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|O'Neill watches his two-run tater sail over the right-field fence.
O'Neill's postgame press conference
SEATTLE -- After a dreadful 1-for-11 performance in the ALDS against the Oakland A's -- a series in which his manager had benched him against left-handed pitching -- Paul O'Neill was ready to make his presence felt against the Seattle Mariners.
All he needed was the chance.
Tuesday, Torre penciled O'Neill's name onto his lineup card, starting him in right field, a position he has played just once since fracturing his foot in the first week of September.
O'Neill took advantage of his opportunity, going 2-for-3 with a two-run home run, a shot that would prove to be the game-winner in New York's 4-2 victory in Game 1 of the ALCS.
"Everybody wants to come out and play well every game in the playoffs but it just doesn't happen," O'Neill said. "Throughout the course of a year, you go through a bad week, you get them the next week. But if you do that in the playoffs, they write about how bad you are."
O'Neill went hitless in eight at-bats in the first two games against Oakland, prompting Torre to bench him in Game 3 against Barry Zito. He returned to the lineup for Game 4, playing right field for the first time since early September, while David Justice moved back into the DH spot. Both players came through with extra-base hits in the 9-2 Yankees win, but found themselves back on the bench for the pivotal Game 5.
When Torre put together his lineup for the opener in Seattle, it was a no-brainer for him.
"I know he would rather be in the outfield," said Torre of O'Neill. "It helps his hitting. He's not your definitive DH because he just needs to get in the flow of the game."
Tuesday, O'Neill strolled to the plate with his team holding on to a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning. After Jorge Posada doubled off Seattle starter Aaron Sele to lead off the inning, O'Neill's main objective was to find a pitch he could pull to the right side to get Posada over to third base.
He pulled it all right, sending it 367 feet in the air over the right-field fence. The Yankees had a 3-0 lead, which would be more than enough for Andy Pettitte on this day.
"As a hitter, your job is to get a pitch to pull. There's no secret what the pitcher is trying to do and what the hitter is trying to do," O'Neill said. "Sele made a mistake, he got a pitch up. That's an easier pitch to pull. We scored a couple early, and our pitching has been phenomenal. When Andy is throwing the way he was, if we score some runs, we've got a good shot."
"I was trying to get it out and down," Sele said. "I knew he was going to try to hook it and I threw the two-seamer and it didn't move."
O'Neill has been a leader on and off the field for the last decade, playing an integral role in the four championship teams since 1996. Seeing his bat come to life in October is a comforting feeling for his teammates, especially after the foot injury and rough series he had against Oakland.
"He's a clutch player," said Tino Martinez. "Being out so long at the end of the season, trying to get his swing back, to come through in a situation like that with the big homer gave him some confidence and gave us a lift when we needed it. We're going to need him throughout this whole series."
"It's big to see anybody at this time of year break out of anything," said David Justice. "Today it was Paulie, tomorrow it could be Soriano or Brosius, it doesn't matter. As long as we're shaking hands at the end of the ninth inning, it makes no difference."
O'Neill, who likes talking about his own performance as much as he likes sitting on the bench, was thrilled to be able to contribute in a game of this magnitude -- especially in the role of right fielder.
"It's good to be back in the lineup and back in the field," O'Neill said. "I enjoy playing the game. DH is such a different thing for me. Sometimes that can get your mind in other places. I've talked to David, and he's more comfortable with the DH role. So it's good to be able to get back out on the field and get through the whole game instead of trying to stay loose between at-bats instead of doing something that you are really not comfortable doing."
If O'Neill continues to feel this comfortable, the Yankees could be on their way to another World Series.
Mark Feinsand is the site reporter for Yankees.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.