Work in Sports
One batter too many?
Valentine defends decision to stay with Leiter in ninth
Updated: Friday October 27, 2000 2:08 PM
By Stephen Cannella, Sports Illustrated
NEW YORK -- Every good World Series leaves fans of its loser something to ponder over the long months ahead. How did Bill Buckner miss the ball in 1986? Why did Lonnie Smith forget how to run the bases in '91? How did Don Denkinger miss that call in '85? Throughout their winter of discontent after the Yankees' 4-1 Series win, Mets fans will ruminate on this: Why was Al Leiter still pitching in the ninth inning of Game 5, when Luis Sojo broke a 2-2 tie with a single to center that scored two runs?
It's unfair to pin the blame for the Mets' losing the World Series on Leiter, who pitched heroically in Game 5, or on manager Bobby Valentine, who left his starter in to face Sojo with two outs and runners on first and second. The Yankees prevailed in five gut-wrenching and well-played games -- as Valentine said after the game, they deserved to win. Though it only took five games, the Yankees prevailed by one of the slimmest margins in history: Each game in the Series was decided by two runs or less, the first time that every game of a World Series was so close. Still, fans will wonder what might have been if Valentine had gone to his bullpen -- one of his team's strengths -- one batter earlier than he did in Game 5.
Leiter, who threw 122 pitches in his first eight innnings of work, struck out Tino Martinez and Paul O'Neill to begin the ninth. He then walked Jorge Posada -- who had banged several hard-hit foul balls -- and then gave up a ringing single to left by Scott Brosius. At that point Leiter had thrown 141 pitches in 8 2/3 innings and allowed six hits and two runs. He had done all that could be asked of a starter whose team was facing elimination. "I talked with Al yesterday," a red-faced and downtrodden Valentine said after the game. "He was determined to win this game. He said, 'You don't have to worry about pitch counts. I could throw 150 pitches -- I'm going to be the guy tomorrow.'"
But for his 142nd and final pitch, he was. Leiter's first offering to Sojo was a fastball in the middle of the plate. Sojo whacked it into center field, and the scene that ensued will haunt Mets fans forever. Center fielder Jay Payton's throw to the plate arrived just as Posada, running from second, went into his slide; the ball bounced off Posada's leg and ricocheted into the Mets dugout, allowing two runs to score. Valentine then brought in John Franco, who ended the inning by getting pinch hitter Glenallen Hill to fly to left. The Yankees had a 4-2 lead. A half-inning later they had their third-straight world championship.
"I saw the way Al was throwing -- he struck the first two guys in the inning and threw some great pitches to Posada," Valentine said when asked why he didn't call for a fresh arm. "I wasn't going to let anybody finish Al's work for him."
It was this World Series in a nutshell: Every gut move that Joe Torre made for the Yankees -- starting Jose Vizcaino at second in Game 1, batting Derek Jeter leadoff in Game 4 -- worked perfectly. Few of Valentine's did. Was it the difference in the Series? No -- the Mets, who could as easily have entered Game 5 up 3-1 as down 3-1, lost because the Yankees played flawlessly, and because Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo, the top two hitters in their lineup, were a combined 5 for 37. But removing a tired Leiter for a fresher arm would have at least given the Mets a better chance of heading into the bottom of the ninth tied instead of behind.
"I was wrong, it was my decision," Valentine said after the game. It was impossible to tell if it was remorse or sarcasm dripping from his words. "If I brought somebody in he would have definitely gotten the out, and we'd still be playing."