A clutch performance from the free spirit teammates call "Boomer." A big boom from Paul O'Neill's bat. A huge boost in momentum for the New York Yankees.
Left-hander David Wells tossed a five-hitter and O'Neill belted a two-out grand slam in the fourth inning Saturday night, giving New York plenty of breathing room to cruise past the Cleveland Indians, 6-1, in Game Three of the American League Division Series.
The Yankees lead the best-of-five affair, two games to one, and can make Cleveland a first-round loser for the second straight year with a win tonight (7:30, Ch. 29). Dwight Gooden will pitch for New York against the Indians' Orel Hershiser.
Saturday's victory was New York's ninth straight on the road in the playoffs over the last two years and improved the Yankees' sparkling record at Jacobs Field to 16-5 since it opened in 1994.
O'Neill lit up reliever Chad Ogea for his game-breaking blast on a full-count pitch with the Yankees already holding a 2-1 lead. From that point, the Indians were done because they never solved Wells.
The left-hander retired the game's last 10 hitters and 14 of the final 15. He busted Cleveland batters on the hands much of the night, inducing 10 infield pop-ups -- many on the first pitch.
"When he gets the breaking ball down in the dirt and the right-handed hitters are popping the ball up, that means he's pinching them a little bit inside," said New York manager Joe Torre. "We had a lot of first-pitch outs and that was huge. I think it sort of takes the air out of the other team and buoys us."
Wells improved his career postseason marks to 4-0 with a 2.40 earned run average with New York's first quality start of the series. David Cone and Andy Pettitte combined to give up 13 runs in the first two games.
"I got in a little groove and I didn't want to interrupt it," Wells said. "I just wanted to play a little catch with Joe (catcher Joe Girardi)."
Wells has thrived in postseason roles with Toronto, Cincinnati and Baltimore, and his first such outing as a Yankee was no different.
"It's glory or you're a dog and I'm not afraid of failing," Wells said. "This is party time, time to get down and dirty. You have to fight for survival."
If this had been a fight, it would have been stopped early. The pop-gun Cleveland offense was further hampered by manager Mike Hargrove's by-the-book decision to bench first baseman Jim Thome (40 homers, 102 RBIs) against Wells, whom he had not faced this year. Kevin Seitzer went 0 for 4 in Thome's place.
O'Neill's home run was all New York needed. He was the first batter faced by Ogea in relief of starter Charles Nagy, who equaled his career-high with six walks in a 3 2/3 -inning struggle.
O'Neill fouled off one 3-2 offering before pouncing on a pitch up in the strike zone and sending it an estimated 417 feet to dead center field. It was the first postseason grand slam by a Yankee since Joe Pepitone connected in Game Six of the 1964 World Series against St. Louis.
"It's a great thing to do at this point," said O'Neill, who is 4 for 11 with two homers and six RBIs in the series. "I hope my 7-year-old and 4-year-old stayed up to watch it."
O'Neill downplayed the at-bat as his most significant career moment. Instead, he vividly recalled the final outs of the two World Series championships he's been a part of, with Cincinnati against Oakland in 1990 and last year with the Yankees against Atlanta.
"Those are things your remember most," he said. "These are all stepping stones to those moments."
O'Neill's home run was more than enough for the Yankees to kill the enthusiasm in a Jacobs Field record crowd of 45,274. New York had just four hits in the game, but three drove in runs. Five of the six walks issued by Nagy turned into runs.
O'Neill, who opened the scoring with a first-inning single off Nagy that drove in Tim Raines, had five RBIs. That's the most by a Yankee in the postseason since Thurman Munson had five in Game Five of the 1978 World Series.
Nagy, meanwhile, came up ultra-small in the most critical game of the Indians' season. He threw 89 pitches, and only 44 were strikes. Conversely, Wells needed just 105 pitches to go the route.
"Charlie was around the strike zone, he just wasn't in it," said Hargrove. "That's as inconsistent as I've ever seen Charlie Nagy."
Nagy muddled through a miserable first inning that was indicative of the struggles he would endure the entire game. Now 0-3, 15.63 against the Yankees this year, Nagy seemed unwilling to challenge New York hitters.
"He pitched behind and didn't hit spots," Hargrove said. "It looked like he was picking a whole lot and not going after these guys. It's very difficult to get good hitters out if you're not ahead of them."