Thursday, April 5, 2007

Lost Classics: April 3, 2001

The Mets are flying into Good Ol' Atlanty this weekend, fresh off of starting the season by sweeping the MF Cardinals in their own park and kicking them in the nuts as they raised their championship banner. No, it doesn't erase anything that happened last October. But it's a great, encouraging way to start off a new season, and a great way to roll into Atlanta for this weekend's series.

The Mets are rolling into Atlanta as the Reigning National League East Champions. The Braves are the flea. After so many years, now the shoe is on the other foot.

It's time to smash the flea with a sledgehammer.

And for this week's lost classic, we revisit another time that the Mets began the season on a high, in Atlanta.

That season was 2001.

Just last October, the near-miss Mets of 2000 had gone all the way to the World Series, while the Braves had been swept in the NLDS. It seemed as though the tide was finally turnig. The Braves, the Mets most hated rival, had won for so many years in a row, and now these Mets were primed to take over the mantle.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, April 3rd. The Mets were opening their season. The Braves were merely playing their first home game, having played a bizarre one-game series in Cincinnati the previous day. Coming into the season as the reigning National League Champions, expectations were very high for the Mets to make another run for a title, but win this time. Some faces had departed. Many remained the same. Little had changed for Atlanta either, as they sent Tom Glavine to the mound against Al Leiter.

Hold that thought...

It was a 3:05 scheduled start time for the afternoon's affair. I was attending school in Binghamton, NY at the time, and I had decided to skip my class that day in order to watch the game. I was ready and raring to go.

But it poured in Atlanta that day. The game was delayed. Channel 11 would break in with Gary Thorne telling us this and that and Tom Seaver interjecting here and there, but time passed. First, they showed The Honeymooners. Then, Fresh Prince of Bel Air. I think they even dug up episodes of Charles in Charge to pass the time until the rain let up.

Finally, around 6:00, the game started. I could have gone to class! Glavine took the mound as a sparse amount of what had been announced as a crowd of 42,117 remained at the House of Horrors in Dixieland, and we were underway with Baseball 2001!

It was an odd lineup for the Mets, with Benny Agbayani leading off, rather than Timo Perez, because of the lefty Glavine. Agbayani walked to lead off. Agbayani was promptly picked off first.

A harbinger of what was in store for the Mets that season.

But nonetheless, Alfonzo followed by beginning what was sure to be his MVP season by cracking a long double off the wall in center. Again, a mirage. Alfonzo would be hampered by back problems all season long, which robbed him of his power stroke, and saw his numbers drop in all offensive categories. Ventura, hitting third, instead of fourth, or his more customary fifth, would strike out on 4 pitches. Piazza would follow.

In a year where just about every Met underachieved, Piazza once again would stand out as the centerpiece of the team. As his protection in the lineup dwindled, Piazza again responded with a typical Piazza season, with a .300 Average, and 36 HRs. He only drove in 94 runs, mainly because of the wholesale failure of his teammates to get on base ahead of him.

And in his first at bat of this season, he will hit his first of those 36 HRs. A ringing line drive the other way, just clearing the right field wall, to give the Mets an early 2-0 lead.

In the bottom of the first, Rafael Furcal (When he was just a ballplayer, not a gin-blossom drunk), singled. Quilvio Veras lined out to Ventura. Andro Jones would single to left. And our boy Larry himself will dunk a third single up the middle, scoring Furcal to put Atlanta on the board.

And the score would remain unchanged for several innings, as the game progressed, and night fell on the South. Glavine and Leiter duked it out. Leiter was breaking bats. Glavine was making batters miss. Alfonzo hit into a double play in the 3rd. Larry Wayne singled in the 4th and stole second, but was stranded. The Mets would load the bases with 2 out in the 7th, but Leiter grounded out to end the threat.

Finally, in the last of the 7th, the Braves broke through. Javy Lopez belted a Leiter offering deep into the seats in left field for the tying run. But Leiter got through the rest of the inning without a peep. He would depart having allowed 2 runs, 6 hits and 13 broken bats in his 7 innings of work.

The Mets would answer in the 8th, against the greatest villain of them all.

Benny Agbayani would lead off with a walk. He would be pinch run for by the one of the newest Mets, a wiry Japanese outfielder by the name of Tsuyoshi Shinjo. While on the other coast, Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki would take the Majors by storm with a spectacular season, Shinjo arrived with little fanfare. But he showed a knack for clutch hits and clutch defense, coming through in some timely situations, and winning over the Mets fans, not only with his play in the field, but for his kooky habits, which included wearing bright orange wristbands and corkscrewing himself to the ground when he swung through pitches.

And Shinjo will make his presence immediately felt. Alfonzo would follow with a deep fly ball out to Andro Jones in center. Jones, as per usual, lollygags after the ball before catching it. But Shinjo alertly tagged up, took off, and reached second safely before Andro even realized what had happened.

And here came Bobby Cox to pull Glavine from the game. With the lefty Ventura coming up, he is going for his main man out of the bullpen.

Someone who is known quite well by all New Yorkers comes racing in.

John Rocker emerged onto the scene in 1998 for the Braves as a hard-throwing, hard-headed closer. It was in 1999 that he made national headlines for many reasons that have been talked about to death. He has since suffered an ignominious, albeit well-deserved fate, having been reduced to a semipro pitcher and novelty sideshow act (at least in his own head).

In 2001, he was still hated by many, and still gainfully employed by the Atlanta Braves following an uneven 2000 season. His performance in 2001 will continue to be uneven, to the point where, following a June game at Shea Stadium, Rocker will be dealt to the Cleveland Indians, where he will aid them on their way to a division title.

(Note: The word "aid" is used loosely here, as Rocker's 5.45 ERA is indicative of the fact that he started more fires than he put out for the Tribe. But that is another story for another time.)

But here he comes, trotting in. We're yelling cat calls at the TV. "The arm's feeling good John? Ready to go John?"

"John Rocker. A Firestorm of Controversy surrounding him, takes the mound to face Robin Ventura..." states Gary Thorne in the booth.

It makes sense that Rocker is coming in to face Ventura. After all, Rocker basically owns Ventura. To that point, Ventura was 0 for 9 against Rocker, having only once even managed to put the ball in play.

Robin is also coming off a 2000 season that saw him battle through several nagging injuries, saw his average drop off 70 points from the 1999 season, and saw him have a number of corrective offseason surgeries in order for him to regain the form that made him an MVP candidate in '99. The Mets know that if they are going to contend for another World Series, they need a healthy Robin Ventura at Third Base.

"Ready to go John? Ready to go John?"

Rocker leans in and goes through his herky-jerky delivery, unleashing his first pitch of the year.

And Ventura unloads, as if he were unleashing the fury of an entire city with his swing. He blasts a deep drive to dead center. Andro goes back, back, and jumps...

But it's gone. Home Run Ventura! Mets lead 4-2. Rocker stands on the mound, dumbfounded.

Rocker responds by striking out Piazza and Zeile, but the damage has been done. Now, it's up to the Mets bullpen to hold the lead.

But they can't.

John Franco, entering his 43rd Major League Season, begins by igniting a fire of his own. He allows a leadoff single to the ancient Dave Martinez. Furcal follows by doubling into the gap in left center, scoring Martinez. Franco follows by hitting Veras. Franco is mercifully relieved by Turk Wendell and his necklace of teeth. Turk slams the rosin bag down and gets Andro to pop out to Ordonez. He follows by getting Larry Wayne to ground into a fielder's choice. He's almost out of the jam.

But Brian Jordan follows by singling to left, plating Furcal to tie the game, 4-4.

Wendell will get out of the inning without further damage. Rocker will retire the Mets in order in their half of the 9th. Dennis Cook will set down the Braves quietly. And after a 3 hour rain delay...We're going to extra innings!

Thank God it was a day game.

Kerry Ligtenberg enters for Atlanta in the 10th. He retires Lenny Harris to start off. Shinjo follows. It is his first Major League at bat. And on his first pitch, he swings and misses. He swings so hard that he does two pirouettes in the batters box. But on the next pitch, he connects, and floats a single to center field. Alfonzo follows by flying out. It's Ventura again.

And Ventura takes Ligtenberg's first pitch and launches another long, high fly ball, off into the right field corner. It doesn't look like it has the distance off his bat, but there's Jordan, drifting, drifting back into the corner, and watching it sail into the seats. It's Ventura's second HR of the game. Mets lead, 6-4.

"He may be really healthy!" Thorne bellows.

Armando Benitez, who, in this 2001 season, will both set a Mets record for saves and almost singlehandedly destroy their playoff chances, will record a 1-2-3 inning in the last of the 10th, closing out a tense, crisp, Championship-quality victory that puts every Mets fan on top of the world.

But the Joy of this opener will be short lived. Because the Mets, early in the season, seem to be able to beat the Braves...but nobody else. Because Ventura's strong showing will be but a mirage, and because a season of injuries and inconsistency will dog the Mets all season. Piazza will dye his hair blond. Shinjo will be dealt following the season to the Giants in an ill-advised deal for Shawn Estes. He will return to the Mets in '03, but be back in Japan doing underwear ads by '04. A late surge by the Mets will put them in the pennant race, but it ultimately will not be enough, and the Mets cannot recapture the magic of the 2000 season.

In fact, they will not return to the playoffs until 2006.

And now, here we are again, following a strong playoff showing, roaring into Atlanta with high expectations.

We're a lot better now than we were then.

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