The Greatest Summer Ever: Paul Assenmacher

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #13 Paul Assenmacher.

After the player’s strike ended in April of 1995, one of General Manager John Hart’s biggest objectives was to sign a left-handed reliever to add to the Indians bullpen.  Hart’s favorite free agent option that was available was steady veteran Paul Assenmacher.  Assenmacher had pitched previously with the Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.  He was the true definition of a “crafty lefty”, using smoke and mirrors and a bunch of breaking pitches to get batters out.  Hart felt that Assenmacher’s style would be a great contrast to the other flame throwers in the Tribe ‘pen, and Assenmacher officially signed with the Tribe on April 10.

Hart got more than he could have been hoping for with Assenmacher, as the lefty made American League hitters look foolish for much of the season.  Used primarily as a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out Guy), Assenmacher had an ERA of 0.00 nearly until the All-Star break.  It wasn’t until a June 25 loss in Chicago (when White Sox third baseman Robin Ventura drove in a run with a single) that Assenmacher gave up an earned run.

Assenmacher’s effectiveness continued throughout the regular season and he was a key contributor to what was the best bullpen in baseball.  Assenmacher appeared in 47 games for the Tribe that summer, totaling 38.1 innings pitched, a 6-2 record, with nine holds and a 2.82 ERA.  It had been a few years since the Indians had a left-handed relief pitcher that was as effective as Assenmacher and it is dominance that wouldn’t really be seen again in Cleveland until Rafael Perez’s 2007 season.   Even with Assenmacher’s fantastic regular season and all of the big situational outs that he recorded, Paul’s biggest contribution to the 1995 Indians came in the post season.

On October 15, the Indians were set to host the pivotal game five of the American League Championship Series against the Seattle Mariners.  The series, to this point, had been bouncing back and forth. Seattle won game one, the Indians bounced back to win game two, the M’s answered by winning game three, and the Tribe tied the series back up at 2-2 by winning game four.  If the Indians wanted to avoid playing an elimination game against ace Randy Johnson (who was scheduled to pitch in game six at the Kingdome), they needed to win game five.

Orel Hershiser, a postseason master, was given the ball to pitch this important game on only three days of rest.  The last time that Hershiser had pitched on such short rest was July 19, 1993, when he pitched a complete game win over the New York Mets as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers.  The Mariners countered with Chris Bosio, a big right-hander who had won 10 games in 1995 and threw a no-hitter two years prior against the Boston Red Sox.  The stage was set for the Sunday evening showdown between the American League’s two best teams and there were 43,607 people at Jacobs Field to witness a classic.

Hershiser set down the potent Mariner lineup scoreless in the top of the first, only allowing a two out walk to Ken Griffey Jr.  The Indians lineup made a bit more noise.  The bottom half started out with leadoff batter Kenny Lofton lining out to left, followed by an Omar Vizquel groundball to first.  Seattle first baseman Tino Martinez was unable to handle Vizquel’s grounder, however, and Omar reached first safely on the E-3.  Second baseman Carlos Baerga followed the Mariner blunder by lining a single into left and the Indians had something cooking with runners at first and second and only one out with Albert Belle coming to the plate.  Belle struck out swinging, but on the strikeout pitch, Vizquel was able to steal third base.  Eddie Murray followed and came through with a clutch two out RBI single that scored Vizquel and gave the Indians an early 1-0 lead.

The second inning was uneventful for both offenses, as Hershiser and Bosio held the opposition scoreless in the frame.  In the third, however, the Mariners fought back against “The Bulldog” and were able to tie the game.

Catcher Dan Wilson led off the inning by striking out looking against Hershiser, but second batter and future Indian Joey Cora was able to work a walk.  The next batter, Edgar Martinez, also struck out, but Cora was able to steal second on the pitch that recorded the second out of the inning.  This stolen base proved to be huge, because Griffey followed by blooping a ground rule double down the left field line, scoring Cora and tying the game at 1-1.

Things were looking up for the Mariners as Bosio, meanwhile, had settled into a groove.  He retired the Indians in order in the second and third innings and faced only three batters in the fourth as well because he was aided by a double play.  The M’s got even more help in the top of the fifth when the Indians defense gave the M’s a run.

Wilson led off the fifth by grounding out to Vizquel and gave the Indians their first out of the inning.  Cora followed by grounding Hershiser’s 1-0 pitch back up the middle for a single, once again setting the table for the meat of the Mariner lineup.  Hershiser got the struggling Edgar Martinez to strike out again for the second out and should have had the third out when Griffey followed by lifting a fly ball into left.  Belle, however, was unable to handle the fly ball and Griffey was safe on the error.  The speedy Cora ran all the way home and Belle’s throw to the plate got past Tribe catcher Sandy Alomar for Belle’s second error on the play.  Griffey was able to advance to second base on the wild throw, but was stranded at second when Hershiser got Jay Buhner to swing and miss at his 1-2 pitch to end the inning.

Now trailing 2-1, the Indians found themselves playing catch-up in their (at that point) most important game of the season.  The Tribe threatened in the bottom of the fifth when Lofton hit a two out single.  Vizquel followed with a walk and the two speedsters perfectly executed a double steal.  Baerga ended the threat, however, grounded out on a ball back to Bosio.  After Hershiser set the Mariners down scoreless again in the top of the sixth, the Tribe finally broke through again in the bottom half.

Belle started the inning by lining the first pitch hard to third baseman Doug Strange for a quick first out.  Murray followed by blasting Bosio’s 1-0 pitch into right field for a one out double, bringing the powerful Jim Thome to the plate.  Bosio fell behind in the count to Thome 2-0 before Thome crushed the third pitch of the at-bat down the right field line for a two-run bomb that gave the Indians a 3-2 lead and sent Bosio to the showers.  Thome is quoted in Russell Schneider’s book, The Glorious Indian Summer of 1995, as saying, “That’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.  By far, that’s the biggest hit of my career.”

With a one run lead heading into the seventh inning, Tribe skipper Mike Hargrove turned the ball over to his bullpen.  He replaced Hershiser with right hander Julian Tavarez, who had been lights out all season.  Tavarez pitched well, but the Tribe’s normally solid defense let him down.

The inning started with Wilson grounding a ball to first baseman Paul Sorrento’s right side, and Sorrento promptly booted the ball to give the Mariners a leadoff base runner.  On the very next pitch, Sorrento got a chance to redeem himself.  Cora grounded the ball right at Sorrento and he fielded it cleanly.  Thinking “double play”, Sorrento turned and fired the ball to Vizquel at second, but the throw was off target for an E-3 on the second batter in a row.  Edgar Martinez grounded another ball, this time at Thome, and Cora was forced out at second.  Baerga was unable to finish the double play, as Martinez was safe at first and through no fault of his own, Tavarez was in a jam.  With the game now on the line, Hargrove turned to Assenmacher to face Griffey.

Assenmacher always took his time getting from the bullpen to the mound and even in this game, with the tying run on third, the go-ahead run at first, the season on the line and the best hitter on the planet Earth at the plate, Paul strolled in from the ‘pen like he was taking a Sunday walk in the park.  Facing Junior Griffey in the prime of his career, however, was never a walk in the park.

Assenmacher sure made it look easy though.  Griffey was able to work the count to 2-2 and everyone in the ballpark including Griffey knew that Assenmacher’s out pitch, a nasty slider, was coming.  Everyone knew it except for Paul Assenmacher, that is.  Assenmacher reared back and hurled a letter high fastball to Griffey.  Surprised by the pitch selection, Griffey took a mighty swing, missed, and walked back to the dugout.

Mission accomplished.  Assenmacher had done his job.  The LOOGY got the lefty and now it was time to go back to the bullpen.  Eric Plunk was ready and waiting in the bullpen to face the right handed Jay Buhner.  The always “by-the-book” Hargrove, however, chose to go against the grain this time.

Later saying that he just liked the way Assenmacher was throwing, Hargrove elected to stick with his lefty to face Buhner.  Maybe Hargrove did like the way that Assenmacher was throwing, or maybe he was scared to let Plunk face Buhner again, since two nights earlier Buhner crushed a Plunk pitch deep into the night for a three run homer that won game three for Seattle.  Whatever the reason, Hargrove stuck with Assenmacher in game five and ordered him to be careful with the Mariner cleanup hitter because there was a base open and another lefthander on deck, Tino Martinez.

Assenmacher danced around the strike zone to the mighty Buhner, but
“Bone” swung at a couple of the pitches and before he knew it, the count was 2-2.  Assenmacher was quoted in Schneider’s book as saying, “Once I got two strikes on (Buhner), I felt I wanted to be a little more aggressive and go after him.  I threw him a curveball higher than I wanted to get it, but he just swung over the top of it.”

When strike three landed in Alomar’s mitt, Jacobs Field roared in approval at the job that Assenmacher had done and the guts that Hargrove showed by sticking with him.  Assenmacher struck out two of the best hitters in the American League and kept the Mariners scoreless in an inning that started so ugly.  Paul Sorrento took a sigh of relief in the dugout and patted his teammate Assenmacher on the back.

The Indians were set down scoreless in the bottom of the seventh by Seattle relievers Jeff Nelson and Bill Risley.  Assenmacher and Plunk matched the Seattle duo by shutting down the M’s in the top of the eighth.  The Tribe threatened in the bottom of the inning, getting Lofton to third with two outs, but Risley was able to retire Vizquel on a lineout to end the inning.  With a 3-2 lead heading into the ninth, “Señor Slam” flashed across the Jacobs Field JumboTron and Jose Mesa entered the ballgame.

Mesa made quick work of the first two Mariners, retiring pinch hitter Rich Amaral and Cora on two pitches each.  Edgar Martinez, the Mariners last hope, was able to work the count full before lacing the ball to centerfield.  Lofton sprinted back to make a sensational catch on the line drive that was cutting through the wind for the final out of the game.

The Indians had taken game five of the series and now led three games to two.  They were going back to Seattle to faC. Johnson, but now they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.  Assenmacher was the hero of the night and the Tribe was one win away from their first trip to the World Series since 1954.

Paul Assenmacher pitched the rest of his career with the Indians until he retired after 1999.  Paul was very successful through most of his tenure with the Tribe, with his best season coming in the other World Series year of 1997.  After retiring from the Indians, Assenmacher returned to the game he loved in 2005 when he became the pitching coach for St. Pius X Catholic High School in Atlanta.  He has coached there on and off for six seasons and lives in Alpharetta, Georgia with his wife, Maggie, and their five children.

Tomorrow:  Omar Vizquel

Previous Entries:
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento

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