With tomorrow being the 4th of July, and the Mets having played many games on the Anniversary of our Nation's Independence, I thought it proper to re-visit one such game that the Mets played on this date. Although there are some other likely, worthy candidates for a July 4th Lost Classic, I arrived at one from July 4th, 1999, a Sunday Night, Glitzy ESPN matchup between the Mets and the hated Atlanta Braves, in what would be a harbinger for events that would take place mere few months later.
On July 4th, 1999, the Mets stood at 45-36, 4 games behind said Braves for 1st place. The Mets are on a tear right now. Just one month ago, the Mets were mired in a miserable losing streak, and heads were rolling as the Mets fell to 27-28. Since then, the Mets are on an 18-8 streak, one that will eventually run to a 40-15 mark that will send the Mets surging towards their first playoff appearance in 11 seasons.
But on this steamy Independence Day night, the Braves are in town for the finale of a three-game series in which they have managed to not only win the first two games, but shut out and thoroughly embarrass the Mets by scores of 16-0 and 3-0. So, not only are the Mets trying not to get swept, they're playing for their pride here tonight as they send Orel Hershiser to the mound against John Smoltz. And neither starter will fare especially well on this night. Hershiser will surrender back-to-back Home Runs to Bret Boone (on the juice) and Larry to stake the Braves to a 2-0 lead.
(Note: Although Larry will always be Larry, This game technically took place before he became the hated Larry, following his "Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees shit on" quote in September, which sentenced him to eternal damnation within the confines of Shea Stadium.)
But the Mets will fire right back against Smoltz in their half of the first. Rickey Henderson will lead off by dunking a single down the right field line. Alfonzo will follow with a walk, and Olerud will single to left, loading the bases for Mike Piazza. And Piazza, who is in the midst of one of his signature seasons, will promptly rip a single to center to score Henderson and Alfonzo to tie the game. One out later, Benny Agbayani will score Olerud on a groundout to second, and the Mets have come right back to take a 3-2 lead.
In the second, the Mets will extend their lead as Henderson singled with 2 out, and Alfonzo followed by cracking a long double off the wall in Center Field, over the head of Andro Jones, scoring Henderson to give the Mets a 4-2 lead.
In the 3rd, Hershiser melts down. Boone leads off with his second HR of the game. Larry walks, and Brian Jordan singles to move him over to 3rd. Ryan Klesko follows by lofting a Sacrifice Fly to Cedeno in Center, scoring Larry to tie the game. Hershiser manages to strike out Andro Jones for the second out, but his first pitch to the next batter, Randall Simon (that would be "Fat Monkey" to all who don't remember) is a fat fastball that Simon rips into the Mets bullpen. End of lead, End of Hershiser's night. 6-4 Atlanta.
But tonight is a night for the Mets bullpen to shine. First, Pat Mahomes, who will become an unsung hero for the Mets all season long, will come in and get out of the inning, and pitch a perfect inning in the 4th. He's followed by Rigo Beltran, who will become a forgotten man before too long, but tonight he's good for 1 hit over 2 innings. Greg McMichael, who was traded away and then traded back during the 1998 season, will work himself into a bases-loaded jam in the 7th before Dennis Cook gets him out of it.
But on the other side, Smoltz has settled down and the Mets have barely made a peep against him since the second inning. Meanwhile, in what seems like another world, the Macy's Fireworks are going off along the East River, lost to the 32,699 in attendance at Shea, but visible to me from my perch at Ballclub HQ, Bronx Bureau. Some night.
In the 7th, Rey Ordonez leads off with a single, his second hit of the night. Brian McRae, who had been double-switched into the game in the top half of the inning, will follow with a walk. Henderson, in a rare display of selflessness, will lay down the sacrifice, moving the tying run to second for Fonzie.
This would be the season that Edgardo Alfonzo would really begin to assert himself as an elite ballplayer. All season long, he will deliver whenever called upon to do so, be it for a clutch hit, a key defensive play or a sacrifice. And on this night, he will do just that, taking a slider from Smoltz and blasting it deep over the Center Field fence, out into the night for a 3-run HR to give the Mets a 7-6 lead.
And now, it was up to the Bullpen to hold that lead. They would be up to the task. In the 8th inning, it would be Dennis Cook, continuing where he left off in the 7th inning, setting down Atlanta in order. In the 9th, it would be Armando Benitez. This would be Benitez's first week as the Mets closer, having taken over as John Franco missed a majority of the season with a finger injury. Benitez had been lights out in a setup role, and for the most part, he will prove to be just as unhittable in the closer's role. At least for now. Whatever struggles Benitez will encounter in his checkered future are unknown to us on this night, as his fastball is blazing, and the Braves cannot touch him. Boone will strike out swinging. Larry will watch strike 3. Brian Jordan will flail helplessly. And the Mets have come back, beaten the Braves and averted the sweep.
Little do we know that the Mets and the Braves will take things to another level just 3 months later, when tensions, words and ill will will escalate this division rivalry in to an All-Out War that will play out in an operatic fashion in an Epic NLCS. This game in July will seem like Eons ago by time that series comes to its conclusion.
But let's not forget this game, instrumental as it was in getting the Mets to that point, because as we will soon find out, the Mets will need every last win they can get in this 1999 season.