Sunday, May 6, 2007

Lost Classics: May 21, 2000

On Friday Night in Arizona, the Mets roughed up Randy Johnson, a feat which the Mets have accomplished a few times in their history. Of course, Randy Johnson of 2007 isn't quite the same Randy Johnson that he was in his heyday during the late 1990s. Back in those days, it was quite rare for a team to have their way with the Big Unit. But the Mets made a habit of doing just that during the 2000 season, and with this Lost Classic, we will revisit one such instance.

It is May 21, 2000, an overcast Sunday afternoon. The Mets, having come off their successful ride to the NLCS in 1999, are again expected to contend for a pennant. But they're struggling. An inconsistent first month and a half of the season have put them in 3rd place, following a stretch that has seen them lose 4 of 6 to the lowly Marlins, among others.

In 1999, the D'Backs came into New York in late May, and buried the Mets, knocking them into a 7 game skid. The finale of that series saw Johnson stymie the Mets, giving up 1 run and 5 hits, striking out 10 over 8 innings in a 10-1 Arizona wipeout.

But, perhaps, the Mets are turning the tables. They have won the first two of this three-game weekend series with Arizona, following their 4-game victory over the D'Backs in the 1999 NLDS. In that series, the Mets charged into Arizona and, undaunted, knocked Randy Johnson around in the first game of that series, eventually winning 8-4 on an Edgardo Alfonzo Grand Slam in the 9th inning.

On this day, the Mets send Rick Reed to the mound against Johnson. I am in attendance, in the Mezzanine, section 10. Little do we know that the Mets have an unknown, unheralded secret weapon to combat the Big Unit on this day.

The game begins and Reed starts by getting Womack to pop out and Jay Bell to strike out. But that is followed by three consecutive singles from Luis Gonzalez, Erubiel Durazo and Steve Finley, bringing home a run. Travis Lee grounds into a fielders choice, and the Mets are out of the inning.

We're uneasy. One run can often be all Johnson needs.

But the secret weapon is about to unleash himself.

In a late Spring Training deal that garnered little to no attention, the Mets had acquired utility man supreme Joe McEwing from the Cardinals for Jesse Orosco. McEwing had spent most of the early part of the season in the Minors, but was recalled in mid-May. He had started a few games, but hadn't hit much, although 3 of his 4 hits to that point were doubles. But McEwing is also noted for some success he's had against Johnson, including getting his first Major League hit off of the Unit. He's known for being a scrappy, hustling ballplayer, and it will be his performance on this day that will launch him into the hearts of all Mets fans.

Leading off the bottom of the first, McEwing goes right to work. Leading off in a lineup loaded with righty batters, McEwing works the count. Johnson's fastball is middling today, only in the low to mid 90s, as opposed to the high 90s. McEwing fouls off a couple of pitches before lining a double into the corner in left field. Derek Bell follows with a well-struck double of his own, going the other way and lining it down the line in right, scoring McEwing and tying the game.

So much for one run being enough for Johnson.

Edgardo Alfonzo, who is off to a fantastic start to the season, hitting around .350 and on his way to what will be his signature season in the Majors, follows with the Mets third consecutive double off Johnson, nailing a double in a similar spot to McEwing's, down the LF line, scoring Bell to give the Mets a 2-1 lead. The crowd is going wild. Johnson is reeling. Piazza is up.

But Johnson settles down, retiring the Mets quietly, sandwiching a walk to Zeile in between a groundout, a strikeout and a pop out.

Neither team scores in the second, although Rey Ordonez leads off the second with the Mets 4th double off of Johnson, but he's stranded.

But in the 3rd, the D'Backs break through against Reed. Womack, Bell and Gonzalez lead off with 3 consecutive singles, with Womack scoring on the last of the 3 to tie the game, 2-2. Durazo follows with a deep fly ball to right, but it's caught by Derek Bell, advancing Jay Bell to 3rd. Finley grounds out to Zeile, scoring Bell to give the D'Backs a 3-2 lead.

Again, Johnson can't hold it.

With one out in the last of the 3rd, Mike Piazza steps to the plate. Piazza is off to the races on another typical Piazza season. To this point, he's hitting over .360, with 12 HRs, trailing only Alfonzo for the club lead in RBIs. He will continue to hit like a house afire all summer long, undaunted by nagging injuries and cowardly beanballs, and, by all rights was deserving of an MVP award if not for a September slump. And in this particular at bat, he will take a Johnson fastball and launch it out of sight. Piazza's HRs are often these long, high, majestic blasts. This one is a laser beam, darting straight up and out, landing halfway up Section 32 in the Mezzanine, still rising. Tie game, 3-3.

But Johnson again rebounds. He will strike out the next 5 Mets to face him, and his next 10 outs will come by way of the strikeout. But Reed proves to be just as game, setting down the D'Backs in order in the 4th, and only allowing Gonzalez to reach on a HBP in the 5th. The Mets threaten in their half of the 5th as well. Again, it's McEwing, leading off with a double, a rising line drive that nearly clears the wall under the retired numbers. Johnson, not wanting to risk giving up another bomb to Piazza, walks Mike intentionally with first base open before striking out Zeile. Through 6 innings, Johnson has struck out 11. He's regained the lead 5-3 by virtue of a 2-run HR from Travis Lee in the top of the 6th as Reed falters. But he continues through the game, and sets down Arizona in order in the top of the 7th, before departing for a pinch hitter in the last of the 7th. Benny Agbayani leads off, and in his pinch hitting role is overmatched, becoming Johnson's 12th Strikeout victim.

Next up, Johnson's worst nightmare.

And McEwing continues to grow his legend, as he launches a Johnson fastball high and deep, similar to his double in the 5th...but it keeps carrying and carrying...and it's off the retired numbers for a Home Run! And it's 5-4! It's McEwing's 3rd hit off Johnson in 4 ABs!

Johnson will rebound by striking out Bell, his 13th K. But Alfonzo follows by drilling a HR of his own! A line shot into the D'Backs bullpen, which is the 3rd Home Run and 8th extra base hit the Mets have had off of Johnson. And Johnson is done. The game is tied, and the crowd heartily boos Johnson as he walks off the mound. 13 Ks, yes, but all 8 hits he gave up went for extra bases. Mike Morgan, the ageless one, will enter the game and retire Piazza to get the Mets out of the inning.

With the D'Backs lefty sluggers coming up in their half of the 8th, Dennis Cook is summoned from the bullpen. He strikes out Durazo to lead off. But Steve Finley rips a HR into the Right Field bullpen on the first pitch he sees, and this see-saw battle has tipped back into Arizona's favor. Cook will allow a single to Damian Miller before getting out of the inning.

And, once again, it's the Mets turn to come back.

With Morgan still in the game, Zeile leads off by grounding back to Morgan, who is able to tag Zeile on the first base line. Jay Payton had struck out three times against Johnson, and Jon Nunnally is sent up to pinch hit. But Nunnally fares no better, striking out himself. Kurt Abbott, who had started at third against Johnson, is lifted for the one last bullet the Mets can bring off the Bench.

Guess who?

Robin Ventura.

It's an off-year for Ventura, who is battling shoulder and leg injuries that will nag him all season.

But not on this day, as he comes off the bench and promptly blasts a long, high HR off the base of the scoreboard, tying this game once again at 6-6.

Despite the cool temperatures and the intermittent drizzling rain that has been falling on and off throughout the afternoon, none of the crowd of 38,826 has departed as we head to the 9th, still deadlocked. Turk Wendell comes in for the Mets. He slams the rosin bag down and sets the D'Backs aside in order. It's Byung-Hyun Kim coming in for Arizona in the bottom of the 9th, with our new folk hero, McEwing, leading off. McEwing does to Kim just what he did to Johnson. He works the count, before working out a walk. Derek Bell follows. Bell will also work the count. He takes a couple of pitches, and McEwing steals second off of Kim's slow, sidearmed delivery. And Bell hangs in, fouling off some tough pitches, before ripping a line drive to right. Travis Lee is charging after it, but it's slicing to the right, away from him. He's charging. He dives...

And he can't get it. The ball bounces to the corner. McEwing Scores! Mets Win! Mets Win!

The crowd is abuzz as we leave the Stadium. With the sweep of Arizona, the Mets are beginning to click on all cylinders, and they will begin a hot streak that will last nearly the entire summer, sweeping them into the playoffs. The Mets will face Arizona and Johnson twice more over the course of the season. In early August, the Mets will charge into Arizona and whip Johnson for 5 runs in 4 innings, with McEwing and Piazza leading the way. Later that month, Arizona will come into Shea, and the Mets will paste Johnson for 6 runs in 3 innings. By beating the D'Backs in 4 of those 6 meetings, they will continue to assert their dominance over some of the better clubs in the National League. And victories such as this one will become typical for the Mets as they ride this momentum all the way to the World Series.

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