Brooklyn Nets coach Avery Johnson just got back from an incredible time-traveling journey and was impressed by Paul O'Neill's performance on August 31, 1995!
The New York Yankees had the best record in the American League and were on their way to their first playoff appearance in 13 years at the time of the Players' Strike in 1994, and it devastated fans when the season was cancelled. Captain Don Mattingly had his first shot at October baseball in several years thwarted. Although the Yankees retained many of the players on their great '94 team in the next season, no one was sure whether or not Mattingly would get another opportunity to reach the playoffs before his career inevitably ended due to chronic back injuries.
The strike ended in March of '95, forcing the start of the season to be delayed until late April. The season did not go smoothly. The starting rotation was wrecked by injuries, and the Yankees endured only one full winning month through the end of August. The team suffered a devastating eight-game losing streak from August 19th through the 26th that dropped them to five games under .500. Even after breaking the streak with a win in Seattle, they dropped a make-up game at home the next night against the Kansas City Royals to fall to 54-59. Any hopes of staying in the race for the AL East division title were now a distant memory as the Boston Red Sox stood 16 games ahead of them, but thanks to the new addition of a Wild Card to the playoffs, they still had a chance.
The odds were not great though--the Yankees were 4.5 games behind the Texas Rangers and they had to leapfrog five other teams in the standings, all while playing 20 of their final 30 games against playoff contenders. If they wanted to make a late run to the playoffs, they would have to get started immediately with a home series against the AL West-leading California Angels. They bludgeoned the Halos and ace Chuck Finley in the first game 12-4, and rookie southpaw Andy Pettitte pitched them to a 4-1 win the next day. Strangely, the Yankees scored those 16 runs without receiving much help from arguably their best hitter, right fielder Paul O'Neill. In the final matchup of this three-game series though, the big lefty emphatically broke out of his small slump with a performance that even surprised himself.
O'Neill was a tremendous addition by general manager Gene "Stick" Michael, who acquired him from the Cincinnati Reds for OBP-allergic outfielder Roberto Kelly in November 1992. In Cincinnati, O'Neill was pressured by manager Lou Piniella to be a power hitter and to use his strong swing to drive balls out of the park. This approach led to an All-Star season '91 with 28 homers, but O'Neill did not like that his overall hitting performance was slighted by the focus on power. He recognized pitches that he could take to the opposite field for a hit, but often laid off them in order to find a pitch to drive. In '92, Piniella pressured him more than ever to hit for more power, and his game suffered, as he dipped to a .246 batting average with just 14 homers.
When he was traded to the Yankees, new manager Buck Showalter encouraged O'Neill to worry more about hitting line drives than for power. With the freedom to hit how he desired, O'Neill had his best season to date and became a new fan favorite in New York by hitting .311/.367/.504 with a 136 OPS+ on the first over-.500 Yankees team in five years. He quickly found that several of his hard hits were sailing over the right field fence at Yankee Stadium anyway, so he stayed a home run threat as well, even if he prided himself on his abilities as a line-drive hitter. He became even better in '94 and earned the AL batting crown by virtue of leading the league in hitting with a .359 average at the time of the strike, the highest batting average in a season by a Yankee since Mickey Mantle hit .365 in '57. He also had a stellar 1.064 OPS with a 177 OPS+, another All-Star appearance, and a fifth-place finish in the AL MVP voting.
Thus, Yankees fans held high expectations for O'Neill in '95 (especially after Showalter replaced Mattingly with him in the coveted third spot in the batting order), and he met them with his third straight season of at least a 135 OPS+. Through the end of play on August 30th, O'Neill hit .303/.391/.520 with 16 homers and another All-Star appearance in just 98 games. He had been slumped to a .255 average since the All-Star Break though and was hitless in his previous 16 at bats entering play on the 31st though, and the Angels were pitching lefthander Brian Anderson that night. Anderson was not an intimidating pitcher to O'Neill though; he had five hits in 10 at bats with two homers against him thus far and had struggled mightily in his previous five starts.
The Yankees matched the Angels' young southpaw with one of their own, 24-year-old Sterling Hitchcock. In his first full season as a starter, he had disappointed a little bit with an ERA hovering near 5.00, paling in comparison to Pettitte, his fellow young Yankee lefty. Regardless, he worked around a walk in the first inning dangerous Angels center fielder Jim Edmonds and threw a scoreless inning. The Yankees jumped on Anderson in the bottom of the frame when third baseman Wade Boggs and center fielder Bernie Williams notched back-to-back singles to begin the inning. O'Neill came up for his first at bat against Anderson, and he worked the count to 3-2. He attempted to sneak a fastball by O'Neill, but the Ohio native clobbered it 405 feet over the Yankee Stadium right-center field wall at for a three-run homer, his 17th of the season. "That was important because it got us off to a good start," O'Neill later remarked. O'Neill's hitless streak was over, and the Yankees soon made it a 4-0 lead when catcher Mike Stanley belted his 17th homer of the season as well.
Hitchcock gave up a leadoff single to AL MVP candidate Tim Salmon, then retired the next three hitters in order (albeit with the help of two line drives). Super-sub Randy Velarde, playing for Tony Fernandez, led off the second with a ground ball double to left field, but was still on base two outs later when Anderson got a rare strikeout from Boggs. He then promptly walked Williams on four pitches, bringing O'Neill to the plate for the second with two runners on. On a 2-1 pitch, Anderson threw a breaking ball, and O'Neill scorched it 394 feet toward the runway over the right-center field wall. His 18th homer of the season was his second three-run shot of the game; O'Neill had six RBI and it was not even the end of the second inning! He insisted that he was not trying for a home run though: "You can't go up there and try to do the same thing. If you try to hit homers, you never do." The clout knocked Anderson out of the game after just 1.2 innings with his team in a 7-0 deficit, desperately trying to avoid a sweep and a six-game losing streak. The Angels' 11-game lead in the West over the Rangers on August 9th had been cut to eight, and the Seattle Mariners, who were once 13 games behind the Angels, were only half a game behind Texas. A seven-run deficit on the road was not something they needed.
Righthanded reliever Mike Harkey (now the Yankees' bullpen coach) came in for Anderson and got DH Ruben Sierra to fly out to end the inning. The Angels scored a run on two hits and a walk against Hitchcock in the third, and the game remained quiet for the next few innings until O'Neill stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the fifth. O'Neill's renowned plate discipline paid off again as he worked the count full and Harkey tried a low forkball. O'Neill reached it and basically one-handed the ball out of the park, 355 feet on a line to the short porch in right field. It was his third home run in just three at bats, and the solo shot gave him seven RBI for the night. "I hit it and it was like, 'You did it.' It's a weird feeling. It's a good feeling. I even amazed myself... It's a great thing, something I've never done before even hitting in my backyard during home run derby." said a happy O'Neill after the game.
The Angels made the game interesting by rallying for three runs on four hits and an error in the top of the sixth against Hitchcock and reliever Bob Wickman to make the score 8-4. The Yankees quickly righted themselves with a three-run frame of their own in the bottom half of the inning. O'Neill was part of this rally too; although he did not become the 13th player to hit four homers in a game, he notched his fourth hit of the day on a single up the middle to score second baseman Pat Kelly for his eighth RBI of the game, a career-high. In his final chance to get four homers, he struck out against flamethrowing reliever Troy Percival, but O'Neill had nothing to hang his head about for this game. The Yankees won 11-6 as O'Neill went 4-for-5 with three homers and eight RBI.
From the series against the Angels on, the Yankees caught fire and went an incredible 25-6 down the stretch, an .806 winning percentage. They needed every one of those wins, as their playoff hopes were still in question on the final day of the season, when they clinched the AL Wild Card with a 6-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays (The Angels and Mariners needed a one-game playoff to determine the AL West champion, but the Yankees' hot streak had them percentage points ahead of the one-game playoff's loser). O'Neill returned to his first postseason since his 1990 World Series championship with the Reds, and the beloved captain Mattingly finally reached the playoffs in his 14th season in New York.
O'Neill's three-homer game that sent the Yankees charging toward the playoffs happened 17 years ago today.