The New York Yankees head into Comerica Park tonight for Game 3 of the American League Championship Series having to confront the Detroit Tigers’ ace, Justin Verlander, and plenty of unwelcome precedent in the record books.
Only three of the previous 23 teams to lose the first two games of a best-of-seven series in the postseason at home were able to win the series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
The Yankees will try to add their name to that short list, joining the 1985 Kansas City Royals, the 1986 New York Mets and, yes, the 1996 Yankees, all of whom rallied from their 2-0 deficit to win the World Series, and all of whom began their comebacks by winning Game 3 on the road.
In 1985, the Royals ace Bret Saberhagen threw a complete game with six hits and eight strikeouts in Game 3 to beat the St. Louis Cardinals and change the momentum of that series. A year later, the Mets gave to ball to Bobby Ojeda in Game 3 at Fenway Park, staked him to a four-run lead in the top of the first inning and then watched as he limited the Boston Red Sox to one run in seven innings. The final score was 7-1, and the Mets were back in a series they eventually captured in Game 7.
A decade later, the Yankees lost the first two games of the 1996 World Series to the Atlanta Braves, looking overmatched against a team that was the defending champion. But David Cone cooled off the Braves in Game 3, holding them to one run and four hits in six innings as the Yankees bested Tom Glavine, 5-2.
Yankee fans may not necessarily want to look to Queens for inspiration, but the ‘86 Mets provide a road map in how to survive after squandering the home-field advantage.
“It was sort of like the entire team embraced our back against the wall,” Ojeda said in a telephone interview Monday. “Somehow we stumbled out of the gate, but we never felt defeated. Yeah, we stumbled, but there was a sense that that wasn’t us, that’s not what we do.”
Mets manager Davey Johnson gave the team the day off Monday after a second straight loss to the Red Sox at Shea Stadium the day before. Ojeda recalled being in the team hotel Monday night in Boston and running into several Red Sox executives who were getting off an elevator. They were smoking cigars.
“They’re laughing and having the time of their life, because they think it’s in their pocket,” Ojeda said. “I’m like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
The next day, Ojeda went out and made the series competitive again in a performance he considers among the best of his career.
“It was as good as it can get,” Ojeda said. “Your back is so completely against the wall, and that’s something just invigorating that drives a lot of people, and it happened to drive me and my teammates.”
It worked in 1996, too. After Cone’s victory in Game 3, the Yankees rallied from a 6-0 deficit in Game 4, with Jim Leyritz hitting a memorable game-tying home run off the Braves’ closer, Mark Wohlers. In Game 5, a classic 1-0 victory in which Andy Pettitte outdueled John Smoltz, the Yankees completed a sweep on the road.
Derek Jeter was on that Yankees team, but he will not be on this one as it tries to get past Verlander and then Max Scherzer in Game 4.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski said after Sunday’s win in Game 2. But he sounded confident in his club as he went through the pitching plans for the rest of the series, including Verlander, again, in a potential Game 7. A do-or-die matchup against Verlander would be a daunting moment for any team, but at this point the Yankees would be only too happy to see the series get that far.