In the clutch
O'Neill doesn't hit lefties well, but he comes through
Posted: Sunday October 24, 1999 03:03 AM
Paul O'Neill singles off John Rocker in the eight inning. AP
ATLANTA (AP) -- Nothing stops Paul O'Neill.
Certainly not a measly little broken rib.
In the parking lot at Yankee Stadium 12 days earlier, he had a pained expression as he returned from the hospital after learning he cracked the rib while trying to run down a foul fly at Tampa Bay on Oct. 2.
On Saturday night, it was the Braves who were feeling his pain.
O'Neill's two-run single off John Rocker put the Yankees ahead in a four-run eighth inning, and New York extended its World Series winning streak to nine with a 4-1 win in the opener against Atlanta.
"I feel pretty good, I really do," O'Neill said, playing down the injury. "For the most part, it's feeling better day by day. Right now, I don't feel it's changing anything I do on the field. I'm sick of talking about it, to tell you the truth."
O'Neill didn't want to take any credit, trying to deflect it to Chuck Knoblauch, who loaded the bases with a bunt that first baseman Brian Hunter fumbled.
"We got a break on the bunt and that set up the whole inning for us," O'Neill said.
Three years ago, O'Neill played the entire postseason with a torn hamstring and limped through the World Series against Atlanta, going just 2-for-12 with no RBIs. But he also made a great catch on Luis Polonia's liner with two outs and two on in the ninth to preserve a 1-0 Game 5 victory.
In all, he had just one RBI in 46 career World Series at-bats before his hit against Rocker, batting just .152 (7-for-46).
Still, he is the heart of the Yankees. New York owner George Steinbrenner calls him a "warrior."
"O'Neill's a gamer," Derek Jeter said. "When he seems like he's not going to get a hit, he comes up and gets a big hit."
Yankees manager Joe Torre, who let the right fielder talk his way into the lineup for the AL Championship Series opener, jokes that O'Neill is like a calendar: He knows October is approaching when O'Neill starts destroying Gatorade jugs and water coolers.
Until Saturday night, that was about all O'Neill was destroying.
When he stepped up to the plate against Rocker, who relieved after Jeter's game-tying single off Greg Maddux, he was just 8-for-32 this postseason with a grand total of one RBI.
He had been 0-for-2 against Rocker, and the Yankees were a combined 1-for-7 against the talkative left-hander, whose postseason has been notable for his verbal fights with New York Mets' fans.
Rocker allowed just 10 of 27 inherited runners to score and held left-handers to a .140 batting average during the regular season. So he was the perfect choice.
"Left-handers aren't going to make a living off Rocker," O'Neill said. "He throws too hard and too well."
O'Neill hit .190 against lefties during the season, the lowest of any Yankees regular.
"Everything that happened in the past, you just throw out the door," Jeter said. "He's not up there thinking about his struggles against lefties."
O'Neill fell behind 0-1 in the count, then took three straight balls, so he knew Rocker had to come in with a strike. Then he turned on a 96 mph fastball, clapped his hands as he saw it roll into the outfield, and the Yankees were on top.
"Breaks are part of the game," O'Neill said. "The ball finds a hole like tonight and we win. It's a double play and we still might be playing."
At 36, O'Neill doesn't know how much longer his Yankees career will last. On Saturday night, he once again showed that even at a fraction of his best, he can still come through.
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