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After defeating the Texas Rangers in four games in the ALDS and disposing of the Baltimore Orioles in five games in the ALCS, the New York Yankees made their first World Series appearance in 15 years, entering the 1996 Fall Classic as a heavy underdog to the defending world champion Atlanta Braves.  Although the Yankees could hardly be considered a dominant team, they were a well-balanced club that featured a solid offense and a well-above-average pitching staff.  Finishing the regular season in first place in the A.L. East with a record of 92-70, New York placed ninth in the junior circuit in runs scored (871), 12th in home runs (162), seventh in stolen bases (96), second in team batting average (.288), and fifth in team ERA (4.65).  The Yankees had three solid starters in Andy Pettitte, David Cone, and Jimmy Key, and they had arguably the best bullpen duo in all of baseball, in John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera.  The quartet of Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill, Tino Martinez, and Derek Jeter led an efficient New York offense that invariably seemed to get the job done.  Still, the Yankees were considered to be no match for the Braves, who were making their fourth World Series appearance in six years.

The Braves finished the regular season with the National League’s best record – a mark of 96-66 that left them eight games ahead of the second-place Montreal Expos in the N.L. East.  They then earned the right to face the Yankees in the Fall Classic by sweeping the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, before coming from behind to defeat the Cardinals in seven games in the NLCS, after earlier falling behind in the series three-games-to-one.  The Braves not only mounted an enormous comeback against St. Louis, but they did so in extremely convincing fashion, outscoring the Cardinals by a combined margin of 32-1 in the final three contests.  With momentum clearly on their side, the Braves were considered to be the prohibitive favorite heading into their matchup with the Yankees.

The Braves also had a few other things going for them.  They finished fourth in the senior circuit in runs scored (773) during the regular season, placed second in home runs (197), and posted the second-highest team batting average (.270).  Chipper Jones hit 30 home runs and led the team with 110 runs batted in, 114 runs scored, and a .309 batting average.  Fred McGriff hit 28 homers, drove in 107 runs, and batted .295.  Ryan Klesko led the club with 34 home runs, knocked in 93 runs, and batted .282.  Leadoff hitter Marquis Grissom hit 23 homers, drove in 74 runs, scored 106 others, stole 28 bases, and batted .308.  

The Braves’ greatest strength, though, was their pitching staff, which finished second only to the Dodgers with a team ERA of 3.52.  John Smoltz earned N.L. Cy Young honors by leading all league hurlers with a record of 24-8, 276 strikeouts, and 254 innings pitched, while compiling a 2.94 ERA.  Greg Maddux won 15 games and placed second in the senior circuit with a 2.72 ERA and 245 innings pitched.  Tom Glavine also posted 15 victories, and he finished near the top of the league rankings with a 2.98 ERA and 235 innings pitched.  Meanwhile, Mark Wohlers finished among the league leaders with 39 saves.  

Heading into the Fall Classic, Atlanta seemed to hold a slight advantage over New York on offense, and a more distinct one on the mound.  New York’s only edge appeared to be in the bullpen, due to the presence of John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera.  The big question was whether or not the Yankees would be able to put the duo in a position to protect a late-inning lead.

The Braves carried their momentum into the World Series, overwhelming the Yankees in Game One at Yankee Stadium by a score of 12-1.  Atlanta knocked out New York starter Andy Pettitte during a six-run third inning that featured the first of two Andruw Jones home runs.  Jones finished the day with three hits and five runs batted in.  Fred McGriff also homered for the Braves, while John Smoltz and the Atlanta bullpen held New York to just one run on four hits.  

The Yankees again appeared to be overmatched in Game Two, dropping a 4-0 decision to the Braves.  Fred McGriff drove in three of Atlanta’s four runs against Jimmy Key, with two singles and a sacrifice fly.  Meanwhile, Greg Maddux handcuffed the Yankee batters, allowing them just six hits in eight innings of work, before turning the ball over to Mark Wohlers, who worked a scoreless ninth.  Atlanta’s combined winning margin of 16-1 in the first two games represented the largest run differential in World Series history.

With the Series heading to Atlanta and the Yankees already down two-games-to-none, New York appeared to be dead in the water.  Facing them was the daunting task of trying to win four of the next five games, with three of those contests scheduled to be played in the Braves’ home ballpark.
Furious at his team’s performance in Games One and Two, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner subsequently voiced his displeasure at a post-game meeting with manager Joe Torre and first base coach Jose Cardenal.  Torre attempted to quell Steinbrenner’s anger by guaranteeing three wins in Atlanta, and then a Series-clinching victory when the two teams returned to New York for Game Six.  Expressing doubt over Torre’s prediction, Steinbrenner responded by saying, "If you guys can't beat the Braves at home, you surely can't beat them down in Atlanta."

Yet, that is exactly what the Yankees did.  Getting a solid outing from David Cone, who allowed only one run on four hits in six strong innings of work, New York came out on top in Game Three by a final score of 5-2.  Bernie Williams knocked in three of New York’s runs, with his eighth-inning, two-run homer putting the game out of reach.

Things looked bleak for New York when Atlanta took a 6-0 lead after five innings in Game Four.  However, the Yankees cut the lead in half with three runs in the top of the sixth inning.  They then tied the game in the top of the eighth on a three-run homer by Jim Leyritz.  The score remained tied heading into the top of the 10th inning, when the Yankees pushed across the go-ahead run on a bases loaded walk to Wade Boggs.  New York added another insurance run, en route to tying the Series at two games apiece with an 8-6 victory.

Game Five evolved into a classic pitcher’s duel between Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz, with the two hurlers surrendering a total of zero earned runs in the combined 16 1/3 innings they worked.  The Yankees scored the game’s only run in the fourth inning on an error and a Cecil Fielder double.  The Braves threatened to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning when they got the tying run to third base with only one man out.  However, John Wetteland stranded the runner at third base by retiring the next two batters.  The final out was recorded when pinch-hitter Luis Polonia drove a long fly ball to deep right-center field that an injured Paul O’Neill pulled in with a fine running catch.

Having taken a 3-2 lead in the Series, the Yankees completed their improbable comeback when the Fall Classic returned to New York for Game Six.  Joe Girardi’s third-inning triple sparked a three-run rally against Greg Maddux that gave New York an early 3-0 lead.  The Braves eventually closed the gap to 3-2, but that was as close as they got.  After surrendering a run to Atlanta in the top of the ninth inning, John Wetteland retired Mark Lemke on a foul popup to third base with the tying and winning runs on base.  The 3-2 victory gave the Yankees their 23rd world championship.  Wetteland’s four saves earned him Series MVP honors.   
 

By Bob_Cohen
 

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Tagged:
1996 World Series, Andruw Jones, Andy Pettitte, Atlanta Braves, Bernie Williams (New York Yankees), Cecil Fielder, Chipper Jones, Darryl Strawberry, David Cone, Derek Jeter, Fred McGriff, George Steinbrenner, Greg Maddux, Jim Leyritz, Jimmy Key, Joe Girardi, Joe Torre, John Smoltz, John Wetteland, Jose Cardenal, Kenny Rogers, Luis Polonia, Mariano Rivera, Mark Lemke, Mark Wohlers, Marquis Grissom, New York Yankees, Tino Martinez, Tom Glavine, Wade Boggs

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