Wednesday, November 21, 2007

20 Days in October, Part III

...Continued from Part II

Tuesday, October 5

Game 1

The waiting was finally over. And yet in reality, it was just beginning.

The Mets, with their frenetic final weekend, had somehow managed to find themselves on their way to Arizona for the NLDS, their first Postseason series in 11 years.

With the game out in Arizona, the starting time for this Tuesday night game was an asinine 11:09pm on the East Coast.

It would be a late night in Binghamton for me. A late night for every Mets fan who wasn't going to let this ridiculous starting time dampen the euphoria.

I whiled away the hours before 11pm watching another playoff game, the Yankees and the Texas Rangers, facing off in their own game 1. It was a thoroughly unmemorable affair, the Yankees winning handily, the only drama coming when Yoda-like coach Don Zimmer took a foul ball off the metal plate in his head.

Finally, 11pm came around, and I flipped on ESPN. Here we were at last. The Arizona crowd, large, loud and relatively clueless, as their upstart team was in the postseason in only their second year of existence, gave way to the dulcet tones of Chris Berman, who would be calling the game, along with a familiar face from Mets postseason past, Ray Knight. If any Mets fan was running the risk of nodding off, Berman would be certain to wake you up with his screaming and his ridiculous nicknames.

It was, as most experts seemed to feel, a matchup that favored the Diamondbacks, who were loaded with a powerful veteran lineup, featuring Jay Bell, Matt Williams, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez, and a strong pitching staff, led by the always frightening and hideous Randy Johnson. It was Randy himself on the mound tonight in the first postseason game in D'Backs history. On the mound for the Mets...Masato Yoshii.

Yes, Masato Yoshii would make the start in this game, mainly because it was just his turn in the rotation, not because his 12-8 record and 4.40 ERA made him the best man to make the Game 1 start.

Screw it. I'm just glad to be here. Watching my team in the Playoffs.

But the Mets are undaunted by these powerful D'Backs, who mauled the Mets in 7 out of 9 meetings during the '99 season, including a sweep at Shea. After Rickey leads off by fouling off some pitches before flying out, it's Edgardo Alfonzo, doing exactly the same thing he did in the previous night's game.

Fonzie takes two called strikes from Johnson, before slamming the third pitch, a 99mph offering, deep to center, and just over the wall, over one of the stupid yellow lines of demarcation for a home run to give the Mets a 1-0 lead.
Randy who?

Olerud and Piazza follow with consecutive singles, and maybe the Mets can jump on Johnson early and get a cushion. But Randy rebounds, to K both Agbayani and Ventura and stifle the rally.

Yoshii usually made Mets fans cringe and pray that he could survive his outings. Now, the catharsis is multiplied by the pressure of the moment. But Yoshii is a wily veteran himself. He is up to the task. Most of these Mets are, at this point. Yoshii allows a 2-out double to Luis Gonzalez before getting Williams to pop out to end the 1st.

Fast forward to the 3rd inning. Rickey Henderson leads off for the Mets with a walk. Alfonzo fouls off several fastballs before striking out. With Olerud at the plate, Rickey is dancing around and distracting Johnson. On a 2-0 pitch, Rickey takes off and steals second easily. On 2-2, Olerud sends Johnson's offering deep and out into the right field seats.

Not only is it the first time Johnson has allowed a HR to a left handed batter in the postseason, it's the first time a left handed batter has hit a HR off of Johnson in over 2 years! Lefties just don't pull Randy Johnson like that! But Olerud did, and it's now 3-0 Mets.

Whoda thunk it?

The D'Backs finally strike in their half of the 3rd. With 1 out, Tony Womack triples over Rickey's head in deep left center. Jay Bell follows that up with a sac fly to put the D'Backs on the board.

The Mets get this run back in the 4th with a little small ball. After Ventura leads off with a double, Shawon Dunston, getting a rare start in Center this eve, lays down a beauty of a bunt that can't be picked up. The single moves Ventura to 3rd. With Ordonez up, the squeeze is on. Ordonez chops the bunt down the first base line to score Ventura. 4-1 Mets.

But the D'Backs would begin to flex their offensive muscle as the game wore on. First, it was rookie Erubiel Durazo who would rip a long HR into left-center in the bottom of the 4th. In the bottom of the 6th, after a Jay Bell leadoff single, Luis Gonzalez drills a shot deep to right. And no sooner than Berman screams "GOING, GOING, GONZALEZ!" then the game is tied, 4-4, with Yoshii fading fast and momentum clearly favoring the home team.

But the Mets bullpen would take over for Yoshii, and restore order to the game. First, Dennis Cook comes in and shuts down the D'Backs in the 6th. He allows a 1-0ut double down the RF line to Randy Johnson in the 7th. But when Womack follows with a fly out to left, Johnson runs on contact and is promptly doubled off second for the final out.

Meanwhile, Johnson has settled down and stifled the Mets. Between the 6th and the 8th, all they can muster is a walk and a steal from Rickey in the 7th. Johnson remains in the game as we move to the 9th, still tied, 4-4. But Johnson is beginning to wear down. Ventura leads off with a clean single. Cedeno attempts to bunt him over, but pops back to Johnson. Ordonez follows with a single of his own, and Johnson then walks Melvin Mora to load the bases with 1 out.

It is then, that D'Backs manager decides that 138 pitches is enough. He removes Johnson in favor of Bobby Chouinard, a journeyman righty, to pitch to Rickey and Fonzie.

On a 2-0 pitch, Rickey hits a shot towards third, destined for left field but for the diving stop made by Matt Williams, who quickly hops to his feet and throws out Ventura at home for the 2nd out.

Perhaps the rally has gone by the wayside.

Alfonzo works the count to 3-1 against Chouinard, who seems to be pussyfooting around the plate. He dare not throw a fat pitch. But he must throw a strike. He deals. Alfonzo swings.


-Gary Cohen

As the ball leave Fonzie's bat, I can see it's going to be close. I begin to pull a Carlton Fisk act, frantically waving my arms as if to will the ball fair. And as it finally lands fair, I jump out of my seat and run screaming around the common room. "FUCKIN' ALFONZO!" I'm yelling. It's only 1:55am. Neighbors be damned. It's 8-4, and the Mets are about to have walked into Arizona and beaten Randy Johnson and stolen home field advantage for the series.

Armando Benitez comes in and retires the D'Backs in order in the bottom of the inning, and the Mets have pulled yet another victory out of their hat, an 8-4 victory to take Game 1.

I need some sleep.

Final Score
Mets - 8
Diamondbacks - 4
Mets lead Series, 1-0

Wednesday, October 6
Game 2

The late night start on this night doesn't seem so bad. After the 2am reward of the previous night, I'm settling in once again to see the Mets strut their stuff. After all, tonight's starters seem like a study in contrasts. Kenny Rogers for the Mets had had some poor postseason outings in his time with the Yankees, but he'd pitched admirably well since coming over in July. And Todd Stottlemyre? This guy elected not to have surgery on a balky rotator cuff. His shoulder could come flying off at any second!

The Mets mount some credible threats in the first and second, and finally plate a run in the 3rd. It's Rickey again in the thick of things, singling, stealing second, moving to 3rd on an Alfonzo groundout and scoring on an Olerud groundout.

And that would be the lone highlight of the game from the Mets standpoint.

Rogers would melt down in the 3rd, walking home a run before allowing a 2-run single to Steve Finley, which put the Arizona fans in a tizzy. Finley doubled home 2 more in the 5th, and the crowd continued to blow their kazoos.

Meanwhile, the Mets can't get anything going against Stottlemyre. So much for that bad shoulder. Rickey keeps getting on and stealing bases, but nobody behind him can get that key hit to get the Mets back in the game. Pat Mahomes relieves Rogers in the 6th, and Octavio Dotel follows in the 7th. Dotel will walk in a run himself before getting out of a major jam in the 7th. But by this time, it's 7-1 D'Backs and the game is pretty much toast. Stottlemyre departs after 6 2/3 strong innings, and Greg Swindell finishes up. I refuse to shut the game off, however. I stick it out to the bitter end, hoping that the Mets have one big rally in them. Doesn't happen. The Diamondbacks and their silly fans celebrate this evening, their first ever postseason victory.

Can't argue with the split, however. Back to New York we go.

Final Score
Diamondbacks - 7
Mets - 1
Series Tied 1-1

Thursday, October 7
Mike Piazza took a foul ball off his thumb in Game 2 and took a cortizone shot for it. This small bit of news would loom large a bit later. But he and the rest of the Mets seem glad enough to have split the D'Backs in Arizona, coming home knowing they can close out the series with 2 victories.

Controversy is still abound, however, in the form of a Sports Illustrated article about Valentine, in the October 11, 1999 issue. The reporter, S.L. Price, had been with the Mets during the final weeks of the season, during their miserable 7-game skid. In the article, Valentine bashes several players, most notably Bobby Bonilla. "You're not dealing with real professionals in the clubhouse," Valentine says. "You're not dealing with real intelligent guys for the most part. A lot can swim, but most of them just float along, looking for something to hold on to. That's why, I'm sure, they're having a players-only meeting. Because there's about five guys in there who basically are losers, who are seeing if they can recruit. They actually think there's some accomplishment and some reward in being the BMOC. They don't know that, looking back at it five years from now, that will mean nothing."

Valentine is certainly no stranger to controversy. Nobody has or wants to say too much about it. There's more important things to worry about right now. The following October, Valentine will refute the article, questioning the intentions of Price in the process.

Late that evening, I get a call from a friend. He has an extra ticket to Saturday's Game, Game 4. He is wondering if I am interested in taking it.

Before the words are out of his mouth, I've accepted. I'll head home Friday, and be at Shea Saturday.

Friday, October 8

Game 3

"Dammit, can't you drive faster?"

These are my words to my roommate as we are driving from Binghamton to New York, as he is graciously giving me a ride home so that I can be at Shea on Saturday.

Problem is, with our departure time delayed by classes, we are zipping through Pennsylvania as Game 3 at Shea has commenced, too far out of the range to pick up WFAN on his car radio.

I have no idea what has transpired, or what has happened in the game.

Finally, as we hit the Poconos, down I-380, the crackling static breaks, and Bob and Gary are finally filtering in.

This is when I learn that Piazza's thumb did not react well to the cortizone shot, and blew up to twice its normal size. He can't move it, let alone grip a bat or throw a ball. The biggest name on the Mets will be unable to play in the biggest game at Shea Stadium in 11 years.

Not that that seems to faze the Mets. Todd Pratt steps right in and the Mets haven't missed a beat. It's already 3-0 in the top of the 4th inning, and Rick Reed is cruising right along.

The Mets, I hear, have been helped out by some shoddy D'Back fielding behind their starter, slithery lefthander Omar Daal. Ordonez chips in with an RBI single in the 2nd, Olerud has an RBI single in the 3rd, and Ventura follows up with an RBI groundout.

In the 4th, Williams singles and Durazo walks, but the Diamondbacks cannot get any further against Reed. Both Finley and Andy Fox ground out and Reed is out of the Jam.

In the bottom of the 4th, the Mets mount a rally of their own. Ordonez reaches on an error by Daal, Henderson singles and Alfonzo walks. But Olerud strikes out to end the Mets threat.

Finally, in the 5th, the Diamondbacks are able to break through against Reed. After Kelly Stinnett doubles to lead off, Turner Ward pinch hits for Daal and drives one out into the Mets bullpen, pumping his fists as he drops his bat at home plate. Dammit. It's 3-2 now. But Reed recovers, retiring Womack, Bell and Gonzalez in order.

Darren Holmes replaces Daal in the 5th and sets the Mets down quietly. In the 6th, it's Ordonez making the trademark Ordonez play, sliding deep in the hole to backhand a shot by Williams, then leaping up and firing a strike to get him at first. Reed allows a 2-out walk to Finley before striking out Fox, and as Reed leaves the mound, with the Shea crowd going wild, Reed pumps his fists. His 6 inning effort has been the typical, solid Rick Reed effort we have come to expect from him.

It's about this time that I arrive home, and I'm finally able to put on a TV and see the game.

I've gotten home just in time.

With Holmes still on for the D'Backs, Todd Pratt leads off the 6th with a walk. Ordonez bunts him over to second. Bobby Bonilla pinch hits for Reed and receives a smattering of cheers as he is announced.

In the booth, Bob Costas and Joe Morgan are talking about how Valentine may be working himself into a corner. Already having removed Agbayani and Dunston, who started, and replaced them with Hamilton and Cedeno for defense, Valentine is short on his bench. And now he's dipping into his bullpen in a 1-run game.

Bonilla works the count and draws a walk. Rickey follows with the classic Rickey single; a blooper that falls in front of Womack in right, and as Womack kicks the ball into foul territory, Pratt scores, Bonilla lumbers to 3rd and Rickey is on 2nd. Alfonzo is walked intentionally, and Holmes is gone, replaced by lefty Dan Plesac to pitch to Olerud.

The move doesn't work. Olerud pokes a seeing-eye single into right field, plating Bonilla and Henderson. Cedeno follows with a clean single to left to score Alfonzo. And all of a sudden, this game that was looking like a squeaker has very quietly swung decidedly in the Mets favor at 7-2. Ventura grounds out, but Hamilton follows by nailing yet another single to center, scoring Olerud and Cedeno and pretty much icing the game at 9-2. Shea is rocking.

No Piazza, no problem. The Mets are at it again.

Morgan backs off and gives Bobby his due credit. He's made the moves he needed to make, and now he's got the lead, and his best defense on the field. He let the game play right into his moves. Flawless. Wendell, Franco and Orel Hershiser finish the rest of the game, a crisp 9-2 Mets victory, leaving them one game away from wiping away the D'Backs, and moving on to the NLCS. And I'll be there with a chance to see them clinch.

Far cry from the state of things one week ago.

Final Score
Mets - 9
Diamondbacks - 2
Mets lead Series 2-1

To Be Continued...
Part IV - That Particular Moment

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