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’96: The rotation that started a dynasty

There is a baseball cliche often heard that, “Championships are won and lost on pitching and defense”. While there may be variations of that statement, it is true. Most teams that have won a World Series title have had that combo. It all begins with the starting rotation. The bullpen, no matter how great it is, can’t do its job without a rotation that keeps the team in the game.  It’s one of the struggles the Yankees currently face. It’s all well and good to have Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, and Aroldis Chapman to close out games for the current squad, but it doesn’t mean much without a lead. Bearing that in mind, here’s a look at the starting rotation that pitched the 1996 New York Yankees to its first World Series title in 18 years, and started a small dynasty.

The Hired Gun – When the trade deadline rolls around at the end of July/beginning of August, teams are always in the hunt for a starting pitcher or two that could lead them to a World Series title. David Cone was one of those players. The Yankees got him from the Toronto Blue Jays for a song, sending pitcher Marty Janzen and two career minor leaguers to Canada, on July 28, 1995.

Cone came to the Yankees with a winning pedigree. He had won 20 games for the 100-win 1988 NL East champion New York Mets. He won a World Series ring with the 1992 Toronto Blue Jays, after the Mets dealt him to Toronto in late August of 1992. He also received the AL Cy Young Award with Kansas City in 1994.

It was Cone that started the heartbreaking Game 5 against the Seattle Mariners in the ALDS. Despite the disappointing outcome, the Yankees were on the verge of something big, except Cone didn’t have much to do with it during the 1996 regular season.

Cone got off to a hot start in  ’96 , (4-1, 2.02 in six starts), but there was something physically wrong with the right-hander. He experienced tingling in his right hand during an April start in Milwaukee and days later he couldn’t grip the baseball. In order to receive treatment, he missed his first start since 1987. He returned on May 2 and threw a complete game against the Chicago White Sox. But upon further medical examination, an aneurysm, or clot, was discovered in an artery in Cone’s right armpit. Corrective surgery was the only viable option.

Cone returned to the Majors on September 2nd in Oakland, and he incredibly tossed seven innings of no-hit baseball. Cone wanted to stay in the game, but there was no way manager Joe Torre was going to let him do that. Cone had thrown 85 pitches and Torre saw the big picture of going for a title, not just the glory of a single regular-season game.

Cone’s ALDS start vs. Texas was forgettable, but he threw a strong six innings to beat Baltimore in the ALCS. Then, down two games to none in the World Series against Atlanta, Cone got the ball for the must win Game 3. He didn’t disappoint. He escaped a 1st inning jam and then cruised along until the 6th inning. With the Yankees leading the game 2-0, Cone loaded the bases on two walks, (including one to his counterpart Tom Glavine), and a hit. A third walk forced in a run, but with Mariano Rivera ready in the bullpen, Torre stuck with Cone against slugger Javy Lopez. The non-move paid off, as Lopez fouled out to end the inning. The bullpen took it the rest of the way, and the Yankees won their first of four straight World Series games.

The Winner – There are pitchers that get wins no matter what team they pitch for. It could be for a perennial playoff team or a team that sits in or near the basement of their division every year. Jimmy Key was one of those pitchers.  Key averaged 14 wins from 1984-1994, and twice finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting.

Like Cone, he won a World Series ring with the Blue Jays in 1992. The Yankees were in the process of making over their team at the time, and one of their biggest acquisitions came when they signed Key to a free agent contract prior to the 1993 season. He went 18-6, 3.00 in his first season in the Bronx, and led the AL in strikeouts-to-walk ratio. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, he was 17-6, 3.27 when the season came to a halt in August. At the time, he led the AL in starts (25), and had allowed the lowest number of home runs (0.5) per nine innings.

If the Yankees had a healthy Key in 1995, perhaps they would have advanced past Seattle in the playoffs, but it wasn’t to be. Key tore the rotator cuff in his prized left shoulder and had to undergo surgery in July. His future was cloudy. Yet, not only did Key return in 1996, but he made 30 starts. Though his ERA was higher than usual, he was as competitive as ever. He finished 12-11, made a solid start in the ALDS,  beat Baltimore in the ALCS, and after losing Game 2 to the Braves in the World Series, beat Greg Maddux in the decisive sixth game with five-plus innings of one-run ball.

The Kid – Some young pitchers don’t realize just how good they are and how much better they can still become. While Andy Pettitte may not totally match the profile, he gave the Yankees an outstanding, and somewhat unexpected performance as a rookie in 1995. The Texas native finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting after he went 12-9, 4.17 in 26 starts and five relief appearances. He tossed 175 innings, including three complete games.

A year later, Pettitte stepped up his game. He tossed 221 innings, lowered his ERA (3.87) by 30 points from the prior year, led the AL with 21 wins, and finished seven points behind the Blue Jays’ Pat Hentgen in the AL Cy Young voting. Pettitte didn’t have the same success in the playoffs, though.

A year after a poor outing in the ALDS loss to the Mariners, Pettitte got knocked around by the Rangers in the ’96 ALDS. But the Yankees bailed him out and won the game (Pettitte received no decision). He opened the ALCS with a mediocre start – 6 IP 4 ER – against Baltimore, but Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, the bullpen, and a certain 12-year old fan gave the Yankees a win in extra innings. But, this is where Pettitte’s legacy was born.

Have a bad game? Put it behind you and go out the next time and shut them down. Up three games to one in Game 5 of the ALCS, Pettitte did just that. He allowed three hits over eight innings and a pair of solo home runs. Meanwhile, with the help of some sloppy Orioles’ play, the Yankees put six runs on the board in the 3rd inning and Pettitte did the rest. He turned things over to John Wetteland in the 9th, and as he often did, the Yankees’ closer made things interesting before the Yankees held on for a pennant clinching victory.

Pettitte’s performances were nearly duplicated in the World Series. The Braves clobbered him in a Game 1 loss in New York. Rumors swirled that he had tipped his pitches. Pettitte returned to the mound in Atlanta for Game 5, with the series tied two games apiece. In a rematch of Game 1, he and Game 1 victor John Smoltz wouldn’t give an inch. The only run of the game came when a miscommunication between Braves’ center fielder Marquis Grissom and right fielder Jermaine Dye allowed Charlie Hayes‘ fly ball to drop in for a two-base error.  After Williams’ ground out moved Hayes to third, Cecil Fielder drove him home with a lined double to left field.

The Braves threatened in the 6th with a pair of lead-off singles, but Pettitte fielded Mark Lemke’s bunt and got a force out at third, then got Chipper Jones to bounce into an inning-ending double play. Pettitte finished eight innings and Wetteland walked the tightrope in the 9th to put the Yankees ahead for the first time in the series, three games to two.

The Reclamation Project – There are a number of athletes who have thrown away their careers due to their off-the-field activities. It’s sad to witness, especially if it is a person who has just started their career. Such was the case with Dwight Gooden. Better known as “Doc”, the Mets’ Gooden took the Major Leagues by storm in the mid-to-late 1980s. He was Rookie of the Year in 1984, and a year later he was even better – the best in the game as a matter of fact. Gooden finished the 1985 regular season with a 24-4 record. In addition to leading the league in wins, he was also atop the league in ERA (1.53), complete games (16), innings pitched (276.2), and strikeouts (268). Needless to say, he won the NL Cy Young Award with ease.

By the time the Mets won the Word Series in 1986, drama was already building behind the scenes of Gooden’s career. He didn’t show up for the Mets’ victory parade and later that year he was arrested for a dispute with police. He failed a drug test during Spring Training and landed in rehab. An arm injury derailed his career in 1989 and the 1990s brought more failed drug tests, which first resulted in a 60-game suspension and then another suspension that caused him to sit out the entire 1995 season.

The Yankees decided to take a gamble and signed Gooden to a mere $950K contract for the 1996 campaign. After his first three starts, it appeared it was a bad gamble. Gooden allowed 17 earned runs in 13.1 innings and lost all three games. Then things started to change. Gooden pitched three excellent games in a row, with a victory and two no-decisions. Then, on May 14, the night before his father was to have open heart surgery, Gooden took the ball against the Seattle Mariners. 27 outs, six walks and 134 pitches later, Gooden had thrown a complete game no-hitter. He struck out five and retired Paul Sorrento, on a pop up to Jeter, for the final out. Though he struggled the last two months of the season, and was subsequently left off the post-season roster, the Yankees would not have won the division without Gooden, especially with Cone sidelined for over three months.

Not Everyone Loves NY and NY Doesn’t Love Everyone – Some guys, like Cone, feed off of the energy of playing in New York. Others, like Ed Whitson crumbled under the pressure. Kenny Rogers was somewhere in between, leaning more towards the Whitson end of the spectrum. Rogers became a full-time starter for the Texas Rangers in 1994. A year later, He put together a 17-7, 3.38 record. Free agency couldn’t have come at a better time for the southpaw; the Yankees signed him to a four-year, $19.5MM deal.

Rogers had gotten off to a rocky start in Spring Training when a Tony Fernandez batting-practice line drive nailed him in his left shoulder. He struggled in exhibition games and almost didn’t win a spot in the starting rotation. He won his first regular season start with a shaky 5.1 innings, but his next four starts ranged from bad to worse. Somehow he ended up with four no-decisions.

The rest of the season was a Jekyll and Hyde act, much like Nathan Eovaldi these past two seasons. Rogers threw some real gems and some incredible stinkers. He had two tremendous wins in August over KC (8 IP 2 ER) and Detroit (CG Shutout), but he followed up the Detroit game with two monumental clunkers – 18 ER allowed in eight innings. Rogers’ season went downhill from there.

Torre pulled Rogers after he allowed two runs on five hits and a walk in two innings in Game 4 of the ALCS. The Yankees came from behind to win the game and clinch the series. His performance in the ALCS was more of the same. Given 3-1 and 5-2 leads, Rogers couldn’t make it past the 4th inning. Again, the Yankees won in spite of him.

The game that Yankees’ fans will forever despise Rogers for, however, was Game 4 of the ’96 World Series. The Yankees had just gotten life with a Game 3 victory after losing the first two games. Before you could blink, Rogers had put the Yankees in a 6-0 hole. And yet again, the Yankees bailed him out. Jim Leyritz went deep against Mark Wohlers, and the Yankees had evened the series with the win.

The Swing Man – Every team would love to have a guy in the bullpen that they could plug into the rotation whenever needed. While it didn’t become a significant role for Ramiro Mendoza until the following season, the Panama native made 11 starts and one relief appearance during the 1996 season. Though the rookie struggled at times, he did win three games as a starter in Cone’s absence. His one relief appearance came in late September when he threw four scoreless innings to beat the Red Sox.

While the Yankees would add David Wells, Roger Clemens, Orlando Hernandez, and others to the rotation over the next handful of years, Cone and Pettitte remained the constant the starting staff was built around, and the rings kept on coming.