The New York Yankees play a decisive Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays later. Let’s look back on some former playoff elimination game heroes.
Never before have two small words had such an intimidating feel about them. The New York Yankees forced one in their Division Series matchup with the Tampa Bay Rays by winning Game 4 on Thursday. Mere hours from now, ace Gerrit Cole will get the ball to try and pitch New York into the ALCS.
A loss means going home. For a team looking to win its 28th World Series, that is simply not an option. On top of Cole, expect the lineup to chip in as much as it can to help the Yankees advance.
And elimination games have a habit of making stars out of players. In 2011, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese hit a clutch triple to tie Game 6 of the World Series and later hit a walk-off home run to force Game 7. In the 2004 ALCS, David Ortiz’s late-game heroics were key in the Boston Red Sox breaking their championship curse.
The New York Yankees are now in a similar position, one they have been in several times over the years. Fortunately for them, plenty of former Bronx Bombers have stepped up when it matters the most. But which performances have been the most clutch?
Mind you, this doesn’t mean we’ll wax poetic about Aaron Boone’s pennant-clinching home run, nor the heroics of Raul Ibañez. Those are clutch moments, but not necessarily performances.
Rather, which Yankees stepped up in an important playoff game and put the team on their back? Well, let’s jump in the DeLorean, speed up to 88 mph, and revisit some of these key games.
2003 ALCS Game 7: Mike Mussina mops up
Mike Mussina was inducted into the Hall of Fame last year as one of the best starting pitchers of his time, and probably one of the best to never win a World Series. What many don’t know is that his best playoff performance, arguably, came as a reliever.
The New York Yankees were playing the hated Boston Red Sox in a decisive Game 7 after their bullpen blew a lead in Game 6. Roger Clemens allowed four runs in just over three innings of work and in a must-win game, manager Joe Torre handed the ball to Mussina to limit the damage.
Mussina proceeded to pitch three scoreless innings in mop-up duty to keep the Yankees in the game. A comeback and three scoreless innings from Mariano Rivera later, Boone’s legendary homer put New York over the top.
What makes this all the more significant is that this was Mike Mussina’s first-ever relief appearance. Pitchers are notorious creatures of habit, so asking them to do anything outside of their normal routine can sometimes prove catastrophic.
And yet, Mike Mussina stepped up when the Yankees needed him most. Even though New York eventually lost the World Series, the team would never have gotten that far without Mussina’s clutch relief outing.
2017 ALDS Game 5: Didi Gregorius sets the tone
Game 5 of the 2017 ALDS had all the makings of an adrenaline-fueled game. The Cleveland Indians, who had finished with the AL’s best record, took the first two games at home, including a key comeback in Game 2. The series then shifted to the Bronx, where the New York Yankees won both games to force Game 5.
On paper, everything favored Cleveland. Corey Kluber, the eventual Cy Young Award winner, was on the mound despite less than three innings in Game 2. Cleveland hoped a bounceback start was in the cards so they could move one step closer to the World Series.
However, Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius had other ideas. With two outs in the first inning, he launched a solo home run to right field to put New York up 1-0. The Yankees never gave up the lead, and Gregorius added a two-run shot off of Kluber in the third to make it 3-0. He later added a single for three total hits on the night as New York eventually won 5-2 to advance to the ALCS.
New York would eventually lose the following round in seven games, but Gregorius’ heroics in Game 5 didn’t just fall by the wayside. He faced a Cy Young winner and took him long not once but twice, and on the road to boot.
Baseball has been around for over a century, and fans still don’t appreciate how difficult doing that is.
1962 World Series Game 7: Ralph Terry’s gem
Not many will say it, but 1962 was sort of the last hurrah of the New York Yankees core of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, and so many others. The team was playing in its third consecutive Fall Classic, having won it the previous year, and the key players were starting to age. This time, the Bronx Bombers had to face a powerful San Francisco Giants team that featured future Hall of Famers Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.
The Giants forced a Game 7 after getting to Whitey Ford in Game 6, and also had home-field advantage. New York gave the ball to righty Ralph Terry, who was best known for giving up a walk-off series-winning homer to Bill Mazeroski in 1960. Though he was a good pitcher, the anxiety was there.
Simply put, Terry redefined clutch when he pitched a Game 7 shutout. New York scored the only run of the game when Bill Skowron crossed home plate on Tony Kubek’s double play. The Giants managed to get the winning run on second base with two outs in the ninth inning, with McCovey stepping up to bat.
Terry had two choices: walk McCovey and pitch to the dangerous Orlando Cepeda, or take his chances with the lefty slugger. Terry opted for the latter, and McCovey lined out to second baseman Bobby Richardson to end the game. The New York Yankees were champions again.
Terry, who had just made his third start of the series, was the hands-down World Series MVP.
1976 ALCS Game 5: The Chris Chambliss game
The 1976 New York Yankees were a hungry team, and with good reason. The team made the postseason for the first time since 1964 and was no longer a laughingstock of mediocrity under fiery manager Billy Martin. The expanded postseason was also a new experience, having just debuted in 1969.
Most fans know how this story goes. The Yankees had a hard-fought series with the Kansas City Royals. In the deciding Game 5, first baseman Chris Chambliss hit a walk-off solo home run in the ninth inning. New York won the AL pennant and was subsequently swept in the World Series by the Cincinnati Reds.
But what many don’t know is that Chambliss’ home run was just the icing on the cake. In reality, were it not for his performance across the whole game, the Yankees might have sang a different song that night. Many don’t know that New York trailed 2-0 in the first inning, and Chambliss’ sacrifice fly tied the game.
In the third inning, his RBI groundout scored Roy White to put New York up 4-3. Chambliss then added a double, single, and even a stolen base before his infamous blast off of Mark Littell. Chambliss then managed to round the bases and touch home plate despite fans rushing the field and mobbing him.
Simply put, take Chambliss’ sac fly and RBI groundout away from the score, and the Yankees probably don’t win this game.
2012 ALDS Game 5: CC Sabathia’s playoff gem
Though a playoff team, the 2012 New York Yankees had a hard time showing the Bronx Bombers’ signature playoff intensity. The team was aging, especially captain Derek Jeter, and scoring runs was tougher than it had been in years past. For context, New York averaged just 3.2 runs in the five-game series.
Speaking of Game 5, the Yankees turned to CC Sabathia, their big lefty ace, to clinch the series against the Baltimore Orioles. He had won Game 1, but the Yankees were coming off of a tough 2-1 extra-innings loss in Game 4. The bats weren’t clicking, so a shutdown outing from Sabathia was a must.
CC Sabathia then came through in the only way he knew how: pitch a complete-game victory. He held Baltimore scoreless into the eighth inning despite only getting three runs of support himself. An exhausted New York team then advanced to the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers, where the Yankees were swept after Jeter broke his ankle.
But it didn’t matter. The 2012 ALDS very much had a World Series feel thanks to Raul Ibañez’s own clutch performance in Game 3. CC Sabathia then did exactly what he was paid to do in shutting down the opposing team. In the moment, all Yankees fans could do was celebrate as though it was the World Series.
2001 ALDS Game 4: Bernie’s Beautiful Bat
The 2001 New York Yankees had a tall order in the 2001 American League Division Series: win two games on the road out west to force Game 5 at home. The Oakland A’s were stacked with pitching this particular season and made relatively short work of New York in Games 1 and 2 in the Bronx.
The Yankees needed momentum badly. They won Game 3 1-0, and largely because of Derek Jeter’s clutch fielding now known as “The Flip.”
New York handed the ball to Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez in hopes that he could continue to quiet Oakland in Game 4. New York won the game 9-2 behind 5.2 innings of two-run ball, but Hernandez wasn’t the hero.
Rather, that honor went to centerfielder Bernie Williams. The switch-hitting star had three hits and drove in five of the Yankees’ nine runs. In the third inning, he lined a two-run double over Johnny Damon’s head to put New York up 4-0. After the A’s added two runs in the bottom half, the Yankees rallied again in the fourth before Williams added a two-run single.
Williams added another RBI double in the ninth, but the New York Yankees were in the driver’s seat by then. The Bronx Bombers won 9-2 and then managed a come-from-behind win in the deciding Game 5, though Williams was hitless.
Even still, his clutch tendencies showed up with perfect timing when his team needed him the most.
Long story short, with a lengthy history of great elimination game performances across history, it’s going to be interesting to see who steps up for the New York Yankees this time around.
Game 5 is slated for Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET on TBS.