Monday, August 21, 2006

August 21st, 1966

John Wetteland Born

Like many Yankee fans of my generation, I will always have a great fondness for John Wetteland. Acquired in an almost comical deal from Montreal before the 1995 season--the Yankee surrendered the great Fernando Seguignol and cash--Wetteland almost instantly became the Yankees' best closer since Dave Righetti and arguably the first to close really meaningful games since Goose Gossage.

Wetteland struggled badly in the 1995 ALDS; he was 0-1 with a 14.54 ERA, but paired with Mariano Rivera in 1996, he formed the back-end of an almost unhittable combination. Wetteland was never better than in the 1996 World Series where he locked down all four of the Yankees' wins and gave up just one run across four and a third innings. As fond as I am of Wetteland, that World Series also serves as a pretty good representation of what he was like across a whole season: he usually got the job done, but it was never easy.

To Wetteland's credit, he nailed down the save in the crucial Game Three with two strike outs and the only runner reaching on a Derek Jeter error. In Game Four however, "Classic Wetteland" emerged. With the Yankees clinging to a two-run lead (after
famously rallying from six runs down) Wetteland replaced Graeme Lloyd--who shut down Fred McGriff and Ryan Klesko that series--and promptly allowed an Andruw Jones single, giving the Braves two shots at a game-tying two-run home run. And the Braves took those shots indeed. First Jermaine Dye socked one into left field that that Tim Raines tracked down and then Terry Pendleton hit one almost as hard to left that Raines again caught, but did so while falling down, nearly inflicting three simultaneous heart attacks in my house.

In Game Five Andy Pettitte outdueled John Smoltz over eight and a third innings and left with a one-run lead after giving up a leadoff double to Chipper Jones and a ground out to McGriff that moved Jones to third. With the infield in, Javy Lopez hit a liner that Charlie Hayes was able to glove and throw to first, holding Jones at third. The Yankees then walked Klesko, putting the winning on first and the tying run on first with two out. Up stepped Luis Polonia. Polonia, a dead fastball hitter, battled Wetteland for--and this is an approximate count from my memory--eighty-seven pitches before shooting one deep into the gap in right-center. Paul O'Neill, playing on a bad hamstring just managed to track the ball down, retiring Polonia and securing Game Five for New York.

Wetteland was not done yet, however. Wetteland entered the game with the Yankees holding a three to one lead, needing three outs for their first World Series title since 1978. He made a promising start striking out Andruw Jones, but then allowed back-to-back singles to Klesko and Pendleton, putting the tying runs on. After striking out Polonia in a rematch of their Game Five battle Wetteland and the Yankees were just one out away. Never one to shy away from the drama though, Wetteland allowed a single to Marquis Grissom, cutting the lead to just one run. With Mark Lemke up, Wetteland finally induced the last out, getting him to pop-up to Charlie Hayes.

A quick glance at his numbers for the series--2.08 ERA, four saves, six strikeouts--reflects why Wetteland was a wise choice for MVP. But as was his wont, whether on a meaningless July game or in the biggest game of his life, Wetteland never made it easy.

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