberto Alomar started to approach his at-bat, the entire Yankee Stadium echoed with thunderous amount of boos. The reason? His infamous spit incident with the umpire John Hirschbeck only few weeks earlier. Then-NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, who threw the first pitch of the game, urged the crowd to give Alomar a silent treatment.

”If you want to register your protest, be silent when he gets up,” he said. ”Have the stadium be very, very quiet, and each time he comes up, make it clear that we don’t acknowledge the fact that he is even in the game.” Well, that didn’t really work out. Pettitte struck Alomar out on a curveball outside and that drew a big cheer (or happy yell) from the Bronx faithful.

“Pettitte works a perfect first, fanning two,” Costas said. “No argument from Alomar, and we’ll be back.”

Tim Raines, leading off for the Yanks, hit a bloop double to left to start the threat. It was a very odd hit: seemed like a routine fly for LF B.J. Surhoff but apparently he never saw it until it was about to fall right in front of him. Boggs grounded out to first to advance Raines to third and Bernie Williams drove him in with an RBI groundout. 1-0 New York.

Baltimore tied the game immediately. Palmeiro worked a 3-1 count walk and Ripken Jr. drove a double to the gap to make it runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out. Up next was Eddie Murray, who was at the tail end of his career. The future HOF’er hit into an RBI ground out to make it a 1-1 tie in the second.

New York struck right back. Big Daddy Cecil Fielder walked to lead off and O’Neill reached on a fielding error by Roberto Alomar (much to the Bronx crowd’s delight) to make it no out with runners on first and second. It was initially called as an infield single but was modified as an error. Up next was Mariano Duncan, one of the least disciplined and most contact-oriented in the lineup. The second baseman grounded to second on the first pitch and it seemed like the Orioles were going to turn an easy 4-6-3 double play. But Cal Ripken’s throw from second base was a bit wide, pulling Palmeiro off the bag and Duncan was safe. Yankees took a lead on Leyritz’s RBI ground out, (which was also bobbled momentarily by 3B Todd Zeile, jeez) 2-1 New York. Jeter hit an infield single to potentially make things more interesting but Raines flew out to LF (this time, Surhoff didn’t have a hard time recognizing it) to end the inning.

Did I mention that Orioles are high-powered? Well, Brady Anderson was the catalyst. With one out in the top of the third, he took Pettitte deep on the first pitch. It was a hanging curveball up in the zone, almost identical to the pitch he struck out on in the first inning. 2-2. Rafael Palmeiro, another slugger, took the lefty deep the next inning to give Baltimore a 3-2 lead. This time, it was a fastball inside that Palmeiro just straight turned on it. Pettitte didn’t really miss his spot – but Palmeiro, back in his heyday, was a very dangerous power hitter. Pettitte had only allowed one home run to lefties all season – by the fourth inning of this game, he had allowed two.

The Orioles could have scored more in the fifth. Tino Martinez flashed his leather to rob B.J. Surhoff of an extra base hit leading off. Had Martinez missed it, the course of the history might have been different. After that, Mike Parent singled and Brady Anderson walked to add more pressure. Pettitte struck out Zeile and induced an Alomar ground out to get out of it but man, Tino’s fielding really changed the outcome.

Baltimore struck again in the sixth. After a seven-pitch battle, Pettitte walked Palmeiro to begin the inning. He got Bonilla to fly out but promptly allowed a single to Ripken through the SS-3B hole. The Orioles had the bases loaded after Murray walked on five pitches, then scored another run with a B.J. Surhoff sac fly. 4-2.

Meanwhile, the Yankee bats were laboring against Erickson. The righty settled in after allowing a run each of first two innings. By the time the bottom of sixth started, he had induced sixteen ground outs, a clear sign that his bread-and-butter sinker was working. Yankees also ran into some ratty luck as well. Beginning that frame, Cecil Fielder was robbed of a base hit by Alomar’s gem (much to Yankee fans’ dismay) and O’Neill flied out about a half step away from the LF wall. Duncan and Leyritz each singled to give New York a scoring chance but Jeter grounded out to waste the opportunity.

Pettitte would get into his last bit of trouble of the night in the seventh. After retiring Anderson and Zeile, the lefty allowed a single to Alomar. Rafael Palmeiro, who had already homered, hit another big one towards the right field wall, but instead of going over, the ball bounced off the short porch wall and held Palmeiro to a very loud single. Palmeiro definitely hit it hard enough for it to be a homer but the ball dove down instead of sailing out, which is a break that Pettitte and the Yanks needed. With two outs and runners on corners, Pettitte faced Bobby Bonilla and induced a fly out to get out of the inning. He would be done for the game with a 7 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 4 K, 2HR performance: bent but didn’t break.

The Yankee offense started to rally in the bottom of seventh. With one out, Boggs worked a walk. Bernie Williams, behind the count at 0-2, drilled a liner to RF Bobby Bonilla which appeared to be caught … but he dropped it at the last moment. It was almost a great catch but the ball jarred out as his body hit the wall. It was another play in which lady luck smiled in New York’s direction, but definitely not the biggest one of the night. Johnson put in the lefty Jesse Orosco to get out of the frame. Tino Martinez struck out in seven pitches and the O’s opted to intentionally walk Fielder (“I don’t think they’re gonna walk him, personally” said Joe Morgan right before C Mike Parent raised his arm for intentional walk) with O’Neill on deck. The bases were loaded.

“It tells you how much confidence Davey Johnson has in (Orosco), really,” said Uecker. It was also probably that O’Neill was hobbled by a nagging hamstring injury that would usually put him in 15-day DL. “Do you let Paul O’Neill hit against Orosco? If it’s me, I say no, but I’m not the manager,” quipped Joe Morgan.

Torre apparently agreed with Morgan and put righty Charlie Hayes into the deck. O’s manager Davey Johnson responded to that by putting RHP Armando Benitez into the game. Not to be outdone, Torre quickly switched in lefty Darryl Strawberry to pinch hit for Hayes.

“The guy,” Costas said, referring to Strawberry, “even if he’s past the prime, he’s the guy who has the most presence in this team … say anything you want about him; his presence is a dramatic one and in this situation, what more could you ask for?”

Strawberry definitely made his presence known. He battled Benitez to a full-count walk to drive in Boggs. The lead was cut to 4-3. It was a very impressive at-bat by Strawberry – he didn’t chase anything out of the strike zone. The next hitter, Mariano Duncan, had the exact opposite at-bat. He swung and missed three times to leave the bases loaded.

Torre put in the tall righty reliever Jeff Nelson to take care of the eighth. Nelson had an interesting 1996: if you look at his strikeout number (91 in 74.1 IP), you’d think he’s one of the harder relievers to hit. But he allowed 75 base hits and also walked 4.4 batters per 9 IP, which made for a bit of a polarizing season for him. However, that night, Nelson was efficient. He got Ripken to ground out weakly, Murray to fly out deep in the center and Surhoff to strike out swinging.

The Jeffrey Maier Moment

Johnson left Benitez in to start the bottom of eighth. The hard-throwing righty struck out Leyritz to start the inning rather swimmingly. Up next, the rookie shortstop Derek Jeter.

Benitez fired a fastball down the middle for a strike one. He threw another one a little higher and Jeter didn’t miss it – he drove it towards the right field wall, but it seemed like RF Tony Tarasco (coming in for Bonny Bonilla) had room in front of the short porch to make the catch. The ball was falling towards his glove, and all of a sudden, it was gone – or rather, intercepted by another glove above Tarasco’s head.

“And what happens here?” Costas reacted, “(Tarasco) contends that a fan reaches up and touches it! But Richie Garcia says no, it’s a home run!”

Tarasco started to protest the call to Garcia. Benitez ran all the way from the mound to join and then manager Davey Johnson came out from the dugout to separate the players from the umps and do the talking himself. The NBC broadcast replay, covering different angles, showed that the Orioles had every right to be upset. But this is way before the era of instant replay – the ship had sailed for Baltimore and the game was declared tied, 4-4. The replay also showed that the child, later revealed to be a 12-year old named Jeffrey Maier, didn’t quite catch the ball – the glove momentarily cradled it and brought it into the stands. Nonetheless, the damage was done.

Davey Johnson, rightfully so, was not in a state to stay in the game. He was thrown out and the beat seemed to go on against the O’s. Bench coach Andy Etchebarren stepped in as an acting manager. After the delay, Tim Raines lined the first pitch deep into right but was held to a single after Tarasco hustled the ball in. Boggs followed it up with a ground out and the O’s had Benitez intentionally walk Bernie Williams. With the lefty Tino Martinez up, the Orioles brought in Arthur Rhodes – a move that paid off to stop the bleeding. Martinez lined the ball towards shallow right-center and it was caught by none other than Tony Tarasco. The future Yankee Tarasco had an inning that he will never forget.

Wetteland came into the ninth and pitched a scoreless inning with two strikeouts. He overcame a Jeter-Raines defensive gaffe that turned into a Brady Anderson double.  With one out, Anderson popped one up into shallow left field that looked very catchable by either fielder, yet neither of them made the final move to do so. I’m glad I wasn’t watching this game live back then. I would have gone into cardiac arrest. However, Wetteland retired Zeile (fly out) and Alomar (strikeout) to bail them out.

The Yankee offense came back out to try to win the game in the ninth. The O’s had Terry Mathews in to pitch. Mathews, then 32-yr old righty reliever, spent first half of the 1996 season with the Marlins and was getting by pretty mediocrely (4.91 ERA in 55.0 IP). However, he did better down the stretch after being traded to Baltimore (3.38 ERA in 18.2 IP). Mathews walked Fielder in four pitches. Torre sub’d pinch runner Andy Fox in for Fielder as the fan favorite Strawberry came up to bat. Strawberry lifted a mighty fly ball to center but he got under it a tad – Anderson caught it just in front of the warning track. After hitting Duncan with a fastball way inside, Etchebarren lifted Mathews for their closer Randy Myers.

Myers had a very good career as a reliever. Debuting with the Mets in 1985, the lefty’s career bloomed as their closer in 1988 when he notched 26 saves with a sparkling 1.72 ERA. He was traded to the Cincinnati Reds after the 1989 season, which turned out to help his #brand a lot. Along with Norm Charlton and Rob Dibble, Myers became part of the hard-throwing relief corp that was dubbed as “Nasty Boys.” Myers won a ring with the Nasty Boys and Cincinnati in 1990 and had stops with the Padres and Cubs before signing with the Orioles after the 1995 season. With 243 career saves and 119 ERA+ in 11 ML seasons up to 1996, Myers was one of the most reliable relievers pre-Rivera era. He also had postseason experience. Up to that ALCS, Myers had not allowed any runs in 16.1 career postseason IP.

As a corresponding move, Yankees brought out Joe Girardi to pinch hit for Mike Aldrete. On the second pitch, Girardi squared up for a liner towards shortstop. Ripken reached out to catch the ball and doubled off Fox for a line drive double play. Had Ripken not caught the ball, the game would have been over. On to extras.

Extra Innings

Yankees brought in a 26-year old righty named Mariano Rivera. As many know, he made name for himself as one of the most reliable relievers in ML that season. His record – 8-3, 2.09 ERA, 107.2 IP and 130 K’s – speaks for itself. As dominant he was in 1996, it just so happened that Baltimore was one team that gave him the most trouble. He took a loss against the O’s on June 28 after allowing 3 runs (including a homer to Rafael Palmeiro) in 2.1 IP. Baltimore put up another 3-spot on Mo on September 19 (in 0.1 IP with 4 hits allowed). Those two stinkers resulted in two out of three total losses Rivera had that season.

But that night, Rivera came into the game and pitched as brilliantly as he had all season. In two innings, he allowed three hits but stranded all baserunners while striking out three. The highlight of his outing came as he faced his last batter of the night – the much reviled Roberto Alomar. With two outs and runner on first, Rivera and Alomar got to the full count. On the pitch no. 40 for the night, Rivera unleashed an inside high fastball – which was probably out of the strike zone – and the perennial All Star second baseman couldn’t check his swing quick enough.

In the bottom of 11th, the Yankees had Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and Andy Fox due up but would only need one of them. Myers delivered an outside ball one to Bernie but caught the edge on the next pitch. At that moment, Bob Costas informed watchers with prophetic information.

“This is Williams’ power side,” Costas said as Bernie was hitting right-handed against Myers, “two of his three home runs came right-handed in the Division Series and 16 of his 29 in regular season were hit right-handed.” It was not just a power side but rather an overall better hitting side for Bernie. Williams, as a LHH hit for an .828 OPS in 1996 as opposed to 1.141 as a RHH. Pretty big difference.

On the next pitch, Myers aimed to throw a same pitch on the outside edge again – but this time, it caught too much of the plate and hung well enough for Williams to clobber it all the way to the upper deck. 5-4, Yankees win.