NEW YORK -- The sigh of relief was audible from the Bronx to the Bowery. The New York Yankees rallied from a three-run deficit last night to score a 5-4 extra-inning victory over the Texas Rangers and avert a disastrous two-game home sweep in the best-of-five American League Division Series.
Texas third baseman Dean Palmer, who was one of the heroes of the Rangers' victory the night before, picked up a sacrifice bunt by Charlie Hayes in the 12th inning and bounced the throw past first base to allow rookie Derek Jeter to score the run that salvaged a split at Yankee Stadium.
It was getting ugly. The Yankees appeared to be slipping to the brink of first-round elimination, which certainly would not sit well with their demanding owner or their frustrated fans.
MVP candidate Juan Gonzalez had hit two more home runs. The Rangers held a two-run lead going into the late innings. If the Yankees did not wake up soon, they would be headed for Texas in an all-but-impossible situation.
So, they chipped away and pushed the game into extra innings, a parade of relievers buying them time until Jeter singled and Tim Raines walked and Hayes laid down the fateful bunt. Palmer picked it up cleanly, but his throw was wild and second baseman Mark McLemore -- covering on the play -- could not keep it from skipping down the right-field line.
Texas led the majors in fielding this season. In the playoff opener Tuesday night, Palmer hit a home run and also made a diving, backhanded stop that helped prevent New York from breaking loose in the first inning. But he couldn't make the easy play on Hayes' bunt.
"It was a little bit wet," Palmer said. "Still, it's a routine play."
Yankees manager Joe Torre pushed every button he could find, going to his late-inning relievers with the club still behind, then maneuvering his long guys through a couple of series of late-inning jams.
"When you get that close and you've got the bullpen we have this year, yes, it was like the fifth game or the seventh game or whatever you want to call it," Torre said. "That's the way I managed.
"Tonight was a real charge for us. This is better than winning from the first inning because of how emotional it was."
It's not a perfect world, but far better than the one the Yankees lived in a couple hours earlier. They have to go to The Ballpark at Arlington -- where they lost five of six and were outscored 44-15 this year -- and win two of three to advance to the AL Championship Series.
"If we had lost, we'd have had to go to Texas and win three in a row, and that's too tough," Jeter said. "It's still going to be a struggle, but we like our chances."
The Rangers still have the home-field advantage, but the loss had to be deflating after the way they threatened to put the Yankees on one game's notice.
"We didn't come here to split," said a disappointed Rangers manager Johnny Oates. "Don't let anybody tell you that. We came here to win two games, but both ballclubs battled. Either team was one swing of the bat away from winning the ballgame."
It looked early on as if fate simply would refuse to smile on the Yankees, who went down hard in the first game of the series and fell behind quickly in Game 2.
They were hoping that their 10th man would be a factor last night, and he was though not necessarily in the way that the club had hoped. A fan in the left-field corner reached out of foul territory to intercept Gonzalez's second-inning line drive right in front of the foul pole, no doubt hoping to prevent it from being ruled fair, but left field umpire Mark Johnson was right on the play and signaled home run without hesitation.
Torre sprinted across the field to argue, but every replay showed that Johnson had made an excellent call. Gonzalez had his second home run of the series and the Yankees were again on the run.
They would tie the game in the bottom of the inning on a run-scoring groundout by Jim Leyritz, but the second home run of the game by Gonzalez broke the tie and -- like the night before -- put all the pressure on the Yankees.
He got through the first inning, but fell behind 2-0 on the count to Gonzalez in the second and gave up the disputed line-drive homer. The next time he faced Gonzalez, he fell behind 1-0 and gave up a long fly ball that landed in the runway next to the Rangers' bullpen.
Still, Pettitte carried a respectable performance into the seventh inning, giving up four runs on four hits before turning the game over to super-setup man Mariano Rivera, who retired eight batters in a row while the Yankees were fighting back to push the game into extra innings.
Rangers starter Ken Hill would have gotten through the first three innings unscored upon if he could have made a crisp throw on a comebacker with one out and runners at first and third. McLemore had leap high above the bag to get the ball and was fortunate to come down on the base for the second out as Tino Martinez sprinted home from third.
The Yankees narrowed the three-run gap in the fourth when designated hitter Cecil Fielder drove a ball over the left-field fence for his first career postseason home run -- and only the second hit of the game. It became a one-run game when Joe Girardi scored from third on a sacrifice fly by Hayes in the seventh inning and moved into extra innings after Fielder singled home Bernie Williams with the tying run in the eighth.
Rangers vs. Yankees
Yesterday: Yankees 5, Rangers 4, 12 inn.
Series: Tied 1-1
Game 3: Tomorrow at The Ballpark in Arlington, 8: 07 p.m., Ch. 11
Pub Date: 10/03/96