TORONTO – Vernon Wells is part of a very small, prestigious club in baseball history. The feat he accomplished has happened so few times it’s understandable to remember every detail.
One of the former Toronto Blue Jays All-Star centre fielder’s career highlights came against a current New York Yankees teammate, Mariano Rivera.
Rivera, baseball’s all-time saves leader, is being feted across the major leagues as his 19th and final season draws to a close. Rivera has 651 career saves and much of that success has come at the expense of the Blue Jays.
Rivera added his 54th career save against the Blue Jays on Wednesday night when he pitched 1.1 innings to preserve a 4-3 Yankees win. The 54 saves vs. Toronto are the fourth most against any opponent. The other AL East teams – Baltimore (79), Tampa Bay (64) and Boston (58) – are the top three teams.
But for all his success against the Blue Jays and in Toronto, it’s one of his only 80 career blown saves that probably stands out most to Blue Jays fans, and to Wells. On July 20, 2006 Wells became just the third player to hit a regular season walkoff homer against the future Hall of Famer.
“I remember everything about it,” Wells, in his first season with the Yankees, said Wednesday. “It was obviously a cool moment to be a part of. Anytime you get a chance to face Mariano it’s a memorable experience just because of who he is and what he’s been able to accomplish.”
Since that homer Rivera has surrendered two more walkoffs – one in 2007, one in 2009 – but the five regular season walkoff home runs remains an incredible stat and a testament to his domination has a closer.
So how did Wells do it?
“I had my approach going into that at-bat. It was to look for a cutter in and convince myself to swing at it,” he said. “I got to a 1-0 count and he threw the pitch I was looking for and I hit it. While the ball was in the air and I was approaching first base it was just a matter of whether it was gonna get caught or go out.
“It landed over the fence and I remember just getting goose bumps, thinking ‘I just hit a walkoff home run off the greatest closer of all time.’ ”
The rarity of the feat isn’t lost on Wells, either.
“Personally it’s one of the cooler moments I’ve ever had,” he said. “Just because of who he is and what he stands for. Obviously it’s a short list of guys who have been able to do that.”
The game was one of the high points in, arguably, the best season the Jays have had since their back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and ’93. The Blue Jays finished 2006 with an 87-75 record and finished second in the American League East.
But overall, Rivera is 8-2 all time against the Blue Jays with a 1.83 earned-run average and 106 strikeouts in just 103 innings. Of his 53 saves vs. the Blue Jays, 27 of them have come at the Rogers Centre.
Career save No. 601 – which equaled Trevor Hoffman’s then-all-time record – came against the Blue Jays in Toronto on September 17, 2011. Two nights later he broke the record with a save against the Minnesota Twins.
On Wednesday, Rivera entered to a standing ovation from the crowd and earned his 44th save of the season.
“Every time you win, it's a great feeling,” Rivera said. “Hopefully we come back tomorrow and wrap it up.”
Wells has had some success against Rivera, going 6-for-19 in his career with the one home run and three RBIs, but he’s much happier to not have to face him.
“It’s much better now when the music’s playing at home – it’s not necessarily a bad thing anymore,” Wells said. “Now it’s a good thing knowing he’s coming in to close the door.
“I think a lot of people are going to miss hearing that music come on once we start getting into ninth innings after this year.”