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10 Greatest Defensive Plays

December 5, 2012
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#1 | The Flip Play (Sports Illustrated)

#1 | The Flip Play (Sports Illustrated)

Over the decades, the Yankees have distinguished themselves by their ability to come through in the biggest situations, most notably with their bats, but with their gloves as well.  For more than a century, there have been innumerable plays made by men in pinstripes, across the sprawling lawns and dusty base paths of the Major Leagues.  Joe DiMaggio‘s graceful strides in centerfield, Graig Nettles‘ lunging grasps at the hot corner, or Don Mattingly‘s lighting reflexes at first base are iconic images of the Yankees’ defensive prowess, yet none of them make the list.  It would be impossible to pair down their greatest defensive plays simply based on the play itself as every sliding grab in the outfield or backhand and throw from the outfield grass would have merit for selection.  What I attempted to do was to create a list of defensive plays based on aesthetic excellence, but also significance based on a clutch or historic quality.

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Honorable Mention #3 | Les Nunamaker | vs. Detroit Tigers | 8/3/1914

In his 4-year career in New York, Nunamaker was mediocre at the plate with a .262 average and 2 home runs, and not much better behind it with 49 errors, but on a mid-summer day he did something no other catcher in the 20th or 21st centuries has repeated.  In a 4-1 loss at Navin Field, the Yanks’ backup catcher threw out 3 Tigers in one inning, tying the Major League record set by Jocko Milligan of the Philadelphia Athletics on July 26, 1887.

Honorable Mention #2 | Lou Piniella | vs. Los Angeles Dodgers | 10/15/1977

In game 4 of the 1977 World Series, the gritty Piniella helped preserve a 3-2 Yankee lead with a 4th inning snag off the bat of Ron Cey that looked destined to clear the wall in left field.  The Yanks tacked on a run in the 6th and won 4-2, taking a pivotal 3-1 edge in the series.

Honorable Mention #1 | Derek Jeter | vs. Oakland Athletics | 10/15/01

After dropping the first 2 games of the Division Series, the Yanks took the next 2 in Oakland to force a decisive game 5 at Yankee Stadium.  With the Bombers leading 5-3 in the top of the 8th, the Athletics needed a rally against the formidable Mariano Rivera.  Eric Chavez stood on 2nd with the hot-hitting Terrence Long, hitting .389 in the series, at the plate.  On a 1-1 pitch, Long popped up toward the seats along the 3rd base line.  Derek Jeter tracked the ball, beat Scott Brosius to the ball, caught it with his left leg against the wall, then flipped backwards into the stands.  The sacrificial play not only snuffed out Oakland’s rally, but their season as well as their next 4 batters made out to give the Yanks a 5-3 win.  Watch the play here.

#10 | Chuck Knoblauch | 5/17/1998 & 7/18/1999

In 2 perfect games at Yankee Stadium, just 14 months apart, Knoblauch preserved both with crucial 8th inning plays.  In 1998, as David Wells was baffling the Twins, Knoblauch knocked down a sharp grounder by Ron Coomer and threw to Tino Martinez for the 2nd out of the inning.  Wells would retire the next 4 batters in an unblemished,  4-0 victory.

In an identical situation a season later, the Yankee 2nd baseman helped David Cone achieve pitching’s rarest prize when, ranging impossibly far to his right, he snared a rocket by Jose Vidro that appeared destined for the centerfield grass.  He again finished the play with a throw to Tino for the 23rd out of the game.  Cone would achieve his greatest milestone 4 batters later in a 6-0 win over Montreal.  Both plays were each opponent’s best shot at avoiding being a footnote of history, but each time Knoblauch, the oft-beleaguered Yankee, was up to the challenge.

#9 | Derek Jeter | vs. Boston Red Sox | 7/1/2004

In the 12th inning of a classic at Yankee Stadium the Yanks were in trouble.  With Cesar Crespo on 3rd and Johnny Damon on 2nd, Trot Nixon hit an opposite field, 2-out flair that looked destined to give the Sox the lead, but Jeter, always in the right place at the right time, ran from his post at shortstop into shallow left field to snare the ball.  His momentum continued to take him forward and he could not prevent himself from running into the stands.  When the Captain finally emerged from a sea of people, his face was bloodied and bruised, but the ball was secured in the webbing of his glove.  The play ended the frame and 1 inning later John Flaherty would plate the winning run in a 5-4 win.  Check out Jeter’s catch here.

#8 | Bobby Richardson | vs. San Francisco Giants | 10/16/1962

In a classic at Candlestick Park, the Yanks clung to a 1-0 lead in game 7 of the World Series as it moved to the 9th.  Ralph Terry, in a masterpiece, had allowed just 2 hits in 8 innings, but ran into trouble as the Giants attempted to stave off elimination.  Matty Alou led off with a single, but Terry was resilient as he struck out Felipe Alou and Chuck Hiller.  Down to their last gasp, the Giants sent Willie Mays to the plate who doubled to right, putting the tying and winning runs into scoring position for Willie McCovey, who had 1 of San Fran’s 4 hits.  Terry, who in game 7 of the 1960 World Series yielded the iconic home run to Bill Mazeroski, dealt to the Giants’ slugger who roped what for a moment looked like the winning hit, but Bobby Richardson stuck his glove just over his left shoulder to snare the screaming liner and preserve a 1-0 Yankee victory and a 20th World Championship.  See highlights of Game 7 here.

#7 | Derek Jeter | vs. New York Mets | 10/21/2000

In game 1 of the Subway Series redux, the Mets and Yanks were deadlocked at 0-0 in the top of the 6th.  Timo Perez led off with a single, but Andy Pettite retired Edgardo Alfonzo and Mike Piazza to come within an out of another shutout inning.  Todd Zeile followed and, on an 0-2 pitch, appeared to strike a momentum-grabbing blast to left; however, the ball caromed off the top of the wall and landed on the warning track, just in front of David Justice.  Perez, who was watching the ball instead of charging down the base path with 2 outs, turned the afterburners on too late, rounding 3rd as Jeter received the relay throw and fired a perfect one-hopper to Jorge Posada to nab Perez at the plate and change the trajectory of the game.  The Yanks went on to win 4-3 in 12 innings.

#6 | Joe Girardi | vs. Atlanta Braves | 10/26/1996

After sweeping the final 3 games at Fulton County Stadium, the Yanks looked to wrap up their 23rd World Series title at home in game 6.  In the 3rd inning, Joe Girardi nabbed Terry Pendleton, who had reached on an error, attempting to reach 2nd.  One batter later the play looked even bigger as Jeff Blauser doubled, which likely would have given the Braves a 1-0 lead and some crucial momentum.  Instead, Jimmy Key got through the inning unscathed and the Yankees went on to win the game 3-2 and along with it the series, thanks in part to a Girardi triple in the bottom half of the 3rd.

#5 | Paul O’Neill | vs. Atlanta Braves | 10/24/1996

Andy Pettitte had given the Yanks the performance they needed in a pivotal game 5 in Atlanta, but with Chipper Jones on 3rd base with 2 outs in the 9th and the pesky Terry Pendleton at the plate, it was up to John Wetteland to preserve the 1-0 Yankee lead.  On the 7th pitch of the at bat, Pendleton hit a ball toward the gap in right-center that would have tied the game, had not Paul O’Neill, on a bad hamstring, run it down and secure it with a full-extension grasp that gave the Yanks a 1-0 victory and a chance to close out the series at home.

#4 | Billy Martin | vs. Brooklyn Dodgers | 10/7/1952

The Yanks had taken a 4-2 lead with runs in the 6th and 7th, but the Dodgers threatened in their half of the 7th as the packed stands of Ebbets Field willed their Bums on.  Vic Raschi relieved Allie Reynolds to start the inning, but the “Springfield Rilfe” quickly got into trouble by loading the bases with 1 out.  Bob Kuzava was called on to preserve the Yankee edge and after he induced a pop fly from Duke Snider, the sensational Jackie Robinson dug in.  With the runners in motion, Robinson popped up in the air to the right of the mound.  Kuzava froze, looking to his fielders to secure the ball, and Billy Martin, who had initially hesitated, came screaming in from 2nd base, making a shoestring catch to end the inning and prevent a Brooklyn run.  The Yanks went on to win the game 4-2 to claim their 4th of five consecutive championships.

#3 | Andy Pettitte | vs. Atlanta Braves | 10/24/1996

In the bottom of the 6th inning of game 5 the Yanks held a 1-0 advantage over Atlanta in a pivotal World Series matchup.  John Smoltz led off the inning with a fortuitous cut and Marquis Grissom followed with a single to put two men on for Mark Lemke, a bunting specialist.  The Braves’ 2nd baseman pushed the ball toward the mound and, in a play that belied Andy Pettite’s inexperience, the 24-year-old barehanded the ball and fired it to Charlie Hayes at 3rd for the out.  1 pitch later he would get himself out of the jam, initiating a 1-4-3 double play to end the threat and help lead the Yanks to a 1-0 victory.

#2 | Mickey Mantle | vs. Brooklyn Dodgers | 10/8/1956

Mantle once said, “The biggest game I ever played in was probably Don Larsen‘s prefect game.”  One of The Mick’s most memorable plays happened in that game to help preserve Larsen’s transcendent gem.  In Mantle’s most oft-remembered defensive play, he tracked down a rocket off the bat of Gil Hodges in deep left-center field to keep the Dodgers hitless through 4 2/3.  Larsen would go on to pitch the only perfect game in World Series history, giving the Yanks a 2-0 win and a 3-2 advantage in the series.

#1 | Derek Jeter | vs. Oakland Athletics | 10/13/2001

This play makes no sense.  He shouldn’t have been there.

The Yanks led 1-0 in the 7th of an elimination game in Oakland when Jeremy Giambi singled off of Mike Mussina to begin a 2-out rally.  Terrence Long followed with a rope to right field that set the stage for one of Derek Jeter’s most iconic moments.  After Shane Spencer dug the ball out of the corner, he airmailed Tino Martinez, his cutoff man, which should have allowed Giambi to easily score the tying run, but Jeter, who inexplicably left his position at shortstop to back up the throw, corralled the errant relay and flipped a backhand toss to Jorge Posada just in time to nail Giambi for a deflating, astonishing, mind-bending, inning-ending play.  The Yanks went on to win 1-0 and take the next 2 games to bury the Athletics and move on to the ALCS.

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