After capturing the A.L. East title in 1996 by finishing the regular season with a record of 92-70, the Yankees advanced to the ALCS by defeating the Texas Rangers in four games in the ALDS. Awaiting the Yankees in the League Championship Series were the Baltimore Orioles, who eliminated a powerful Cleveland Indians team in four games in the other Divisional Playoff Series.
The Orioles, who were the league’s wild-card representative in the playoffs after finishing four games behind the Yankees in the A.L. East during the regular season, featured one of the junior circuit’s most potent offenses. They led the league with 257 home runs and finished third with 949 runs scored. By contrast, New York hit only 162 home runs and scored a total of 871 runs. Cal Ripken Jr., Bobby Bonilla, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, and Brady Anderson led Baltimore’s offensive attack. Ripken batted .278, hit 26 homers, drove in 102 runs, and scored 94 others. Bonilla hit 28 home runs, knocked in 116 runs, scored 107 others, and batted .287. Alomar hit 22 homers, drove in 94 runs, and placed among the league leaders with 132 runs scored and a .328 batting average. Palmeiro earned a sixth-place finish in the league MVP voting by placing among the leaders with 39 homers and 142 RBIs, scoring 110 runs, and batting .289. Anderson had a career-year, hitting 50 homers, driving in 110 runs, scoring 117 others, and batting .297.
Although Paul O’Neill and A.L. Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter both had outstanding seasons for New York, Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams were the team’s top two offensive performers. Martinez batted .292, hit 25 homers, and led the team with 117 runs batted in. Williams led the club with 29 home runs and 108 runs scored, knocked in 102 runs, and batted .305.
While the Orioles had a decided advantage over the Yankees on offense, New York had a clear-cut edge in pitching. The Yankees finished fifth in the American League with a team ERA of 4.65. They had one of the league’s top starters in Andy Pettitte, who posted a record of 21-8 during the regular season. Their rotation also included solid starters David Cone and Jimmy Key. Furthermore, in John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera, the Yankees had a pair of bullpen aces that gave them a huge edge over virtually every other team.
Meanwhile, Baltimore finished tied for eighth in the American League with a team ERA of 5.14. Mike Mussina was the only member of the club’s starting rotation who distinguished himself over the course of the regular season, finishing the campaign with a record of 19-11. Yet, due to the hitter-friendly dimensions of Baltimore’s Camden Yards, even Mussina posted an inordinately high ERA of 4.81. Randy Myers served as the team’s closer, saving 31 games, while compiling a 3.53 ERA.
Although the Yankees finished four games ahead of the Orioles during the regular season, the two teams appeared to be quite evenly matched heading into the ALCS.
Home runs by Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro helped stake the Orioles to a 4-3 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game One, played in Yankee Stadium. However, good fortune subsequently smiled on New York in the form of a 12-year-old Yankee fan named Jeffrey Maier. Facing Baltimore reliever Armando Benitez, Derek Jeter lofted a fly ball to deep right field that outfielder Tony Tarasco appeared to have within his sights. But, just as the right fielder extended his glove over his head to make the catch, Maier reached over the wall and caught the ball himself. Tarasco immediately lodged a complaint of fan interference to the umpires, but the officiating crew controversially upheld right field umpire Rich Garcia’s ruling that signaled Jeter’s drive a home run. Jeter’s game-tying homer enabled the contest to eventually go into extra innings, where Bernie Williams put an end to the affair in the bottom of the 11th by delivering a walk-off home run into the left field seats against Randy Myers.
Undaunted, the Orioles took Game Two by a score of 5-3, with Todd Zeile and Rafael Palmeiro delivering home runs and David Wells holding the Yankees to three runs in just under seven innings of work.
With the series having shifted to Baltimore’s Camden Yards for the next three contests, the Orioles scored two runs in the bottom of the first inning of Game Three on a two-run homer by Todd Zeile against Jimmy Key. However, Key settled down, keeping the Orioles off the scoreboard the next seven innings, while allowing them a total of only three hits. Nevertheless, it looked like Baltimore starter Mike Mussina might make the two runs stand up, since he limited New York to just one run on four hits over the first seven innings. The Yankees, though, mounted an eighth-inning rally, tying the game against Mussina on a Bernie Williams single, taking a one-run lead on a double by Tino Martinez, and putting the contest out of reach on a two-run homer by Cecil Fielder. The 5-2 victory gave New York a 2-1 lead in the series.
Home runs by Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, and Darryl Strawberry (twice) powered the Yankees to an 8-4 victory in Game Four. The Orioles scored all four of their runs against Yankee starter Kenny Rogers in the first three innings, but New York’s bullpen held Baltimore scoreless the rest of the way, enabling the Yankees to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
Home runs by Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry, and Jim Leyritz highlighted a six-run outburst in the third inning of Game Five that gave the Yankees an almost insurmountable 6-0 lead. The Orioles tried to mount a comeback, hitting three home runs of their own, but it was too little, too late. Andy Pettitte worked eight strong innings, allowing Baltimore only two runs on three hits, en route to pitching the Yankees to a 6-4 series-clinching victory. New York’s five-game ALCS win over Baltimore put the Yankees in the World Series for the first time in 15 years.