October 4, 1995--Yankee Stadium; 15 innings; first playoff series in 14 years; Donnie Baseball; pandemonium; and of course, Jim Leyritz's long drive into the rainy New York night.
October 4th has been a very successful day in the history of the New York Yankees. It would have been very easy to pick among several different World Series games to remember today. Of the team's six World Series sweeps that occurred prior to divisional play when the Fall Classic was played around this time, half of them started on October 4th.
In their first crack at avenging their 1926 World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on October 4, 1928, Bob Meusel's fourth inning two-run homer against Cardinals ace Bill Sherdel led the way to a 4-1 victory. The Yankees outscored the Cardinals 23-9 the rest of the series. 11 years later with their beloved captain Lou Gehrig's health debilitating from ALS, the Yankees opened the World Series on October 4, 1939 against the Cincinnati Reds with a dramatic walk-off victory. It was keyed by Gehrig's old friend, Bill Dickey, who lined a base hit to center field in the bottom of the ninth after Joe DiMaggio was intentionally walked in front of him to score Charlie Keller and give the Yankees a 2-1 win. Again, 11 years later, the Yankees began another World Series sweep with a Game 1 victory over the "Whiz Kid" Philadelphia Phillies on October 4, 1950. Phillies manager Eddie Sawyer started his reliever extraordinaire, Jim Konstanty, the NL MVP, but while Konstanty pitched admirably and allowed just four hits and a run in eight innings, Yankees starter Vic Raschi threw a two-hit shutout in a slim 1-0 triumph.
So why bypass all of these World Series for a game in a postseason series that the Yankees didn't even win? It might have been the greatest game the Yankees ever played. It was also the longest game in Yankees playoff history, a 15-inning classic that sent the raucous Yankee Stadium crowd home happy in what ended up being the final home game for captain Don Mattingly.
This feature has quickly recapped the crazy end of the 1995 regular season before, so forgive the repeated passage. There are only so many ways to write about the Yankees' September shenanigans. As a younger player, Mattingly accomplished great feats that still stand atop various marks in baseball record books like six grand slams in a season and a homer in eight consecutive games, and he also set single-season Yankee records for hits and doubles (238 and 53 in '86, respectively). Even with Mattingly's superb play, the Yankees endured their longest playoff drought since divisional play began in 1969.
By '95, it was clear that Mattingly's career was near its end. Back injuries had robbed him of his power and turned him into a below-average offensive first baseman at age 34. His best chance at reaching the playoffs seemed to have passed him by when the players went on strike in August of '94 while the Yankees held the best record in the AL. An eight-game losing streak a year later in August of '95 seemed to put any hopes that the Yankees had of reaching the playoffs to sleep as they were four games under .500 on August 26th. Thankfully, they got hot and played well down the stretch in a 21-6 September. The AL East title was way out of reach, but the addition of the Wild Card to the playoffs gave Mattingly and the Yankees life. They held a one-game lead over the California Angels, going into the last day of the season on October 1st, the Yankees controlled their own destiny, and they beat the Toronto Blue Jays at the Skydome, to reach the playoffs as the Wild Card. Mattingly would finally have the opportunity to shine in the postseason after 1,785 games.
In the first official Division Series, the Yankees faced off against the Seattle Mariners, who had their own remarkable rally in '95. As play ended on August 2nd, they trailed the Angels by 13 games in the AL West. However, they chipped away at the lead, and by September 26th, their 17-6 record on the month actually gave them a three-game lead in the division. A 2-3 stretch to end the regular season though forced a one-game playoff for the division with Angels, and they won in a 9-1 blowout charged by AL Cy Young Award winner Randy Johnson's three-hitter and shortstop Luis Sojo's bases-clearing double in the seventh that even scored himself on an error, making a 1-0 game a five-run lead. Seattle had been in existence since 1977, but this year would be their very first playoff appearance (and only their third over-.500 season). The day before, they closed out the regular season in Texas, and after winning in Seattle, they would fly to New York for their third straight game in a different city over just three days.
Game 1 was a long-awaited celebration for Yankees fans who had waited 14 years between playoff appearances and showered Mattingly with thunderous applause during the pregame introductions. The game was hotly-contested, and though Mattingly's first career playoff hit gave the Yankees a slim lead in the bottom of the sixth, Mariners superstar Ken Griffey Jr.'s second homer of the game against trade deadline acquisition David Cone tied it at four in the top of the seventh inning. Future Yankee Jeff Nelson hit second baseman Randy Velarde with a pitch to lead off the bottom of the seventh, and the Yankees proceeded to tee off against beleaguered reliever Bobby Ayala. Third baseman Wade Boggs singled Velarde to third on a hit up the middle, and budding star center fielder Bernie Williams returned the lead to the Yankees with an RBI double to center. Right fielder Paul O'Neill lined a sacrifice fly to make it 6-4, and DH Ruben Sierra crushed a two-run homer to put a cap on the inning. The Yankees won 9-6 and with a victory the next day could put the Mariners on the brink of elimination already in this short best-of-five series.
The atmosphere was electric as fans gathered to Yankee Stadium for the second game of the ALDS. The Yankees gave the starting assignment to young lefthander Andy Pettitte for his first playoff start. Pettitte had a fine rookie campaign that earned him a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting, making the rotation after injuries decimated it and pitching to a 4.17 ERA and a 91 ERA- in 175 innings. In September, he pitched particularly well and had a 3.00 ERA in seven starts down the stretch, averaging eight innings per start. Little did Pettitte know that over 40 more such starts and a few World Series clinchers would be soon to come. Seattle countered with 26-year-old Andy Benes, who had pitched well amid mediocrity in San Diego with the Padres before the Mariners acquired him at the trade deadline. Although he had a 7-2 record down the stretch, it was more a benefit of the Mariner offense since he posted a 5.86 ERA. In his four starts prior to a September 30th pounding against the Rangers though, he had a 2.15 ERA. He was going on three days' rest, but since he only threw 35 pitches in his previous start, he felt strong.
The game moved quietly for two scoreless innings. Pettitte's first pickoff on the October stage highlighted a second inning that could have been more for the Mariners if slugger Jay Buhner, a former Yankee prospect dealt away in an infamous 1988 trade, had not been victimized since they followed the pickoff with a walk and a single. Pettitte got out of the inning unscathed, as did Benes despite a leadoff single by Mattingly in the bottom half of the frame. In the third, Pettitte got to a 3-2 count against light-hitting Vince Coleman, but the switch-hitter with only 27 career homers in an 11-year career to that point connected on fastball and sent it over the right field wall. The crowd was stunned, but Pettitte limited the damage to one run by retiring Buhner on a pop-up to the shortstop with two on and two out.
Benes held the 1-0 lead through four innings as the Yankees continued to strand baserunners. Shortstop Tony Fernandez was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single to a double against Griffey, rarely a good decision. The frustrated Bleacher Creatures, tired of Griffey's terrific play against the Yankees, began to chant something slightly more obscene than "Screw You, Junior," loud enough to be heard on NBC. Fortunately, Boggs walked, and Williams turned to the jeers to cheers with line drive to deep left-center field that went for a double and tied the game at one. Seattle immediately answered with their second run of the game in the sixth, courtesy of two Martinezes. DH Edgar crushed a double by a diving Dion James into the left field corner, and two batters later, Tino drove him in with a single in front of James in left. Pettitte again perplexed the Mariner baserunner though, and he picked off his future teammate to end the inning. Seattle manager Lou Piniella cursed to himself in the Mariner dugout watching yet another Mariner baserunner fall victim to the rookie's deceptive move.
The Mariners' lead would not last four pitches. Benes hung a 2-1 slider to Sierra, and the brash Puerto Rican who belted over 300 homers in his career did not let it go by. He swung, and it came to rest in the right field bleachers, tying the game. Benes had only thrown 82 pitches, but Piniella did not want to let this crucial game get away from Seattle and reliever Bill Risley began to warm in the bullpen. The fans were abuzz, but it was about to get even crazier in the Bronx. As Mattingly strode to the plate, announcer Gary Thorne remaked, "The fans want a dinger out of him," even though the man they once called "The Hitman" had hit only seven roundtrippers in the regular season. Twenty seconds and a changeup that hung in the middle of the plate later, Thorne exclaimed, "This one by Mattingly ... ohhhh hang on to the roof! Good-bye, home run! Don Mattingly!" The crowd went into a fracas as Mattingly circled the bases having just given the Yankees their first lead of the night. The fans began to throw bottles, plastic cups, souvenir bats, coins, tomatoes, grapefruit, and even headphones out onto the field despite the pleas of public address announcer Bob Sheppard, forcing Piniella to pull his players for their safety. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner fumed at the move, dismissing the debris as "some toilet paper and a Frisbee" to bemused reporters.
When the mania finally ended, Benes was removed from the game in favor of Risley, and he finished the inning without any more runs scoring. In the seventh, Pettitte did not pitch well with the lead. Slap-hitting Joey Cora boomed a double over O'Neill's head in right field with one out. Coleman followed with a slow grounder up the third base line that Boggs gloved and fired to Mattingly in time. Unfortunately, first base umpire Jim McKeon called him safe, and even the respectful Mattingly reacted angrily. It was the fourth bad call to go against the Yankees in the previous two days (two more missed calls that did not impact the game occurred earlier), and manager Buck Showalter bolted from the dugout, then wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over the Hudson. Steinbrenner had an impromptu press conference and blasted everyone from McKeon to American League president Gene Budig and supervisor of umpires Marty Springstead.
The bad call hurt the Yankees, as Sojo tied the game on a grounder up the middle. The Mariners then took the lead on a sacrifice fly to left that scored Coleman, but Sojo was retired at second when Boggs cut off the throw from left and threw to Velarde for the out (this time, a bad call went against the Mariners as replays later showed Sojo was safe). Norm Charlton, one of Piniella's old "Nasty Boys" from his 1990 World Series champion Reds team, came in from the bullpen managed to finally retire both the scorching Boggs and Williams. Charlton's former teammate O'Neill came to the plate and unleashed one of the longest homers of his career, halfway up in the right-field bleachers. The game was tied yet again as O'Neill punished Piniella, his old manager who tormented him to become a power hitter back in Cincinnati.
After 115 pitches, Showalter decided that Pettitte was gassed, and he removed him in favor of Bob Wickman, who led the bullpen in games pitched (63) and had a 89 ERA-. He allowed just one hit to the heart of the Mariners' order and struck out both Buhner and Tino. In the bottom of the eighth, defensive replacement Gerald Williams nearly became a Yankee hero by driving a ball deep down the left-field line, but it barely hooked foul. Instead, he grounded out, and the game moved to the ninth. Alex Diaz pinch-hit for Dan Wilson, and Cora bunted him to scoring position. Eschewing the unwritten rule to not bring a closer into a tie game at home, Showalter called on John Wetteland to stem the tide. He struggled in Game 1 and had surrendered a walk-off homer to Griffey at the Kingdome on August 24th, but he worked out of Wickman's trouble by striking out Coleman and Sojo.
The Yankees went down in order against Charlton in the bottom of the ninth, and the game went deep into the night in extra innings. Wetteland and Charlton dueled longer than standard relief appearances call for until Charlton departed in the bottom of the 11th for Nelson. Aside from the O'Neill homer, Charlton was terrific, not allowing any more hits or walks and striking out five. The sidewinding Nelson continued the stellar relief effort by striking out pinch-hitter Darryl Strawberry and Fernandez on his way to a 1-2-3 inning. Wetteland returned to the mound for his fourth inning and got two quick outs when catcher Chris Widger struck out looking and Sojo fouled out. Griffey strode to the plate having been retired in his previous plate appearance by Wetteland. This time though, he fell behind 3-1 and had to throw a strike to Griffey with fellow Yankee-killer Edgar Martinez on deck. Griffey slugged his flat fastball over the right-center field fence for a go-ahead homer, and the Mariners finally had the lead again. The crowd was deafeningly silent.
Showalter pulled Wetteland from the game after Martinez singled, and though he had pitched very well for 3.1 innings, Wetteland stood to be tagged with the loss. Little-known long reliever Mariano Rivera came into the game for his first career playoff appearance and gassed Buhner with his new-found high-octane fastball on an inning-ending strikeout. Like Pettitte 11 innings previously, little did Rivera know that this game would be the first of almost 100 in the postseason that would define his amazing career. For now though, the Yankees needed a rally to stay alive and avoid traveling to Seattle in a Division Series tie needing to win two games at the Kingdome.
Nelson struck out Velarde to start the bottom of the 12th, but walked Boggs on a 3-2 pitch that Nelson thought should have been a called strike three: "With a one-run lead, I didn't need to walk Boggs. [Dale Scott] had been calling the outside corner all night. I thought maybe I had struck him out." Knowing Boggs was dogged by a bad hamstring, Showalter called on his third-string catcher to pinch-run for him, Jorge Posada, also appearing in the first of many playoff games. It was actually the first time he had ever been on the bases in a big league game. Piniella decided to use his Game 3 starter, Tim Belcher. That start would now go to the dangerous Johnson on three days' rest.
Belcher walked Bernie Williams to put the winning run on base and the tying run in scoring position. O'Neill had a chance to be the hero, but instead he flew out to left on a diving catch by Diaz. With one out remaining, the Yankees desperately hoped Sierra could prolong this marathon. Fooled by a 1-1 splitter, Sierra swung at a Belcher pitch that was supposed to dip out of the strike zone but instead stayed up. Belcher said, "You didn't want to let Ruben extend his arms. He was a good bad-ball hitter." Sierra made contact and sent the ball in the air to deep left field. Would it go over the wall for an amazing walk-off homer? Not quite, as it hit off the top of wall, scoring Posada with the tying run. Bernie charged for the plate, hoping to score the winning run. The Mariners executed a perfect relay, as Diaz fired to Sojo at shortstop, who threw a strike home to Widger, just getting the sliding Williams in time as Widger blocked the plate. Somehow, the game continued to the 13th.
Yet another duel emerged between Rivera and Belcher. Mo retired six in a row between the 13th and 14th, striking out the side in the latter. Belcher nearly lost it again in the bottom half of the 13th when Mattingly led off with a single and was bunted to second base by Pat Kelly. A weary Jim Leyritz, who had started over Mike Stanley because he had a good rapport with Pettitte, came to the plate having caught 13 innings already. He could end it right there, but he bounced a 2-0 slider back to the mound for an easy out. As he returned to the dugout in a rage, he stormed down the tunnel and tore up the clubhouse, from water coolers to tables. Cone, an emerging team leader, calmed him and assured him that he was going to get another chance. Belcher intentionally walked Fernandez to pitch to Velarde, who fouled out to end the inning. Despite a leadoff single from third base prospect Russ Davis, who entered the game when Boggs departed, Belcher threw a scoreless 14th that was helped by a line-drive double play.
By the 15th inning, all other Division Series games were over and it was now October 5th. Cleveland, Atlanta, and Cincinnati all won their second games to each move up 2-0 in their series. If the Yankees won, a potential ALCS matchup with the Indians stood a win from each team away. Rivera finally began to falter in the 15th as he got Griffey to fly out but surrendered back-to-back singles to Edgar Martinez and Buhner. The go-ahead run was in scoring position. With the pressure even higher than before, Rivera struck out Doug Strange for his fifth victim of the night, then induced a lazy fly ball from Tino Martinez in his last Yankee Stadium at-bat as a visitor for eight years. Leyritz was due up to get the second chance promised to him by Cone.
Mattingly led off the inning in what would be the last of 3,736 plate appearances at Yankee Stadium. He grounded out to Sojo, but he had gone out with a bang, 3-for-6 with a walk and the only postseason home run of his superlative 14-year career. Belcher issued a free pass to Kelly, bringing Leyritz to the plate. Mattingly nicknamed him "the King" due to his overwhelming self-confidence. One former teammate amusingly recalled "Jimmy would be hitting .180 and would say 'play me or trade me.'" It had been a tough night for "the King," who had gone 0-for-5 with a hit by pitch and had just finished his 15th inning of catching duties. Showalter told him that he would be removed in the 16th in favor of Stanley, who was fresh, so Leyritz figured it would be all-or-nothing for him in this at bat. At 1:22 AM on a 3-1 pitch, it would be all. As the rain fell, Leyritz squared up a fastball and sent it deep in the air to right-center field. It was over the wall for a stunning two-run walk-off home run. "When I saw the ball clear the fence, you can't describe how elated and exhausted I was. I could have floated around the bases."
The Yankees won 7-5 and were one game away from the ALCS. If only they could have gotten just one victory in the Kingdome... if only.
Further sources: Donnelly, Chris. Baseball's Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2010.