Wednesday, December 5, 2007

20 Days in October, Part V

...Continued from Part IV
Part III Part II Part I

Sunday, October 10

Atlanta is going to be playing against some ghosts, because they said we were dead. I don't know if they have ever played against people who have come back from the grave before.

-Bobby Valentine

And thus, the first salvo was fired in anticipation of the NLCS, slated to begin on October 12th, in Atlanta, where the Mets had never fared well. Of course, the Mets were hurting physically, with Mike Piazza's thumb the chief among injury concerns, but, shudder the thought, the Mets actually had a couple of days off to catch their breath before the Blood Feud was to begin.

But it would be Valentine who would corral the spotlight at this particular moment, chiding the Braves, their MVP candidate Larry Jones and their Manager, Bobby Cox. Lest we forget the previous season, when the Mets strode into Atlanta in the season's final weekend, needing to win one game to put themselves in the Postseason, and lost all three. One such game saw Cox play out several starters the entire game, another saw him use three starting pitchers in the same game.

But given the chance to fire back, many of the Braves instead bit their tongues. In particular, Atlanta Right Fielder Brian Jordan had a feeling that these two teams would meet again, especially after the Mets had made the playoffs. Even the most outspoken Brave of all, John Rocker, was quiet, stating only, "We've handled them as well as anybody. Hopefully, things stay the same. I'm not going to give you any ammo."

I pay attention to little of it. I'm just trying to get myself back to Binghamton for some auditions I was holding. I leave New York at around 2pm, figuring I'll be back in plenty of time for my 7pm call. It's raining. There's traffic. My friend driving keeps going the wrong way. I'm incredulous.

We pull into campus at 6:55pm. A 3 hour trip in 4 hours, 55 minutes. Phew.

Monday, October 11
The war off the field continues mostly quiet today. Valentine has said all that he will, and not much is said by the Braves. Atlanta, I figure, must be a bit leery facing the Mets now, after all that has been said, and all that has occurred between these two teams over the past 13 months. Plus, their own Postseason history has been, at best, spotty. About to play in their 8th straight NLCS, they have only won 4 pennants, and only one World Series. The way the Mets see it, the pressure is really on the Braves to win, because they're expected to. The Mets are the ones playing with House Money. Darryl Hamilton says as much.

Meanwhile, another team occupying the same city is preparing for a Championship Series of their own against their most hated and heated of rivals. For some reason, it seems like that series lacks the panache that this Mets/Braves duel has generated. There's no anger, no residual bitterness lingering in this Yankees/Red Sox ALCS. They're going to show up and play, best man win. Subway Series talk is abound across New York. The perfect coda to a symphonic season.

But the real Opera is about to begin in Atlanta.

Tuesday, October 12
Game 1

Three days ago, Todd Pratt, who'd spent much of the 90s in the minors, delivered the biggest hit of the 90s for the New York Mets. Their improbable October run continued. A victory shower, where barely a week before, it seemed their hopes were drowned. As September ended, it looked as if their season had as well, thanks to Chipper Jones and the Braves. Losing 5 of their last 6 meetings; swept off their feet in Atlanta.

The Braves, a postseason perennial, would like to return to the Fall Classic, especially at the Mets expense. There are many ways to describe these teams' feelings about each other. Fondness is not among them. But that matters less than Atlanta's pitching, and the presence of the odds on MVP, Chipper Jones.

But starting tonight, the Mets earlier failures don't count. Starting tonight, the slate is clean. Starting tonight, the Mets and Braves go at it again. Game 1, next.

-Bob Costas
Costas' sign-on to NBC's pregame show told me, and showed me everything I needed to know. Shots of Todd Pratt's HR gave way to shots of Brave players celebrating, and Chipper Jones hitting repeated HRs off of Mets pitchers. If that wasn't enough to put Mets fans in a riotous mood, well, nothing would.

Cut to a somewhat damp Turner Field, where cars seem to be lining up, and fans seem to be milling around the stadium...But it only appears to be about 80% full for this Playoff game. Turns out that was the case: only 44,172 would be in attendance tonight, in a stadium that holds over 50,000.

Some fans.

Costas and Joe Morgan lay out the setting for this most operatic of series. On one side, the Mets, battered and bruised both physically and mentally, finally getting their catcher back, and raring to go. On the other side, the confident and cocky favorite, ready to prove that all the talk has meant absolutely nothing. The pregame interviews indicate as much. On the Atlanta side, Jim Gray pesters Bobby Cox, tries to get him to say something. But all Cox will talk about is Quail hunting with Ted Turner after the season. On the other side, Craig Sager talks to Bobby Valentine, who will only say that "we're not here to talk about it, we're here to play." Todd Pratt, standing in front of Cookie Rojas's jersey hanging in the Mets dugout, will only say, "Time to put up or shut up."

And with that, the paltry crowd gives their Champion Braves a lukewarm response as they take the field for the start of the game. It's Greg Maddux on the mound, he of his baffling array of pitches and oh-so-delicate temperament.

As Rickey Henderson steps in to begin this series, Costas gives the knife just one more twist. "The Braves have to deal with a ghost, but the Mets are haunted to some extent themselves. They have lost 13 of their last 14 games in this ballpark."

Thanks for reminding us.

This game seems to begin just like 13 of the 14 before it. Maddux feeds strike after strike, the Mets can only ground out, and they go down 1-2-3. And in the bottom of the 1st, the Braves come right after Masato Yoshii and Piazza. First, Gerald Williams singles up the middle, steals second, and he's home when Bret Boone rifles a single right back up the middle as well. Hell of a start. 2 batters in, and it's 1-0. Larry is walked, and I'm already snarling. Here we go again. But somehow, Yoshii rebounds, getting Jordan and Klesko to fly out, and Andruw Jones to ground out to Ventura at 3rd.

But the Mets cannot get anything going against Maddux, and when they do, they seem to fail in spectacular fashion. In the 3rd, it's Cedeno leading off and slapping a hit in between Jones and Williams in left-center. It's easily a double, but Williams' throw back in is deflected by Boone, and rolls into foul territory, allowing Cedeno to get to 3rd. But this break is immediately given back. Trying a safety squeeze, Ordonez can only deaden the ball right on the first base line, where Eddie Perez easily throws him out. Then, with Yoshii at the plate, the Mets try the suicide squeeze. It's a good pitch, but Yoshii mysteriously bunts right through it. Cedeno is hung out to dry, tagged out by Eddie Perez. One pitch later, Yoshii taps back to Maddux, and very quickly, the Mets are turned away.

But one inning later, the Mets are finally able to cash in. After Rickey looks at a 3rd strike, it's Alfonzo hitting a double in the gap. Olerud follows with a single and it looks like the Mets are finally poised to strike, with Piazza at the plate. But clearly, Piazza is not right. He puts a good swing on the ball, but can only ground weakly to Weiss at short, allowing Alfonzo to score the Mets first run, evening the game at 1.

That would be the extent of the Mets damage against Maddux.

The tie lasts until the 5th, when Walt Weiss, only in the game because Cox wanted to strengthen his defense, leads off with a double. Maddux is next, and his bunt attempt is true, landing in between Yoshii and Ventura. It appears that Ventura has the easier play, but Yoshii lunges off the mound to field the ball, spins and throws Maddux out. But Yoshii lands awkwardly on his left ankle while lunging for the ball. He's hurting, and the trainer and Bobby Valentine are out to look at him, but he remains in the game.

Williams follows by singling past Ordonez to score Weiss. An errant throw by Henderson allows Williams to second. The paltry crowd is now at their loudest, as they begin waving their red foam tomahawks, doing that most recognizable of chants.

I want to vomit.

Boone follows with a deep drive to right. It seems destined for extra bases, but for Cedeno flying over to make a fine running catch. Larry is then walked intentionally, and Yoshii is done, hurting and lifted from the game in favor of long man supreme, Pat Mahomes. Mahomes gets Jordan to fly out to center.

With 1 out in the 6th, Alfonzo comes through with his second double, again a well struck shot past Andruw Jones in center. This time, Olerud can't get him over, and Piazza follows with his third straight groundout.

In the bottom of the 6th, Klesko reaches on an Olerud bobble. But he's immediately erased when Andruw grounds into a nifty double play, a shot that is deflected by Mahomes, directly to Alfonzo, who makes the textbook flip to Ordonez, over to Olerud for the Mets infield specialty, a 1-4-6-3 DP. Of course, it's just prolonging the inevitable. the next batter, Eddie Perez, only starting at Catcher because of a knee injury suffered by Javy Lopez, drills a long Home Run out to left, making the score 3-1 Atlanta.

Maddux finally departs after 7 tidy innings. He came out for the 8th, but after Matt Franco was announced as a pinch hitter for Dennis Cook, Cox came out and pulled Maddux in favor of aging lefty Mike Remlinger. Bobby counters by sending Melvin Mora up instead of Franco. Mora figured to be used primarily as a defensive replacement, but he's up to hit here, and he draws a 7 pitch walk. Henderson and Alfonzo both advance him on groundouts, so he's on 3rd when Olerud comes up. But Cox goes to the mound once again. He's going for his closer. He's going to Rocker.

In Atlanta, Rocker is greeted with loud cheers as he dashes in from the bullpen. He appears the perfect part of the villain. Snarling on the mound, venom from his mouth off the field. And the Mets can't seem to hit him at all. Especially Olerud. Olerud to this point is 0-7 against Rocker, and this time proves no different. After watching two strikes, Olerud swings and isn't even close on the slider. Rocker pumps his fist and grins, smugly.

The Braves add a tack-on run in the last of the 8th against Wendell. Andruw Jones walks, is bunted over and scores when Weiss's line drive is just barely out of Ordonez's reach. 4-1 Braves. It may as well be 400-1 the way this game has gone.

The 9th seems like a formality. Piazza grounds out again and Ventura strikes out looking. Dunston pinch hits for Hamilton, and chops one to 3rd. But Larry can't pick it up, and Dunston is safe on the error. A wild pitch from Rocker moves Dunston to 2nd. Todd Pratt is up, pinch hitting for Cedeno, and his single drives home Dunston. A breakthrough? Now, the tying run is up. But the tying run is Rey Ordonez. There is nobody left to pinch hit, other than Benny Agbayani and Bobby Bonilla, and certainly nobody left who can play SS (although Dunston had played there many years prior). Benny can only stand on deck and watch, as Rey valiantly battles, hits several pitches foul, including one just barely past Larry's glove at 3rd, foul by mere inches, before finally grounding out to 3rd on the 8th pitch. It takes an awkward bounce and Larry has trouble picking it up, but manages to make a cocky little flip from his glove to his hand before firing to first, well in time to get Rey, well enough to wrap up this 4-2 Atlanta victory. The situation changes, but the result remains the same. The Braves made all the plays and all the moves worked in their favor. The Mets couldn't do anything right. The crowd is chopping. Rocker is walking around, high fiving his teammates, yapping and shaking his head.

Maybe tomorrow will turn out differently. With Kenny Rogers on the mound against Kevin Millwood, I'm not inclined to think so. The Mets just can't win in this godforsaken city.

Final Score
Braves - 4

Mets - 2

Braves Lead Series, 1-0

Wednesday, October 13
Game 2

Atlanta, Georgia. Not the Mets favorite NL Stop. They are losers of 14 of their last 15 at Turner field. Last night's Game 1 victory for the Braves was spun by Greg Maddux. It was his 4th victory against the Mets this year. His performance was no surprise. The contributions of Eddie Perez and Walt Weiss might have been. A manager can make moves, but his players must execute. If they don't, you've got big problems. So Atlanta rocked New York for the 19th time in 25 tries over the last 2 years. When, praytell, can they break through? Game 2, next.

-Bob Costas
Once again, Costas is to the point, as his opening plays over a montage of Brave hitters hitting, Brave players celebrating, and Mets screwing up and looking frustrated. It's not looking good right now, as the Mets and Braves get ready for Game 2. I'm not sure what to think. With a 4:10 start time, right now, I'm in class. My VCR is set and rolling, but I'll be home before the game ends. It's still cloudy in Atlanta and it had apparently poured heavily overnight. With that in mind, Craig Sager gives us a tour of the sophisticated drainage system underneath Turner Field. How quaint.

The crowd in Atlanta is about as mild as it was the previous night. Only 44, 624 in attendance as the Braves, behind Kevin Millwood, take the field. The lineup for the Mets hasn't changed. Rickey Henderson steps in to lead off, and Joe Morgan is extolling his virtues as a leadoff hitter over his career. Rickey taps back to Millwood for the first out. It would play out similar to the top of the first last night, except that Fonzie reaches on a single, but he's stranded there.

Even as I sit in class, I'm holding my breath as Kenny Rogers takes the mound. Solid after being dealt to the Mets from Oakland, Rogers has not fared well in his career in the postseason. Costas is quick to remind us of this, and Williams leads off by singling through the left side. But Rogers picks Williams off. Rogers has a hesitation in his delivery, it seems. It's close to a balk. But it's enough to deceive a runner, and it worked on Williams. He was frozen as Rogers threw to first, and he was tagged out easily by Olerud. Boone and Larry go down behind him. So far, so good.

In the 2nd, the Mets get their first good rally going. Ventura leads off with a walk, and Hamilton singles behind him. Cedeno follows, and he battles Millwood hard, before drilling a single right back up the middle, scoring Ventura and giving the Mets their first lead of the series. Hamilton goes all the way to 3rd, and the Mets appear poised to strike hard. That is, until Ordonez attempts a safety squeeze bunt and lines it directly to Brian Hunter at 1st. It's such a poor bunt that Hunter is almost able to double Hamilton off of 3rd. Rogers follows with a bunt of his own, but is only able to get Cedeno to 2nd. Henderson follows with a grounder deep in the hole at 2nd, that Boone handles and is able to get Henderson by a step.

Yet another missed opportunity by the Mets.

As the bottom of the 2nd begins, Morgan notes that Rickey is "laboring out there." He clearly looks pained, and were he healthy, he could have beaten out that grounder. Andruw Jones singles with 1 out, and Rogers picks him off. Again, it's that hesitation before he throws to first. Is he balking? If so, they're not calling it. Jones is a dead duck and gets himself in a rundown before Ordonez tags him out. But Eddie Perez follows with a flare to left, that drops in front of Henderson. Rickey doesn't look good, and neither does Rogers, as he walks Hunter on 4 pitches. Rogers has been erratic, and that slow curve of his has been missing high and outside. Costas notes that Rogers "has been shelled almost every time he's taken the mound in the postseason, as a Yankee or a Met."

Dave Wallace comes out to talk to Rogers, and as he does so, Melvin Mora is shown throwing with Matt Franco in the Mets dugout. It's clear that Rickey is going to have to come out of the game, and he's coming out right now. Valentine and the Trainer walk out to left, talk to Rickey, and walks him off as Mora trots in. This isn't good. Not only is Rickey out, but Mora, who was counted on as a swing defensive replacement late in the game, is now in the game, leaving an already thin bench even more depleted. But Rickey needs to rest.

Mercifully, Weiss slaps the next pitch right back to Rogers. Disaster averted.

In the 3rd, Rogers is in trouble again, as he walks Millwood to start off. But Williams follows by grounding into a 6-4-3 DP. A Boone single is harmless as Larry is called out on strikes.

Otherwise, this game has settled into a pitchers duel of sorts. With 2 out in the 4th, Cedeno hits a high drive, deep down the right field line that just barely hooks foul. In the dugout, Valentine leans on his side so far he practically falls off the bench trying to will it fair. Doesn't work.

In the top of the 5th, it's Mora at the plate with 2 outs, taking a 2-0 high fastball from Millwood and walloping it with authority, deep into the left field seats. Melvin Mora, who knew?! "It wasn't strategy, it was necessity," Costas says, "Henderson sits, and Mora trots!"

Finally, I'm back from class as the top of the 6th is going on. Millwood has just set down the Mets in order. It's 2-0, and so far, so good.

I spoke too soon.

With 1 out in the 6th, Rogers walks Larry. Rogers seems to have tap danced in and out of trouble all game long, and now, it's about to blow up on him. On a 1-0 pitch, Brian Jordan hits a high drive deep down the line in Right. It seems headed the same direction as Cedeno's drive, but GONG! It clangs off the foul pole. Fair ball. Home Run. Game tied. Jordan pumps his fist as he breaks into his obnoxious dance-step of a Home Run trot. Great. Wendell is warming up furiously. Rogers is laboring now. He barely had it earlier in the game, and now he's toast. Andruw follows with a well struck single, and before the dust clears, Eddie Perez has smacked another Home Run, just into the seats in left. Eddie, with his hideous grin and that mole on his face, somehow has hit his second HR in as many games. Now, the crowd is making whatever noise it can muster, with the tomahawks, and the cheering, and the pointing. Valentine is disgusted. He throws his cap clear across the dugout, before sending Wallace out to mercifully remove Rogers from the game, after 91 pitches, about 10 too many.

Wendell is in, and after getting Hunter to fly out, Weiss reaches on an error by Alfonzo. I've had enough. Ever since I've turned the game on, nothing has gone right. Obviously, I've jinxed the Mets. It's my fault. With the VCR still running, I shut the game off. I'm disgusted.

With the way the rest of the game played out, I probably did the right thing.

Millwood holds the line in the 7th, but in the 8th, he finally runs out of steam. With 1 out, Mora rips a shot just under Larry's glove at 3rd. Questionable, but it's scored an error. Larry probably should have come up with it. Alfonzo follows by drilling a double to deep center, way over Andruw's head and off the wall. Mora scores all the way from 1st. Are we finally in business? Can we come back?

Of course not. Here comes Cox, and here comes Rocker. After 24 pitches and 1.1 innings last night, he's back. Cox cannot resist Rocker against Olerud, especially after Olerud looked silly against Rocker last night, and sure enough, Rocker makes Olerud look silly again. Not only does Olerud swing through strike 3, but his bat goes flying clear out to Hunter at 1st. Follow that up with an intentional walk to Piazza, and now it's Rocker against Ventura, who, much like Olerud, has had no success. To this point, Robin is 0 for 4, striking out every time.

Guess what happens.

You guessed it. Everything works to Cox's plan. Rocker lets out a holler and pumps his fist as he runs off the mound. I hate him.

Armando Benitez comes on in the bottom of the 8th. Benitez has been to the Braves similar to what Rocker has been to the Mets, albeit in less spectacular fashion. And without the sideshow and obnoxious remarks. But he goes 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 8th. Rocker is back out for the 9th, until Shawon Dunston is announced as the pinch hitter for Hamilton. That's when Cox pulls another rabbit out of his hat and brings in John Smoltz to close out the game. John Smoltz, he who would he starting Game 4. He who has never appeared in a game in relief in his life. The crowd is blowing their kazoos as Smoltz trots in. It's as if the Mets are screwed before even taking a swing.

Of course they are. Smoltz pumps fastball after fastball at the Met hitters. Dunston pops out to Weiss. Cedeno grounds out to Weiss, and makes a desperate, headfirst slide into first. "Sometimes, it's the emotion that makes you do that." Morgan states. Bonilla is next, hitting for Ordonez. Bonilla, fat and surly, steps to the plate, the last hope. God help us. The Mets bench is stonefaced. Bonilla watches strike 3, a fastball on the far, outer half of the plate. He can do nothing but drop his bat and walk off, shaking his head. Much like the Mets and their fans. Smoltz pumps his fist and points to the sky. The crowd is chanting "EDDIE! EDDIE!" To add insult to injury, Rocker is named the player of the game, another victory in which the Braves did everything right, and the Mets just couldn't.

Hopefully, a day off can allow the Mets to regroup. Hopefully, going home, with their crowd behind them can turn their luck. Valentine and Leiter believe they can. Rocker hopes they shut up. Something's got to change. They can't lay down and allow the Braves to talk all this junk and then walk all over them.

It can't possibly get much worse, can it?

Final Score
Braves - 4
Mets - 3
Braves Lead Series, 2-0

To Be Continued...
Part VI - Protest and Survive

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