Writing for a New York Yankees site and maintaining a somewhat journalistic objectivity is already difficult enough after spending a lifetime watching this team. Last night's win over the Boston Red Sox threw that objectivity about as far off the cliff as a pumpkin chunkin. Andy Pettitte made his 409th start for the Yankees and won his 209th game for the team with eight glorious innings. According to one stat I read this morning, Andy Pettitte is now 18-3 lifetime in helping the Yankees avoid a sweep. Mariano Rivera then gave his fans a bit of heartburn, but in the end, froze Jackie Bradley Jr. for his 609th career save--all for the Yankees. It was a combination that will never again be matched in baseball as two pitchers who started their careers together nineteen years ago. According to some of the game recaps I read, this was the 69th time that Rivera has saved a win for Andy Pettitte, an all time record. According to my count, that is a lot of nines in there: 409, 209, 609 and 69. There is a poetic side to all of this. And it is an epic poem that will end after this season, so enjoy every last stanza. But where did it all start? When was the first time that Mariano Rivera saved an Andy Pettite win?
That event occurred on May 17, 1996 at Yankee Stadium II. It was a different Yankee world back then. It had still been eighteen years since the Yankees had won a World Series. Joe Torre was in his 38th game as the Yankees' manager. Rivera was 26 years old. Andy Pettitte was 24. Derek Jeter was 22 and batted eighth in Joe Torre's lineup that day. Joe Girardi was the starting catcher and batted second. Ruben Sierra was the designated hitter. Jorge Posada would only play eight games for the Yankees that season and spent the bulk of his year in Columbus. Jim Leyritz started the game at third base. John Wetteland was the closer. But it was clear that something special was starting. And Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera would be a very big part of that eventual story.
On May 17, 1996, the Yankees were in first place by a game and a half. They had taken over first place in the American League East on April 30 that season and would not relinquish the top spot for the rest of the season. It was a Friday night game in front of a home crowd of 19,087 fans and the California Angels were in town. Several of the starting players for the Angels had past or future ties with the Yankees such as Don Slaught, Randy Velarde, J.T. Snow and Chili Davis. The Angels' starting pitcher was Jim Abbott. Mike Aldrete and Lee Smith also made appearances in the game for the Angels.
The Yankees jumped out to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first as Paul O'Neill doubled in Tim Raines and Andy Pettitte held the Angels scoreless for the first three innings. The Angels scored a run to tie the game in the top of the fourth and Randy Velarde hit a homer off of Pettitte in the top of the fifth to give the Angels a 2-1 lead heading into the bottom of the fifth.
Jim Abbott had seemingly settled down after the first inning and had retired nine straight Yankees going into the fifth inning. But the good times would not last for Abbott. The heroic and famously one-armed pitcher was already 1-5 heading into this game and his fifth inning was a microcosm of what would turn out to be one of the worst pitching seasons in baseball history as Abbott would finish with a 2-18 season with a 7.48 and a 1.754 WHIP.
The Yankees exploded for five runs in the bottom of the fifth, capped off by a Paul O'Neill three-run homer. The Yankees took a 6-2 lead and looked to cruise the rest of the game, especially when they padded two more runs to their tally. Pettitte would work out of trouble in the sixth and seventh to record scoreless innings, but the Angels got to him in the eighth. Pettitte faced three batters in that eighth inning and two singles were scalded. The one out he would record that inning would be a line drive. Torre had seen enough and brought in Jeff Nelson.
Nelson struck out Chili Davis for the second out but then Nelson served up a deep line drive to pinch-hitter, Jack Howell, to right-center for a homer to make the score, 8-5. Nelson barely survived as J.T. Snow then hit a deep drive to left that Raines hauled in for the final out.
The Yankees went in order in the top of the ninth against Lee Smith and with an 8-5 lead, Mariano Rivera was asked to come in and close the game out. It has been several days since Wetteland had pitched, so perhaps he was dinged up, but whatever the reason, Rivera got the call.
Rivera would strike out Velarde to start the inning but then Mike Aldrete hit a pinch-hit single. But any drama was quickly ended as Rivera then got Garret Anderson to ground the ball to second. Matt Howard (Matt Howard!?) scooped it up, threw it to Jeter for the force and Jeter threw it to Tino Martinez to end the game. It was Mariano Rivera's first Major League save.
608 saves later, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were still getting the job done for the Yankees. Andy Pettitte came in second in Cy Young Award voting in 1996 and Rivera came in third in what was one of the best seasons of relief ever. All these wins and saves later, the pair thrilled us one more time as a 40 year old starter and a 43 year old closer did what they have been doing for nineteen years to give the Yankees a much needed lift. This epic poem written by these two pitchers might have a few more quatrains left to bring us this season. Each one will be a bonus to the hearts of Yankee fans everywhere.