Eighteen Crazy Nights—Looking back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians
Each week during the 2012-13 offseason DTTWLN will take a look back at the 1997 Cleveland Indians season—specifically the 18 thrilling games of the postseason as the Indians made an improbable run to game seven of the World Series.
PART SEVEN: ALDS GAME 3—YANKS LOWER THE BOOMER
By Steve Eby
As William Shakespeare would have put it, the bedlam that led up to Game Three for the Yankees and Indians American League Division Series was, “Much Ado About Nothing.”
The Yankees (being the golden children of national television) were making headlines across the country with Manager Joe Torre’s indecision on who to start against the Indians in Game Three. The debate had been going on for weeks as candidates David Wells, Kenny Rogers, Dwight Gooden and Ramiro Mendoza all failed to impress down the stretch.
Wells was the frontrunner (and ultimately the decision) because as late as August 18 “Boomer” had a record of 14-5 with a 3.60 ERA. The big lefthander seemed to tire and fade down the stretch, however, as he lost his next five consecutive starts and pitched very poorly in his sixth. Even after he won his final two decisions to end the season with a 16-10 record, doubt was in the minds of the Yankees and their fans.
“That bothers me,” Torre said in a 1997 New York Times article by Jason Diamos of his struggling pitcher, “because he’s probably the one that should be the front-runner.”
“He’s his own worst enemy,” General Manager Bob Watson said in a New York Times article by Harvey Araton. “(Based) on ability, he’s one of the best three or four left-handers in baseball. You know you’re going to get effort out of him — you just don’t know if that effort is going to last two innings or eight.”
Despite all of the criticism that was coming at him out of The Big Apple, Wells never lost confidence in himself. “I took all the negative stuff that everybody said to me over the last week,” the brash Wells said in Aarton’s article. “But I’m not afraid to fail. Its glory or you’re a dog. I won 16 games, and there was a question?”
The question was answered, however, as Torre did eventually name Wells his starter for Game Three in the back and forth series that was tied at one game apiece. Countering Wells for the first playoff game at Jacobs Field that season was ace right hander and longtime Indian Charles Nagy, who was hit hard each time he pitched against New York in the 1997 regular season.
Nagy had made three starts against the Yankees in ’97 and was hammered every time. On June 20, Nagy only lasted 1.2 innings and gave up six hits and four earned runs. On July 15, he made it 2.1 innings giving up nine hits and eight earned runs. Finally, on September 23, Charlie made it five innings allowing nine hits and six earned runs. In the three combined starts, Nagy compiled an 0-2 record with six walks, three homeruns and an 18.00 ERA against the Bronx Bombers in 1997. Because of Nagy’s terrible numbers, he also gave Indians fans some reason to worry just like New York’s.
45,274 of those fans packed into Jacobs Field for the Saturday evening contest and witnessed somewhat of a nightmare start for Nagy and the Tribe. Charlie walked Yankees leadoff man Tim Raines to start the game and then got Derek Jeter to ground a potential double play ball back to the mound. Nagy, normally an outstanding fielder, snagged the ball cleanly but fired a wild throw into centerfield. Raines scampered to third and Jeter stood at first on the fielder’s choice and error. The next batter, Game One hero Paul O’Neill, kick-started another big night for himself as he smacked an RBI single through the infield to chase Raines home and give the Yankees a 1-0 lead. Some gutsy pitching by Nagy kept New York from scoring again, but it took the Tribe pitcher 39 pitches to get through the top of the first.
It only took the Indians until the bottom of the second to answer, however. After the top of the order was set down on six pitches in the bottom of the first, Matt Williams and David Justice led off the second inning with back to back singles putting runners at the corners with no outs. After Sandy Alomar popped out, second baseman Tony Fernandez grounded a fielder’s choice to Jeter at short that retired Justice at second, but the Yankees were unable to get Fernandez at first and Williams scored on the play to tie the game at 1-1. Torre came out and argued the call at first, thinking that Fernandez was out, but was unable to sway umpire Greg Kosc. From that point on, Wells settled back in and the Yankees took over.
New York answered the Indians run with one of their own in the top of the third. Jeter led off with a walk and stole second after O’Neill lined out to Marquis Grissom in centerfield. Bernie Williams flew out to right, but first baseman Tino Martinez drove Jeter home with a clutch two-strike single to right that made the score 2-1 Yankees.
After Wells held the Tribe in check in the bottom half, the Yanks blew the game open in the fourth. Nagy completely lost command in the inning as he walked catcher Joe Girardi, Raines and Jeter mixed in among two hard outs. The walk to Jeter was particularly painful for Nagy, as he had the young shortstop behind in the count 1-2 before losing him. With Nagy’s pitch count over 90 and his control all but gone, Tribe Manager Mike Hargrove brought starting pitcher turned long reliever Chad Ogea in to face O’Neill.
Taking Nagy out was the right move, but bringing in a right hander to face the left handed O’Neill may not have been. O’Neill worked Ogea’s count full and then scorched a laser beam over the wall in right for a grand slam and a 6-1 Yankees advantage.
The slam gave O’Neill five RBI’s for the game and six for the series. It was also O’Neill’s second homerun of the ALDS, the first coming as the third leg of the back-to-back-to-back blasts in Game One in New York. It was the first grand slam that a Yankee had hit in a postseason game in 33 years—the previous being hit by Joe Pepitone against the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1964 World Series.
O’Neill’s grand slam gave Wells a boost and made the crowd at Jacobs Field deathly quiet. The Tribe threatened to score in the bottom of the fifth, as Grissom and the red hot Omar Vizquel recorded back-to-back one out singles to put runners at the corners and gave the crowd something to cheer about. Bip Roberts followed with a pop out bringing up right hander Kevin Seitzer, who was playing first base against the lefty Wells in place of the left handed Jim Thome.
Seitzer smoked a hot grounder to the hole between third and short. Third baseman Charlie Hayes ranged far to his left and made a fantastic snag on Seitzer’s hot shot. Hayes fired a strike to Rey Sanchez at second base to retire the speedy Vizquel, end the inning and the Indians threat.
As it would turn out, that threat in the fifth was the final noise that the Indians would make all night. Wells and Ogea traded scoreless innings for the remainder of the evening as the Yankees held on for the 6-1 victory and the two games to one lead in the series.
The big story for the night was Wells, who pitched brilliantly and got the complete game victory. Boomer allowed only five hits, zero walks and threw 105 pitches in his masterpiece. He retired 12 of the last 13 batters he faced after Hayes robbed Seitzer in the fifth and answered all of the critics that said he shouldn’t have started.
“I know what I’m capable of doing,” Wells said in the Diamos article. “I don’t give up.”
With the highs for New York after a dominating performance by the previously underachieving Wells came a demoralizing feeling after a lopsided loss for the Indians. Being down two games to one, they were now on the brink of being eliminated and were sending Orel Hershiser back to the mound for Game Four, less than a week after he was shelled by the Yankees in Game One. Countering Hershiser would be Gooden, a future Indian and a former Cy Young Award winner. He had a fantastic comeback season in 1996 where he threw a no-hitter, but was up and down for most of the ’97 campaign. Gooden was taking the place in the rotation of the injured David Cone, who experienced elbow tightness after pitching Game One.
Lost in the shuffle of the Game Three defeat was the outstanding game that Ogea pitched. Ogea allowed O’Neill’s grand slam on the first batter he faced but really shut down the Yankees after that initial batter. Ogea retired the next 13 batters that he faced and 16 of 18 total hitters for the night. He only struck out one, but walked zero and got ground ball after ground ball. The Yankee hitters looked lost while facing the young right hander and it was Ogea’s performance in Game Three that probably cemented him as the fourth starter in the rotation behind Hershiser, Jaret Wright and Nagy. Before the Indians could even think about pitching Ogea again, however, they had plenty of work to do as “must win” games faced them over the next two nights at Jacobs Field.
Photo: Mark Duncan/Associated Press