After a fairly boring game for eight innings, the Yankees came to life in the ninth and made it a very memorable game. This game was heralded as David Wells returning to pitch against the Yankees after signing with San Diego. Nothing really special since he had already left once and pitched against them when he was traded to the Blue Jays for Roger Clemens. When he returned for that game however, he was welcomed as a returing hero after a Cy Young calibre season in a record setting, championship year for the Yankees in 1998. Oh yeah, there was that perfect game as well.
This time, he returned as an opponent after leaving the Yankees by choice, signing with San Diego as a free agent. You're no longer a hero at that point, but the Yankees fans in classy fashion, chanted "Boomer, Boomer" as he headed out for his pre-game warm-ups. He also received a warm welcome as he toed the rubber to start the bottom of the first.
The welcome may have come as a surprise given the fact that the last time he pitched in a Yankee uniform, he bowed out after the first inning of a crucial Game Five in the 2003 World Series with back spasms. Some fans and even some teammates questioned the injury and many have made the argument that it may have cost the Yanks the series. Wells was relieved by the ineffective Jose Contreras who promply surrendered three runs in the second and the Marlins never looked back. Yankees fans felt safe with their big-game pitcher on the mound in Wells, rather than a rookie who had only folded in big spots up to that point.
That next time the Yankees fans would see Wells face-to-face came on June 13, 2004 and unfortunately for Yankee fans, Wells looked plenty healthy, shutting down the Yankees on five hits and four strikeouts, allowing no runs through seven innings. Javier Vazquez did a pretty good job keeping up...but not good enough. Vazquez would go 8 innings, allowing six hits, no walks and striking out eight. A Khalil Greene fourth inning solo homer and a two-out RBI double by Terrence Long in the seventh would put the Yankees and Vazquez behind the eight ball going into the ninth.
The ninth and the San Diego Padres meant Trevor Hoffman, the dominant closer in the NL and most likely a Hall of Famer. He did have a record of shaky outings in big names, most notably Game Three of the 1998 World Series, but he looked solid as a rock on this day, retiring Jason Giambi on a fly ball to center and striking out Jorge Posada for two quick and easy outs. It would no longer be easy as Hideki Matui follwed with a two-out solo home run to pull the Yankees within one. OK. Small hiccup, but the Padres only needed one more out to secure the win and Hoffman was more than reliable...after all, this wasn't necesarily a "big" game.
Kenny Lofton was then sent up to pinch hit for Tony Clark. Lofton was looked on to be a key acquisition in the offseason for the Yankees as George Stienbrenner had always coveted the fleet footed centerfielder. However Joe Torre and Yankee fans were still loyal to Bernie Williams. While Lofton, at age 37, still saw himself as a full-time player, that wasn't exactly the role Torre had in mind and Lofton was used mostly as a bench player.
He filled the role heroically on this day, driving the 2-1 offering from Hoffman into the right field seats for a dramatic game tying home run and easily Lofton's most memorable moment as a Yankee. Hoffman would rebound to strikeout Miguel Cairo, but it was too little, too late as the game headed for extra innings and David Wells lost what looked to be a sure victory in his return to the Bronx.
Tom Gordon, who threw a 1-2-3 ninth for the Yanks, stayed on for the tenth, allowing a two-out ground rule double by Sean Burroughs (son of former Major Leaguer Jeff Burroughs.) Burroughs advanced to third on a wild pitch, but Mark Loretta flew out harmlessly to left center to avoid any damage.
Scott Linebrink would replace Hoffman in the 10th. After a Bernie Williams comebacker to the mound led off the inning with an out, Linebrink walked Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Gary Sheffield popped out to the catcher, Jeter and Rodriguez pulled off a double steal to set runners up on second and third and two out. Linebrink walked Giambi to load the bases, but Posada flew out to left to end the threat.
Torre turned to rubber-armed Paul Quantrill in the top of the 11th. Phil Nevin singled with one-out and Kerry Robinson came in to pinch-run. Robinson was erased when Posada threw him out attempting to steal second. Jay Payton followed with a base hit, but Jeff Cirillo grounded out to third to end the inning.
Linebrink had a much easier time in the bottom of the 11th, retiring the Yankees in order.
The Yankees dipped into the bullpen once again, this time for righty Bret Prinz. Prinz had only been used in seven games to this point in the season, having opened the season in the minors. In his brief stint with the big club he'd been fairly effective, throwing 9.2 innings, striking out nine and allowing only three hits, one walk and no runs. He had also pitched a 1-2-3 seventh inning against the Padres the day before in a Yankee 3-2 win. But that was yesterday.
On this day, catcher Ramon Hernandez, always a thorn in Yankee pitching's side, led off with a single. Terrence Long followed with a grounder to short but the Yanks could only get the forceout at second. Khalil Greene followed with a single and Prinz followed with a walk to Sean Burroughs to load the bases with one out. Mark Loretta then lifted a fly ball to left field deep enough for Long to score, give the Padres a 3-2 lead and end Prinz' day as Torre replaced him with the cringe inducing Felix Heredia.
Heredia was acquired off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds on August 25 the previous season. A hard throwing lefty, the Yankees envisioned him as a tough lefty specialist...always important down the stretch and in the post season. Most Yankee fans will forget that he was actually pretty good in 2003 at filling that role. 2004 was a different story as Heredia was plain awful. His ERA coming into the game was 9.00. In 11 innings, he'd been pounded for 17 hits and had struck out only five batters. Today, the story was no different.
He was brought in to face tough lefty Brian Giles who promptly singled to right scoring Greene and eventually Burroughs when Sheffield misplayed the ball, allowing the second run to score. Heredia was able to retire Xavier Nady on a line drive to second, but the damage was done and the Padres had a commanding 5-2 lead heading into the bottom of the twelfth.
To preserve the lead, the Padres turned to veteran reliever and former closer Rod Beck. In his prime, Beck, like Hoffman, was dominant and had seasons of 48 and 51 saves for the Chicago Cubs in the mid-1990s. By 1999 however he had been ineffective to start the season and spent two months on the DL. The Cubs sensed it was time to cut ties and sent him to Boston in August 31, 1999, just in time for the post-season roster deadline. Beck was solid for Boston down the stretch, helping them secure a Wild Card spot and a first round win against Cleveland, setting up an ALCS match-up vs. the Yankees. Yeah...that's where you remember Beck from. In Game One, Beck delivered the pitch that Bernie Williams sent deep into the left field stands in the 10th to give the Yankees a lead in the series. Beck also surrendered the less remembered, but still important Grand Slam to Ricky Ledee in Game Four when the Yankees scored six in the ninth to put the game away.
Well, fast forward to this game and Beck probably wasn't happy to see the Yankees again. He walked that old nemesis of his, Bernie Williams to lead off the inning. Derek Jeter followed with a double, sending Bernie to third. Alex Rodriguez grounded to third, scoring Bernie but keeping Jeter at second. Sheffield singled to center but Jeter held up at third. Giambi would follow with an RBI single to center that would eventually chase Beck and pull the Yankees within one at 5-4.
Former Yankee Jay Witasick would relieve Beck...without the same type of welcome Wells received. The Yankee batters did have a rude welcome of their own in mind. Jorge Posada immediately greeted Witasick with a ground rule double, scoring Sheffield and sending Giambi to third. Matsui was intentionally walked to load the bases and Torre sent Ruben Sierra up to pinch hit for Enrique Wilson. Sierra would loft a deep fly to center, easily far enough to score even the slow footed Giambia and give the Yankees and exciting and unbelieveable victory, surely deserving of Yankees Classic status. You can probably afford to miss the first eight innings though and save yourself some time...but it's fun from then on.