Jeff Nelson signed a minor-league contract with the New York Yankees Friday and then announced his retirement. Wanting to retire as a Yankee, the 40-year-old Nelson ends his career as the pitcher with more post-season appearances than any other pitcher in the history of the game not named Mariano Rivera.
At the age of 25 in 1992, Jeffrey Allen Nelson, born in 1966 in Baltimore, Maryland, came up with the Seattle Mariners, where he logged a stout 81 innings in 66 games on his way to a 1-7 record and a 3.44 ERA. The rangy pitcher went on to hurl four years in Seattle the first go-round, and got his first taste of the post-season in 1995, taking the loss in game one but advancing with his team as the Mariners knocked the Yankees out of the ALDS in five games.
In the ALCS, he appeared in three games and didn’t allow a run but Cleveland knocked Seattle out in six games. Following the season, he was traded along with Tino Martinez and Jim Mercer to the Yankees for Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock. Thus began his contribution to a run of four World Series victories in five years.
Nelson saw a lot of work his first year in New York, with 74 1/3 innings in 73 games. He went 4-4 and posted the worst ERA to that point of his career with a WHIP approaching 1.5. In the ALDS with Texas, Nelson appeared in two games, throwing three and two-thirds innings. He allowed two hits and gave up two walks, but also struck out five and didn’t allow a run as New York put Texas away in four games.
In the Game One of the 1996 ALCS against Baltimore, Nelson relieved Andy Pettite in the top of the eighth, retiring the side in order, followed by young Jeffrey Maier’s reach over the fence to assist Derek Jeter’s ball over the wall to tie the game in the bottom of the eigth, with Bernie walking off in the 11th. Nelson took the loss in game two, coming on to replace David Cone in the Orioles seventh, giving up a two-run shot to Rafael Palmeiro after a double by Roberto Alomar. He didn’t appear again as New York went on to win the pennant 4 games to 1.
Nelson pitched in games one, two and four of the World Series of the Braves. He struck out five and allowed only one hit and one walk in 4 1/3 innings as New York one the series in six games.
His 1997 season saw even more work, with 77 games and 78 2/3 innings. His ERA and WHIP dropped significantly, but his record fell to 3-7. In the ALDS against Cleveland, he pitched four innings in four games, not allowing a run as the Tribe knocked the Yankees out in five.
Injuries reduced Nelson’s playing time in the 1998 and 1999 seasons. In game two of the 1998 ALCS, Nelson gave up three runs facing only two batters as he took the loss. However, he did not allow a run to score in his seven other appearances in the post-season on his way to his second ring, including working as a one-batter specialist in game four to strike out Greg Vaughn prior to Rivera coming in and closing out the sweep of the Padres in the WS.
Nelson was simply superb in the 1999 post-season, not allowing a run in nine games (5 innings, 3 hits, 2 walks) and appeared in all four world series games in the Yankees sweep of the Braves.
In 2000, Nelson saw his playing time back up to 73 games and though his walks were the highest total of his career, his ERA fell to 2.45 as he only gave up two home runs over 69 2/3 innings. His post-season started off well against Oakland, where he didn’t allow a hit or a walk in his two appearances against the Athletics, and only 2 hits to go along with 6 strikeouts in games one and three of the ALCS against Seattle. Things took a turn for the worse in the fifth inning of game five. After the Mariners chased Denny Neagle on a bunt, a single, and a sac bunt to put runners at second and third, Nelson came on and promptly gave up a single to Alex Rodriguez to clear the bases, which was followed by back-to-back homers from Edgar Martinez and John Olerud. Nelson’s day was done and he did not appear in the rest of the series as New York won the pennant in six games.
In the Subway Series against the Mets, Nelson gave up a hit and no runs in game one. In game two, with the Yankees leading 6-0 on an incredible and controversial 8 inning, 2 hit, no walk, 9 strikeout performance (the one with the bench-clearing broken bat toss at/near Piazza) by Roger Clemens, Nelson took the ball for the top of the ninth. Edgardo Alfonzo led off with a single. Mike Piazza homered off the pole, and Robin Ventura singled to ceter. Mo came on to shut things down, but the Mets wouldn’t go quietly. Zeile almost homered but Clay Bellinger caught the ball at the top of the wall. Benny Agbayani singled to advance Ventura, followed by a passed ball to advance the runners. Lenny Harris hit a comebacker that Mo deflected to Jeter, who threw out Ventura at home. Jay Payton homered, scoring Agbayani and Harris and bringing the Mets to within a run before Kurt Abbott was sat down looking to end the game. Heart attack.
Nelson recorded the win in game four in relief of Neagle, which was Jeff’s last appearance on a winning World Series team as the Yankees took game five to secure the title. After the 2000 season, Nelson was granted free agency and signed with the Mariners.
During Seattle’s record-breaking 2001 season, Nellie was very effective out of the pen, compiling a 2.76 ERA and a 4-3 record, while making his first and only all-star appearance. During the post-season, he continued to be excellent, appearing in five games and allowing only 2 hits and 2 walks over 5 2/3 while strking out 5, but it was not enough as the Yankees dashed Seattle’s dreams in the pennant.
In 2003, Nellie returned to New York in an early-August trade for Armando Benitez. Not particularly effective in the regular season, the damage he could do was limited in that he appeared in just shy of 18 innings. Against Minnesota in the ALDS, he walked the only batter he faced, Matt LeCroy, in game one. The incredibly exciting ALCS against Boston saw Nellie get the ball in games 1, 4, 6, and 7.
In game one in the top of the seventh, he came on in relief of Felix Heredia, who had retired Bill Mueller for the first out of the inning. After Nomar hit a dribbler that Posada rang up 2-3, Nelson gave up a single to Manny and then hit Ortiz, who advanced to second on a single by Kevin Millar that scored Manny. Nelson was yanked for Gabe White. A single by Nixon loaded the bases but the threat ended when Mirabelli hit into a FC; Boston already had enough offense and won the game 5-2
The Yankees took game two at The Stadium and game three at Fenway. Game four at Fenway saw Mussina facing Wakefield. Moose was pretty good, but gave up 2 dingers. Wake was better. Nelson came on after Heredia relieved Moose and inherited Heredia’s runner, but Nomar grounded into a double play to end the inning. Scott Williamson came on for Timlin in the ninth and struck out Nick Johnson. Ruben Sierra, pinch hitting for Aaron Boone, homered to bring the game to within a run, but Williamson retired Dave Delucci and Alfonso Soriano on strikeouts to record the save.
After New York took game five at Fenway, the ALCS headed back to Yankee Stadium with Alan Embree and Jose Contreras on the mound. Holding a 6-4 lead heading into the seventh, the Yankees self-destructed on a throwing error by Matsui, a wild pitch, and a walk to Johnny Damon with bases loaded. Nelson held serve in the eighth, but the damage was done as the Yankees did not score again and Boston added insurance with a Trot Nixon home run in the ninth off of White.
In game seven at Yankee Stadium, the series knotted up, my stomach completely destroyed, staff aces in Pedro and Rocket were on the mound. Neither pitcher would figure in the decision. Nellie pitched to Nomar in the seventh and Manny in the eighth, recording a strike out and ground out. Wells gave up a homer to Papi to tie the game, which eventually went extra innings, and we all remember the 11th inning, fondly or horribly, depending on your perspective.
The Yankees lost every game (one, four, five) in which Nelson pitched in the Series against the Marlins, and though Nelson made it interesting at times giving up 4 hits and 2 walks, no runs were scored on his watch. The Marlins went on to win the series, four games to two, as Josh Beckett pitched an unreal game six and captured series MVP honors for his two incredible starting performances, even though the first went for a loss. That was the last time Nellie would see the post-season.
Free-agent stints in 2004 with Texas, 2005 with Seattle, and 2006 with Chicago (where he spent most of the season on the DL after a sign and release from St. Louis between the seasons) bring us to today. By returning (in a rather non-standard fashion) to the Yankees, he comes back to the team where he cemented his reputation in history. His 162 game averages over 15 seasons are respectable (68 games, 67 innings, 36 walks, 70 strikeouts, 3.41 ERA) but what he will be remembered for is his time in the post-season. In twenty series, he appeared in 55 games, threw 54 1/3 innings, for a 2-3 record and a 2.65 ERA.
Is it worth spending this much time reflecting on a short relief pitcher? I think it is. In his time as a ball player, he found himself on the mound in the playoffs on more occasions except for the greatest modern reliever in the game. It must have been a great trip, and I had a certainly had good time then watching, now reflecting, on the ride of Nellie.