Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lost Classics: October 3, 1999

On Sunday, September 19th, 1999, the Mets completed a series with the Philadelphia Phillies with a record of 92-58, one game behind the Atlanta Braves for the lead in the NL East, and a 4 game lead over the Cincinnati Reds for the National League Wildcard. The Mets had been riding high all Summer, and appeared to be streaking towards their first Postseason appearance since 1998, a long, arduous 11 years prior.

And then, all of a sudden, the bottom fell out. A road trip to Atlanta resulted in a full Larry Nightmare, a 3 game sweep. Subsequently, the Mets went to Philadelphia and got swept by the lowly Phillies in 3 games. Suddenly, a mere week later, the Mets were 92-64, now 7 games back in the East, and one game behind the Reds for the Wildcard.

After losing 2 of 3 to Atlanta at home, prompting the memorable "Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees stuff on" quote from good friend Larry, the Mets were pretty much left for dead. At the beginning of play on Friday, October 1st, 1999, the Mets stood at 93-66, 2 games behind both the Astros and Reds, who were tied for the NL Central lead, with the loser in the lead for the Wildcard. With the pressure building, the fans fuming and the press swarming, Bobby Valentine called for his own firing if the Mets did not make the playoffs. A blaring Post headline after the final loss to Atlanta trumpeted "WHY WAIT? CAN THE PHONY NOW!"

But the Mets resurrected themselves. That night, they beat the Pirates in 11 innings, while the Reds lost to Milwaukee and the Astros lost to LA. Saturday, more good news for the Mets, as the Reds lost again in Milwaukee. Rick Reed's masterful shutout of the Pirates that night meant that amazingly, the Mets were back in a tie for the Wildcard, at 95-66.

So it came down to one final game
for the Mets to try to keep their Playoff dreams alive. A victory, and they could do no worse than tie the Reds. A victory and a Reds loss, and they were in. And with that in mind, fans flocked to Shea Stadium in droves to cheer the Mets on to one of their most Amazing comebacks.

Although my roommate and I had discussed making the trip from Binghamton to Shea that day, we decided against it and watched on TV. Orel Hershiser, he of the improbable team-leading 13 victories, was on the mound for the Mets against Rookie Kris Benson, whom, in July, had beaten the Mets soundly. The tension was unbearable, right from the outset. Hershiser started off by walking Al Martin, who was sacrificed to second, stole 3rd, and scored on Kevin Young's 2 out single. And just like that, it seemed like the wind was out of the sails. But Hershiser buckled down and didn't allow the Pirates on the board after that. But Benson was equally tough. A pair of singles from Alfonzo and Olerud in the first produced nothing. The pitchers duel continued into the 4th.

Olerud led off with a shot that Kevin Young fielded, but threw away on his attempted throw to Benson, and Olerud was on second on the error. Mike Piazza was next, and his long fly ball to right got the crowd out of their seats, but it was caught by Brant Brown. Olerud moved to 3rd with one out. Robin Ventura was next, garnering chants of MVP, but his line drive was right into Young's glove for the second out. So it was down to Darryl Hamilton, acquired in a midseason trade from the Rockies, and who served to solidify the team's outfield defense, and also chipped in with some key hits. And he worked the count against Benson before ripping a shot just fair inside the 3rd base line, scoring Olerud to tie the game.

Phew. Relax.

But not for long. Hershiser left with one out in the 6th after allowing a double to Martin. Dennis Cook came in and struck out Abraham Nunez, but then walked Adrian Brown. Valentine pulled Cook in favor of Pat Mahomes, an unheralded righty who had become one of the unsung heroes for these '99 Mets, chipping in with spot starts, big relief outings, and even some clutch hits here and there. Mahomes got Kevin Young to strike out, and Mahomes ran off the mound pumping his fist.

The Mets staged their own rally in the bottom of the 6th, loading the bases on singles from Ventura and Hamilton, and a walk to Rey Ordonez, but Matt Franco, pinch hitting for Mahomes, popped out to end the threat.

On we went. Turk Wendell came in, slammed the rosin bag down, and slammed down the Pirates 1-2-3 in the 7th. Rickey Henderson led off the 7th with a single, and, playing with a balky calf, exited the game as only Rickey can, being run for by a little-known 27-year old journeyman Rookie by the name of Melvin Mora, who had provided little offense, but very solid defense for the Mets in a few cups of coffee over the course of the season. But Alfonzo, Olerud and Piazza failed to move him up or even move him over, and it was off to the 8th. Once again, Wendell shut down the Pirates effortlessly. In the bottom of the 8th, Jason Christiansen came in to replace Benson for the Pirates. Benny Agbayani drew a 2-out walk, but that was it. Still 1-1, going to the 9th.

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, the Reds and Brewers were waiting out a rain delay. While the Mets needed to worry about their own game, one had to keep an eye on the Reds game. A Reds loss, and the Mets were bound for Arizona, and the NLDS. A Reds victory, and it was off to Cincinnati for a one-game playoff. But heavy downpours had delayed the game, and postponed any travel plans for the Mets.

In the 9th, Wendell retired the first two Pirates, before allowing a single to Young. Wendell departed in favor of Armando Benitez, who had taken the closers role over in July and run with it, and was putting the finishing touches on a thoroughly dominant season. Although Young stole second and he walked Warren Morris intentionally, Benitez was able to strike out Aramis Ramirez to retire the side, and set the stage for the frenetic bottom of the 9th.

The Pirates brought in Greg Hansell to pitch in the last of the 9th. The Mets countered by sending up Bobby Bonilla to pinch hit for Shane Halter, in the game as a defensive replacement (and one of the more forgotten Mets). Bobby had played out the season in true malcontent fashion, getting hurt, getting fat, arguing with his manager and once again doing very little to endear himself to anyone in New York. And yet, here he was, and if he could pop a Home Run here and win the game, perhaps all would have been forgiven.

Didn't happen. He grounded to first.

Bonilla was followed by Melvin Mora, the anti-fat cat. And his looping single into right field got that winning run aboard. Edgardo Alfonzo was next, and in typical Edgardo Alfonzo fashion, he got the clutch hit, ripping a single to right field, sending Mora scampering all the way to 3rd. John Olerud was walked intentionally to load the bases, and bring up Mike Piazza.

"And here we are. When the Mets brought Mike Piazza back, it was to get the big hit, drive in the big run. And now here he is with a potential playoff berth 90 feet away," were the words of Howie Rose as Piazza came to the plate. But we would have to wait. Hansell was pulled from the game in favor of sidearming ex-Met Brad Clontz.

"Be Alive for the Wild Pitch!" Valentine yelled to Mora.

Be alive indeed. Clontz went through his submarine delivery, and delivered his first pitch. It was low and outside. It skipped under the glove of the Catcher, Joe Oliver, hopped up and onto the screen. Wild Pitch! Mora dashed home and jumped on the plate, and was immediately swarmed by the rest of the Mets, as L.A. Woman blared from the Shea speakers.

"And for the first time in 11 years, the Mets will be going to some semblance of Postseason Play!" Howie Rose yelled.

As for me, I hadn't sat down since the 6th inning. And when the pitch bounced, it was as if 11 years of frustration finally released, and I jumped up, let out a whoop and picked up my roommate. He yelled at me to put him down. So I did, ran to my room and blasted L.A. Woman myself.

And so the Mets had indeed done what was necessary to ensure them no less than another game. But would that game happen? Time passed in the afternoon, and the Reds and Brewers were still waiting out that rain. What if they couldn't play until tomorrow? Then a play-in game on Tuesday? Time continued to pass. Night fell. Still a rain delay. Not wanting to wait any longer to fly, and not wanting to be presumptuous, the Mets packed their bags and headed for Cincinnati. Finally, the Reds and Brewers began, at around 10pm Eastern Time. Led by Greg Vaughn, hitting a long HR and charging up and down the Reds dugout like a drill sergeant, and in front of the 16 or so Brewers fans who sat through the asinine 7-hour rain delay, the Reds did what they had to do in a wet 7-1 victory, forcing the play-in game the next night.

And we all know what happened that night, and what happened after that.

1 comment:

G-Fafif said...

Beloved game. Nice writeup.