Wednesday, November 28, 2007

20 Days in October, Part IV

...Continued from Part III
Part I and Part II available here in case you missed it.

Saturday, October 9
Game 4

It was probably about 8AM when I woke up. I was too amped up to sleep that night, and I was too amped up to stand around at home before I headed out to Shea. I arrived at around 10:30.

I was meeting my friend, who had the tickets, at around 11:30.

So, stand and wait. It was unseasonably warm for early October. The banners outside the stadium, which all season had read the Mets slogan of "ARE YOU READY..." now triumphantly read "ARE YOU READY...FOR THE POSTSEASON!" Everything seemed a little more electric this late morning.

This was real.

My friend finally arrived, with a handful of extra tickets. How he managed to get so many, I'll never know. He had his ways. But he was intent on going around and selling off as many as he could. I wanted no part of it. I was going into the stadium.

Mezzanine Reserved, Section 12, Row K, Seat 20. That's where I was.

First look. D'Backs BP.

Nothing but a simple NLDS logo on the outfield fence. The bunting was up. I'm a big fan of bunting. John Madden said it best: "That's when you know it's a big game. When they get out the bunting, that means it's gotta be a big game."

The scoreboard tells me everything I need to know. Only 3 games today. This 1:10 start time would coincide with Game 4 of the Braves/Astros series, with the Braves looking to put away Houston in the Astrodome. What a matchup that would be, the Mets and the Braves in the NLCS. The bad blood that had been festering since late September was already beginning to brew.
Still, more important things to take care of before we can worry about Atlanta. The Diamondbacks are tough, and certainly won't go away easily. The crowd knows this, and as game time approaches, the crowds coming out of the Subway, back when you could still easily exit the subway, grew larger and larger.

And inside the stadium, it just got more and more electric. Keith and Mookie throw out the first pitches, and we're ready.
All season long, the Mets had used the intro to Pink Floyd's "Time" as their pregame entrance music. For the Postseason, they switched the song. The outro from The Beatles "A Day In The Life" built to its crescendo as the Mets take the field... way to Bruce Springsteen's "Rosalita," as Al Leiter warmed up. Leiter deservedly was given a hero's welcome, pitching for the first time since his sterling 2-hit shutout in the Wildcard Play-In game last Monday. He would be opposed by Brian Anderson for Arizona, in a somewhat controversial move by D'Backs manager Buck Showalter. The logic dictated that he should hold Randy Johnson back for a potential Game 5 in Arizona, on his normal rest. But trailing 2 games to 1, there's no guarantee that there will be a Game 5. Still, Showalter went with Anderson, a lefty, on this afternoon.

Todd Pratt still starts behind the plate. It's unknown to me, although they mention on ESPN that Mike Piazza's thumb has not improved. It's wrapped so heavily that it's unlikely he's able to even pinch hit should the case present itself. Little do we know the role Todd Pratt will play on this afternoon. What we know is that Tony Womack is stepping in to lead off, and begin what will be a most memorable day at Shea Stadium.

At 2-2 to Womack, the entire crowd, jammed to the rafters, is up and screaming. We're on every 2-strike pitch. Womack hits a screamer into left-center. Darryl Hamilton, in a rare start against the lefty, races back and runs it down.

Hamilton is in there based solely on a hunch Valentine has. He's in for defense behind Leiter, a fly-ball pitcher.

With 1 out, Jay Bell draws the walk. He's running on the 1-1 pitch to Luis Gonzalez, but Pratt's throw is right on the money, and Bell is thrown out. Gonzalez flies to center to end the inning. Off to a good start.

But Anderson will prove to be just as tough in the early going. Only an Olerud single in the first, and through the first 3 innings, that's it for either team in what has clearly started out as a pitchers duel. Leiter continues by setting down the D'Backs 1-2-3 in the top of the 4th.

But Edgardo Alfonzo leads off in the 4th and promptly hits one out, a long, high fly ball out into the left field bleachers. Fans are jumping off the walls as Fonzie rounds the bases, the conquering hero. It's his 3rd HR of the series, and the Mets have the lead, 1-0.

But the lead is short-lived. Still working on a no hitter, Leiter has one out in the 5th when Greg Colbrunn, the righty half of the D'Backs first base platoon, hits a shot even higher than Fonzie's, deep into left field, hooking towards the wall, and the D'Backs bullpen. Rickey gives chase, jumps at the wall, but it's gone. First hit, first run, and a 1-1 tie.

But after a single from Steve Finley, Leiter settles back down and retires the D'Backs. But Anderson continues to mow down the Mets in the 5th. In the 6th, Leiter hits Bell with 2 outs. But nothing comes of it, and the Mets bat in their half of the inning with the top of the order against Anderson.

Rickey leads off the inning by making Anderson completely nuts. After working the count to 2-2, Rickey begins swinging at everything Anderson throws, and Anderson simply refuses to give in to Rickey. Foul after foul after foul. Finally, on the 14th pitch of the at bat, Rickey punches a flare into right field for a hit. After Alfonzo pops out, Olerud follows by ripping a single in between Finley and Gonzalez, moving Rickey all the way to 3rd. Now we're talking.

Agbayani follows it up by smashing a long double off the wall in right center, scoring Rickey, and moving Olerud to 3rd with 1 out. Here's the ice-breaker, the rally we've been looking for all afternoon.

But the Mets can't cash in on the opportunity. Ventura grounds back to Anderson, and Pratt follows by grounding out himself. After all that, it's still just a 2-1 game.

But Leiter continues to be well in control. Through the 7th, nothing, and he appears poised to cruise through the 8th as well. With 2 outs and nobody on, he's cruising. But, uncharacteristically, Leiter walks the pinch hitter Turner Ward on 4 pitches. Womack follows that up by hitting a chopper towards Fonzie. Fonzie seems to have it, but all of a sudden drops it, and that split second's difference is enough to allow Womack to beat it out for an infield hit.

Still, seems no bother. But Leiter is done for the afternoon, and leaves to an ovation larger and louder than the one he received at the outset. Leiter tips his cap to all corners of the stadium as he exits. Benitez is coming in to face Jay Bell.

On ESPN, Ray Knight warns of Bell's power. "Jay Bell loooooooves the fastball, middle in!" he states.

And on the 2-1 pitch, that's exactly what Benitez throws. And Bell hammers it, deep, deep to left. And as the ball flies, the air is sucked out of Shea Stadium. It's off the wall. Melvin Mora, in the game for Rickey, has the ball bounce away from him, and not only does Ward score, but Womack flies in behind him. All of a sudden, the D'Backs, who had looked dead all afternoon, have stormed ahead 3-2.

Shell shock. I feel like crying. Total, out of nowhere sucker punch. Gonzalez is intentionally walked. Matt Williams follows by lining a sharp single through the hole and into left. The Meltdown continues. But this kid Mora charges up on the ball as Bell rounds third, and his throw home is strong, but slightly up the first base line. But Pratt manages to grab the ball and lunge back towards Bell. The tag is barely in time. Bell is out. The rally is stopped. The inning is over.

Funny how it's the guy you least expect making the key play. Mora's throw was huge.

The Twilight Zone is about to begin.

The D'Backs switch their defense around in the bottom of the 8th. For one, Womack moves from Shortstop to Right Field, out in the sunlight. Gregg Olson takes over on the mound, trying to bridge the gap to closer Matt Mantei. Alfonzo leads off, looking to atone for his momentary bobble. Fonzie fouls off a couple of close pitches, but works out the walk. With Olerud up, Showalter immediately summons his lefty, Greg Swindell.

I don't know if Olerud's time at bat was as long as it seemed. Sitting at Shea, it feels like Olerud is at bat for 10 minutes, working the count and fouling off Swindell's pitches. Perhaps Swindell was slow. Perhaps he kept throwing to first to keep Fonzie close. But Olerud keeps himself alive before swatting a long, deep drive out to right. Off the bat, it seems an easy play for Womack. But the ball keeps carrying further and further out to right, and Womack keeps drifting, and drifting after it. And for a split second it might be over his head...But no. Womack appears to settle under it...

...And it bounces out of his glove! He blew it! Finley scampers over in a dead panic, and fires back in, just barely able to hold Fonzie at 3rd and Olerud at 2nd. Just the break the Mets needed in this particular spot.

Cedeno follows, having entered the game as a defensive replacement for Agbayani. And Cedeno hits a long fly ball of his own, towards a similar spot. But this time, Finley will have none of Womack's staggering around. He takes charge from the start, and cuts in front of Womack to make the catch. But it's too deep for him to be able to throw out Alfonzo, Olerud takes 3rd, and once again, the game is tied, 3-3. I can breathe again. Which was good considering that things were only starting to get interesting.

Ventura would be walked intentionally, and following this, Showalter would make his most puzzling move of all. He brings in Mantei, his closer, into a tie game. Not only that, he double switches Mantei into the game, moving Lenny Harris to 3rd, and removing Matt Williams from the game. Williams, his best hitter and best fielder on the infield, had made the last out in the top of the 8th, and you would figure Showalter wouldn't pitch Mantei for more than 2 innings. So why make the switch when you would just as easily have hit for Mantei when his spot came up? Not that I was complaining; better to not have Matt Williams come up in a spot where he could beat us.

Pratt is up, with a chance to get that big hit. But he can't. On a 1-1 pitch, Pratt slaps a grounder right back at Mantei, who charges home and tags Olerud in a rundown. 2 outs.

Darryl Hamilton follows. On 1-1, it appears that Ventura has himself picked off second. But Arizona's catcher, Kelly Stinnett, has no idea where he's going with the ball. He charges out from behind the plate and double pumps twice before finally uncorking a wide throw to second, and Ventura is able to scamper back in safely, averting disaster. Hamilton will work the count full before hitting a slicing line drive down the left field line. It's hooking, but it looks like it might drop in...

...But it hooks just foul. Barely foul. Down the line, the crowd starts cheering as if it were fair, but Charlie Williams, the LF umpire made the foul call.

Cookie Rojas does not agree
. He shouts at Williams, and is immediately ejected. Rojas then flips out completely, charging at Williams before Valentine can come out to restrain him. Williams and Rojas continue shouting vehemently at each other. Valentine holds out his arms to restrain Rojas. But it's not enough. Williams nudges Rojas, and Rojas responds by shoving Williams in the chest. It will take a crowd of Valentine, Ventura and Mookie Wilson before Rojas is finally calmed down enough to return to the clubhouse.

In the booth, Berman and Knight argue over the call. Knight is adamant that the ball was fair, and that Williams had baited Rojas. Replays show that the ball was just barely foul, perhaps by an inch or two. Knight still isn't convinced.

Meanwhile, the Mets are in need of a 3rd base coach. In the chaos, Bobby Valentine takes over at 3rd. He begins by glaring directly at Mantei, as he finally resumes pitching to Hamilton.

"Oh by the way, it's Ball Four." is the call from Berman, as Mantei's pitch is wide.

Ordonez hits next, and Ordonez fouls off a few pitches himself before striking out to end the inning.

After all that, there's still more to be played? Man. I take a few deep breaths just to make sure I'm still alive.

Benitez resumes in the 9th and survives with no drama. 2 strikeouts, and the D'Backs are done. In the bottom of the 9th, Mantei remains in the game. He has to, now. He begins by facing Matt Franco, batting for Benitez. Franco will work out the walk to put the winning run aboard. Melvin Mora is next, and as he would make a habit of doing over these few weeks, he does the little thing. His bunt is perfectly placed between Mantei and Bell, and with no chance to get Franco at second, his sacrifice is successful. And so it's down to Fonzie, and we're all convinced that Fonzie, who has carried the Mets through this recent stretch, come up with every clutch hit and driven in every big run, will deliver the hit here to win the game, and win the series.

But he doesn't. He pops out. And after Olerud is intentionally walked. Cedeno grounds into the fielders choice to send an already crazy game into extra innings.

"Gosh, I love this game!" Knight yells in the booth.

In the 10th, John Franco comes on for the Mets. He strikes out Stinnett. Harris follows by hitting a high chopper between the mound and first base. Alfonzo charges in, but it's Franco leaping off the mound to glove the ball and make the toss to first. Womack grounds out.

Mantei, whose spot still hasn't come up in the batting order, is still on in the 10th. But as a closer who has already thrown 35 pitches, one has to wonder how much he's got left in the tank. Ventura helps him out by swinging at the first pitch and popping out to Womack. Pratt is next, and Mantei's first pitch is a curveball of the 55 foot variety, bouncing into the seats.

* * *

There are certain events where you think back and wonder where you were, and what you were doing at that particular moment. What went through your mind?
As the ball left Todd Pratt's bat, I could see it was hit well. For some reason, I took that moment to reach for my camera. I watched Finley go to the wall and jump. I saw him come down. What happened after that, I'm not quite sure. As the crowd at Shea erupted, I snapped pictures. I remember thinking distinctly to myself "Did I really just see that? Did he really just do that?"

Oh, that's hit well to Center Field! Finley goes back...back...back...(cheers) IT'S OVER! IT'S OVER! TODD PRATT! ONE OF THE MOST UNLIKELY HEROES HAS HIT IT TO DEAD CENTER FIELD! THE METS HAVE WON IT IN 10, 4 TO 3!

Chaos erupts on the field. Mets are jumping all over the place. Rey Ordonez and Luis Lopez run clear across the infield, ready to jump Pratt as he comes around 3rd base. Diamondbacks players are glumly walking off the field. Security personnel are running all over the place. Mounted police line the outfield. Fireworks begin booming beyond the center field wall. And the familiar refrain of L.A. Woman is blasting throughout the stadium.

Mantei's 1-0. And a high fly ball, deep to center field! Back goes Finley, going back! Warning track, at the wall! Jumping! Aaaaaaaaaaaaand...IT'S OUTTA HERE! IT'S OUTTA HERE! PRATT HIT IT OVER THE FENCE! FINLEY JUMPED AND HE MISSED IT! THE METS WIN THE BALLGAME!

-Gary Cohen

The scoreboard reads in big, block letters, CONGRATULATIONS NEW YORK METS ON ADVANCING TO THE NATIONAL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES!!! And just above that, we see that in Houston, the Braves have wrapped up their series with the Astros. After taking a 7-0 lead, the Braves are able to hold off a fierce late rally and win the game 7-5.
On ESPN, a closeup of Pratt reveals him to be totally awestruck. He can barely describe his feelings in a brief interview, only stating that he was sitting dead red, that he thought Finley had caught the ball, and "We're going to play the Braves!"
Bobby Valentine puts it more succinctly. "Character. It's all about Character (points to Leiter) This here's a character, with character...(tips his cap) Todd Pratt! Todd Pratt! Mike Piazza will be back, but so will Todd Pratt!"

Replays showed that Finley just about had it. But when he jumped for the ball, it appeared that his glove hit the wall, impeding his jump. Had his glove not hit the wall, he might have come down with it. But his glove hit the wall, and the ball just grazed his glove before he landed, looked down, and slumped against the wall; the picture telling the entire story.
For Pratt, it's sweet. Triumph after so many years toiling in the minors, being out of the game, and barely being noticed as little more than Mike Piazza's backup. For John Franco, it's even sweeter. Already having waited so long just to reach the postseason, he picks up his first postseason victory. For the fans, who had stuck by the team and waited so long, it's vindication. Nobody seems to want to leave. PA announcer Roger Luce (who had taken over for Del Demontreux, who had recently been felled by a stroke) announces triumphantly that "The next Mets Home Game will be Game 3 of the National League Championship Series!"

With that, the bile, and the pent up hatred towards the Dixieland Braves begins to pour out. Coming down the ramps, the mock tomahawk chops, and the chants of "LARRY SUCKS!" begin to echo throughout the stadium.

The Braves seem to be biting their tongues. Interviews on ESPN show them to reveal very little. The Mets will hold nothing back. After the indignities they suffered at the end of the regular season, there's no love lost. That's mainly because there was no love to begin with between these two teams.

It's fucking on.

Final Score
Mets - 4
Diamondbacks - 3
(10 Innings)
Mets win series, 3-1

To Be Continued...
Part V - Blood Feud

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