Wednesday, December 12, 2007

20 Days in October, Part VI

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

Thursday, October 14
The Mets return home, hot and out of humor, trailing the Braves 0-2. It seems as though these first two games have played out exactly the same, just like every other game they've played in Atlanta over the past month. Too much pitching, too little offense, too many bad breaks, too many questionable decisions, too much poor execution. Neither team is hitting particularly well in this series, a testament to the pitching on both sides. But it's the Braves who have done the little things, executed those miniscule details just well enough to swing both games their way. Game 3 will be no easier, with Tom Glavine taking the hill for Atlanta, a seasoned postseason veteran in his own right. But with the Mets, especially the middle of their order, Olerud, Piazza and Ventura, experiencing a major power outage, the Mets are severely lacking in punch.

It's easy to say Game 3 is a must-win for the Mets. To this point, no team has ever come back from 0-3 to win a playoff series, and only once has a team even forced a Game 6. That was last year, when the Braves themselves won two against San Diego after falling behind 0-3.

Coming home, many of these Mets feel that being in their park, with their fans behind them is certain to change their luck. The crowd is sure to be raucous, cheering on their team, and ready to give an earful to the Braves, especially a couple of players on their side who have been the poster boys for the indignities inflicted upon their team.

Larry expects it. He's wisely backed off his statements. In fact, he's so wary of the treatment he expects to receive, he's considering wearing earplugs. Rocker, on the other hand, can't help but give the fans more ammo. "To hell with the New York fans. They're a bunch of stupid assholes anyway. They keep saying we suck. If we suck so much, how come they can't beat us? They're a tired act," is the quote.

This series is about to take a turn for the surreal.

Friday, October 15
Game 3

Four minutes before this pitch was thrown in Game 2, the Mets were shutting out the Braves. But both the Mets Bobby Valentine, and the Braves Bobby Cox know that in the Postseason, a lead is precious, and any move they make, or don't make will be magnified. Kenny Rogers' pitching error suddenly became Valentine's burden. His self- proclaimed error in judgement cost the Mets the lead. Across the diamond, Cox demonstrated why he's winning the managerial chess match. In the 8th, John Rocker's two strikeouts surrounded a strategic intentional walk. Advantage Cox. In the 9th, he stunned observers by removing Rocker and calling on Smoltz in relief. If anyone questioned that, Smoltz had the answer. A 1-2-3 9th, capped by a strikeout. Down 2 games, it's now Valentine's turn to make the next move. Will his troops regain their belief, and rally in front of their home crowd? Or will the Braves continue to roll? Game 3, next.

-Bob Costas

NBC opens with a montage of more Mets frustration plays, beginning with Eddie Perez's Home Run, through Bobby Valentine tossing his cap across the Mets dugout, and capped off with John Smoltz pumping his fist at the end of Game 2. I'm beginning to get sick of this. We cut to Shea Stadium, from the blimp. I can't remember the last time I'd ever seen Shea Stadium from a blimp. They usually don't fly by Shea, probably because of its proximity to LaGuardia Airport. Unlike in Atlanta, Shea will be jam packed tonight. Shots of fans, 55,911 strong, streaming off the 7 train, carrying signs, banners, what have you, reveal that they're here, and they're ready to rock.

Costas, dressed in his Emo costume, a sport jacket with a black turtleneck, no tie, brings us up to speed. It's Leiter and Glavine tonight, and both he and Morgan proclaim Leiter to be "as close to a stopper as the Mets have got." He'd proven to be up to the task at least in his last 3 starts. And the Mets desperately need him to come up big here. Especially with the middle of the Mets order a miserable 1 for 21 in the series.

Bobby has juggled his lineup a bit tonight. He says it's to combat the "Rocker Factor," the lefty stopper coming in and getting Olerud, pitching around Piazza, and getting Ventura. He's switched Olerud and Alfonzo in the lineup, and moved Ventura to 6th, behind Piazza and Benny Agbayani. It remains to be seen if that's going to work.

Meanwhile, things seem peaceful on the Atlanta side. Unless John Rocker is involved. During the pregame introductions, Rocker is booed, loudly and heartily, and he responds by giving an exaggerated, over-the-top tip of his cap. Already, Rocker has engaged in verbal disputes with fans, screaming and pointing at them, as they yell and hurl things at him. In the dugout, he's interviewed by Jim Gray. In between "Uh" and "Duh," Rocker states that "It's kind of enjoyable knowing that I can get in their fans heads that bad, to know that I can push their buttons by a couple of comments. I'd be more upset if if I walked out expecting boos and jeers and they were quiet." It's almost as though he'd rather have this negative attention drawn on himself. He follows this up by talking about some of the things that Mets fans have said to him: "I don't think it's right and somebody needs to speak out about how we don't need to hear these kinds of things or fear for our safety at a simple baseball game."

In Atlanta, the largest security concern was counterfeiting and trademark endorsement. Whatever that is. In New York, the security concern is crowd control. In addition to the over 500 uniformed policemen already at the stadium, extra undercover officers are abound. Snipers are posted on the top of the stadium if necessary.

This isn't just a simple Baseball game. It's war. And the main aggressor wears #49 for the opposition.

As the Mets take the field, Shea is rocking. Costas proclaims that Leiter "truly has been a stopper" as he recaps his last 3 outings. Morgan, in comparing Leiter and Glavine, tells is that "the only similarity is that they are both left-handed." Leiter will throw hard and come inside on righties. As Gerald Williams steps to the plate—accompanied by loud boos— we're ready to get going. This crowd is ready to bust out of their seats. On 1-1 to Williams, they're already chanting "LETS GO METS!" Leiter gets to 2-2, and again, the crowd is up with 2 strikes, but Leiter misses high with his next two pitches, walking Williams. Funny, Williams has led off each game by getting on base.

Unlike Kenny Rogers, Leiter does not have a good pickoff move. The Braves know this, and they figure to test Leiter and Piazza often in this game. Boone is next, and on 1-2 hits a chopper back to Leiter. Leiter immediately turns toward second, but realizes he may not have time. He turns, to go for the sure out at first, and lobs the ball toward Olerud. But he rushed the throw. He never aimed, and his throw is wide of first, pulling Olerud off the bag. Great. 2 on, nobody out, and guess who's up?

Hello, Larry.

To say that Larry was simply booed is an understatement. There is an audible, disgusted groan that goes up from the audience when he is announced. There are shots of signs being held up around the stadium. One such sign shows a crude drawing of Larry getting his head chopped off by a tomahawk. Costas tells us that Piazza always says, "Hi, Larry!" whenever he steps in the box. His reasoning? "I refuse to call a grown man 'Chipper.'" On 0-1, the crowd is chanting "LARRY SUCKS!" When Larry pops to Alfonzo, the crowd roars with delight.

That might be the high point of the evening.

On the first pitch to Jordan, both runners break. Piazza comes up, and appears to slip somewhat on home plate as he throws towards second, trying to get Boone. But his throw is horrible. It's so poor, in fact, that it sails way over Alfonzo's head and into Center Field, allowing Williams to score, and Boone to move to 3rd. The defense, the one sure thing on this team, is now abandoning them. "Here are the Mets. Who made only 68 errors the whole year, easily the lowest figure in the history of baseball, they have made 2 errors this inning, and 5 in the series," is the quote from Costas. Another bad break, and another early lead for Atlanta.

They threaten to extend this lead on the next pitch. Jordan lifts a fly ball to medium center. It's Mora starting in Center tonight, against the lefthander, instead of Hamilton or Cedeno. After his clutch defense in the Division series, and his strong showing in Game 2, Mora's earned it. And he's going to earn it even more when he catches Jordan's fly ball, and his throw home is dead on the money, right into Piazza's glove as he blocks the plate and braces for the impact. Boone is toast. His only chance is to try to knock the ball out. He lowers his shoulder and slams into Piazza. Piazza's mask, and the catcher-cam within, go flying. Piazza is knocked flat on his back, and lies there for a moment. But he holds the ball. Boone is out. The inning is over.

The concern immediately shifts to Piazza. Boone immediately reached over to see if he was ok. Fred Hina, the trainer, and Valentine came out to check on him. Piazza is dazed, but walks off on his own power. On the bench, he looks to be in space world. That's not encouraging.

Announcing the Mets lineup, Costas shows us his humorous side. "The middle of the Mets order has made about as much noise as Marcel Marceau." It's not very funny, but it is true.

As Glavine is warming up, Costas and Morgan are extolling his virtues. He's a D-Bag, as far as I'm concerned. Rickey is back, healthy, and in the leadoff spot. But he takes strike 3 on the inside corner. The trademark Glavine strike. Rickey argues with the umpire, Charlie Reliford, to no avail. The pitch was probably a few inches inside. Questec hasn't been invented yet, so Glavine gets the call.

With 1 out, it's Olerud, who hasn't hit outside of the #3 spot, all season long. Olerud draws a walk. It's the first of many instances where the Mets will put the tying run on base. Costas tells us that Glavine has allowed 18 first inning runs in 35 starts in 1999. He's had first inning issues. So, of course Alfonzo strikes out on the next pitch, and Piazza, still shaking out the cobwebs, rolls to Boone at second. If this weren't a playoff game, Todd Pratt would probably be catching right now.

In the 2nd, it's more talk about Piazza and his lack of bearings. Andruw Jones strikes out on a wild pitch. It hops by Piazza and rolls to the backstop, and by time Mike can pick it up, Jones is aboard. Perez follows by hitting one deep in the hole at short. Ordonez goes into his trademark slide and appears poised to turn his amazing, yet routine, double play. But he drops the ball while transferring it from his glove to his hand. Everyone is safe. I'm ready to throw my television out the window. What the fuck is going on here? But next, the Mets finally catch a break. Brian Hunter hits a liner right to Ventura. Andruw was way off second base, and he's easily doubled off. Rey makes the turn as if he might have a chance for Perez at first, but Perez is able to get back. Weiss strikes out. The crowd roars.

Another look from Catcher-Cam as we start the bottom of the 2nd. Piazza caught the 3rd strike to Weiss and didn't immediately get up. He looked at the ball for a few seconds before walking off. He's clearly a little off. Morgan believes this to be true. He also talks about the effect Cookie Rojas' suspension has had on the team. Bruce Benedict is now coaching 3rd, instead of being Bobby's ear on the bench. Not only have moves not been made, but the players have not been used to getting signs from Benedict, and there have been mix-ups. It's a comforting thought to the already distraught Mets fan.

With 2 outs, it's Mora at the plate, and just as Costas talks about how he has come out of nowhere to really have a fine postseason, he drills a single to right off Glavine. Morgan suggests that Mora may want to try to steal with Ordonez up. Problem is, if it doesn't work, Ordonez leads off the 3rd. Morgan says that Ordonez could get on base, but Ordonez hasn't been able to hit his weight this postseason. Mora runs anyway, Boone runs to cover 2nd, and Ordonez puts forth the best piece of situational hitting in his life, slapping the ball right where Boone had been playing. Mora goes to 3rd, runners on the corners, and the Mets have a rally going, and...Oh. Leiter's up.

Leiter works the count full and puts forth a good effort before striking out on a Glavine curve that was probably ball 4.

In the bottom of the 3rd, it's Rickey leading off with a single, but with the hit and run on, Olerud hits the ball right at Weiss, near the bag at 2nd, who turns the easiest of 6-4-3 double plays. Alfonzo strikes out again, and that's that.

In the 4th, Hello, Larry. More boos. Craig Sager tells us that Rickey may have hurt his back sliding into 2nd. His slide was late, and a bit awkward. He rolled over the base before coming to a stop. With this in mind, Larry rips a drive down the left field line. Rickey charges the ball and comes up with it, but Larry's racing for 2nd. Rickey fires the ball back in towards Alfonzo, and his throw is right on the money. Larry is out by a good margin. The crowd loves it.

But the Mets still can't get a damn thing going against Glavine. They get hits, but nary a big one. This time, it's Piazza singling hard into right field for his first of the series. They have the beginnings of a rally when Mora hits a parachute single in front of Jordan 2 outs later. Piazza is on 3rd, but Ordonez grounds out to Hunter.

The 5th begins exactly the same as the 4th. Perez leads off with a liner down the left field line, bounding into foul ground. Perez is slow, and chugging around the bases. Rickey again charges the ball and comes up firing. His throw to Alfonzo is again a perfect strike. Perez makes an awkward, ugly slide into second, and he, like Larry before him, is easily tagged out. After a walk to Hunter, Leiter gets Weiss and Glavine. After his rough first, Leiter has settled in and done a great job. He's kept the Braves off the board. But the Mets offense has generated nothing but a smattering of singles, none of them key. In their half of the 5th, it's a 2 out single from Olerud. That's it.

In the 6th, Ordonez makes that backhand play that he couldn't make in the 2nd. With Boone at the plate, Ordonez makes a sparkling play, prompting Costas to gush, "They should just walk out there and hand him the gold glove right now!"

Hello, Larry. Signs in the stands have become more and more creative. Such gems include:
"HELLO, LARRY!" featuring Larry Fine's head on Jones' body.
Larry strikes out. The crowd goes wild.

In the Mets half of the 6th, Piazza drills the first pitch from Glavine deep down the right field line, but it hooks foul. He will single through the hole on the left side on the next pitch. It's the 7th hit for the Mets off Glavine, but none of them have been productive. And it will also be the last hit the Mets will get. In fact, it's the last hit for either team tonight. On a 1-1 pitch, Agbayani hits a screamer down the right field line foul. Some fans in the temporary box seats on the field reach over to try to get the ball...and they manage to knock over the entire temporary wall down the line. People who have probably paid quite a bit of money for these seats are now soaked in their own beers. These seats would become permanent in 2000, but for now, they're just folding chairs and a wooden barrier. There's a lengthy delay while the grounds crew tries to fix the wall, and Glavine whiles away the time by soft tossing with Perez. Meanwhile, Cox gets impatient and goes out to argue with the umpire. A grounds crew member is smashing the wall with a hammer, trying to wedge it back into place. The wood splinters everywhere.

While this delay is going on, Costas takes another opportunity to remind us that the Mets have the wonderful task of having to face Glavine, followed by Smoltz and Maddux this weekend. All this while trying to come back from 0-2 and facing a team that has beaten them 20 of their last 26 games. Why even bother playing the rest of the series?

Finally, we're back, after a delay of about 7 minutes or so. Benny hits it well, and deep to center, but Andruw runs it down. Ventura and Mora also fly out. Something's gotta happen soon. Right?

Leiter is done after 7 yeoman innings. He had come on deck with Ordonez leading off, but when Ordonez struck out, Dunston was sent up to pinch hit. Dunston swings through Strike 3, but Perez let the ball roll away from him, and then didn't really make an effort to go pick it up, and Dunston reaches. Perhaps this is the break. But it's not. Henderson flies out on the first pitch, and with the count 3-1 on Olerud, Dunston is thrown out stealing. Balls. It doesn't seem as though Glavine has been at all dominant, but here he is, walking off the mound after 7 shutout innings. What the fuck.

Franco starts off in the 8th by walking Weiss. Glavine bats for himself and sacrifices Weiss to 2nd. Enough messing around. Valentine goes right to Benitez, who has been tough on Atlanta hitters all season. He gets Williams to fly out, and blows away Boone. This energizes the crowd. But can it inspire his teammates?

Piazza got hit by a backswing from Williams, we see on Catcher-Cam as the bottom of the 8th begins. As if he weren't banged up enough already. Remlinger comes on for the Braves in the 8th. The Mets go quietly, 1-2-3, including Alfonzo's 3rd strikeout, and a deep drive to right by Piazza that Jordan runs down. As the ball is caught, Piazza's disgust is evident, as he begins screaming and swearing to himself.

In the 9th, Hello, Larry. Costas surmises that Larry's comments were based on his reaction to Benitez's on-field hysterics, pumping his fist and whatnot. But Benitez gets him again, freezing him on an unhittable splitter on the outside corner. He also strikes out Jordan, and gets Jones to fly out. 3 outs left for the Mets, against the real enemy.

As the Bullpen door opens, and Rocker comes streaking in towards the infield, the boos begin to echo from one end of the stadium to another. Small objects come flying towards him as he runs. He's oblivious to all of it. He's unflappable on the mound, and he's out for Met blood. That is all too evident. The fans can't get to him, and he loves this fact. He is about to turn this evening from frustrating to galling, embarrassing, humiliating. Costas tells us that Rocker's birthday is Sunday, and he will be spending it in the city in which he is most despised. Agbayani leads off, with Pratt on deck to hit for Ventura. Agbayani hits a roller to Weiss, who fields it, bobbles it, gathers it and fires to first...too late. Agbayani is on, and the crowd is roaring with delight. It's a chance against the enemy. Pratt is next. It's a controversial move, removing the popular and veteran Ventura for Pratt. Some Mets players will take it as a slight. But not only is Ventura slumping, he hasn't been able to touch Rocker. But on this night, Pratt can't either, striking out on a high fastball. Rocker's grunts are audible on each pitch. Mora follows, and he hits it well, and deep to right center field. But it's not deep enough. Jones runs it down. A few feet from being an instant hero, Mora is despondent as he walks off. 7 hits to the Braves 3, and on 2 of them, the runner was thrown out. Unbelievable. Cedeno is on deck, on the off chance Ordonez can come through. But Ordonez hits the first pitch weakly to Weiss, who flips to Boone for the final out. Rocker lets out a wild screech as he leaps off the mound, then spins towards the fans and begins screaming at them uncontrollably. The crowd has suddenly and instantly become very quiet, as if the reality of the Mets situation has become clear in that one instant, the instant Rocker began stomping around the Shea infield, his chest pumped out, a defiant stare on his face as he slapped hands with his teammates. Costas says that Piazza "said I'd still take our team over theirs. But by the results, that statement is hard to justify."

Walking off the field, Rocker flashes to the crowd with his fingers, 3-0. Galling. It's just galling for this to happen. It's bad enough to lose to the Braves. It's even worse to be humiliated at home, on an unearned run, down 0-3 to our most bitter rival, having them come in, do all their talking and then knock us around, and to top it all off with this clown whooping it up. This team has played its way into our hearts and left a great mark on Mets history. But they're about to be embarrassed in their own park. If they want to go any further, they're going to have to do something that's never been done before, and make some more history in the process.

Final Score
Braves - 1
Mets - 0
Braves Lead Series, 3-0

Saturday, October 16

Game 4
The privilege of wearing an Atlanta Braves jersey in the 90s. The exhilaration and disappointment that comes with near perfection. The highlight of the decade, the 1995 World Championship. The 1999 Braves, another season of excellence. Big contributions from unlikely sources. And the expected production from the games best arms. The combination of talent and professionalism that has them one win away from erasing the Mets for good. One win away from their fifth World Series appearance in the 90s. The overwhelming odds say that Atlanta should advance to the World Series, if not tonight, then soon enough. And if and when they do, another piece of evidence will be added to the case for the Atlanta Braves as the team of the decade. Game 4, next.

-Bob Costas
It's bad enough that the opening to tonight's game is a veritable lather job of the Braves. To make matters worse, an image of a broom sweeping away a Mets logo is mixed into the NBC opening montage, which closes with an image of Rocker screaming and leaping off the mound at the end of Game 3.

Shea looks quiet on TV, from the blimp, and it probably is. That's not to say that it's not full, at 55,872. It's not as packed as last night, but close enough. Costas tells us that "The circumstances are far from pretty for the home team. Faced with the prospect of having to win 4 straight to win the series, something that has never happened. If Smoltz can get the W, the Braves not only advance, they get a week's rest."

Good. That makes me feel so much better. I can't take it tonight. I can't be around to watch this. I've got the VCR running, and I'm going out for the evening. If they win, I can watch it later. If not, burn the tape.

The games have all been close, Morgan tells us. It has basically come down to the following failures by the Mets:
Game 1 - Squeeze
Game 2 - Indecision
Game 3 - Mistakes
"The Mets have made great individual defensive plays, but they have not played good team defense," Morgan states.

An interview with Smoltz before the game with Jim Gray is hilarious. Smoltz does nothing but spout cliches, and he's spouting bad cliches at that. He says "This team will not finish its job until it is finished," and follows that up with "When you go to the postseason and you make good pitches, you will get good hitters out." Thank you, John, for that moment of enlightenment.

On the other side, Craig Sager talks with Piazza, who says "I feel pretty good. Good night's sleep and a couple aspirins, I'm feeling all right. Adrenaline has a way of being a pretty good drug itself. But if I don't feel like I can contribute, I won't go out there," and when asked about his team's circumstances, says "This team has never lied over and died the whole year. We just have to go out there and keep going at it. Whatever happens, happens."

Later, Sager talks to Valentine, and asks him what he told his team before the game. Valentine won't reveal his pregame speech, and is as elusive as ever, but he does say that "Someone is eventually going to win 4 after losing 3, but that's not what we're here to do tonight. We're just here to win 1." He finishes the interview and waves to fans in the seats before stepping into the dugout.

Costas and Morgan then talk some more about the Braves making quick work of the Mets before the Mets finally take the field. The start time of the game was pushed back for some reason. It was scheduled for a 7:42 start time, but probably started closer to 8. The Mets take the field. Everyone, that is, except for Reed, who, given the extra time, is still sitting in the dugout. Costas says that Valentine considers this the Mets 4th Postseason series, considering all the games they had to win against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati just to be able to play Arizona and Atlanta. Reed finally takes the mound, and gets a big hand when he emerges from the dugout.

Gary Carter threw out the first pitch at tonight's game. He had suggested, as a means of changing the Mets luck, throwing the pitch from home plate to second base. But someone mentioned to him that that was how the only run of the game scored last night, and it might be considered a slap at Piazza. So Carter threw the pitch the traditional way, to Piazza.

The Mets wear Black on this evening, after wearing the whites in Game 3. The crowd is festive. If this is going to be the Mets last stand in what has been a fine season, so be it. If we fall, we fall together.

As Gerald Williams steps in, Costas tells us that in this series, Eddie Perez is hitting 6 for 10 through the first 3 games. All other Braves are batting .182. Still, they lead 3-0. Go figure. Williams flies out to Right, and it's notable because it's the first time the Mets have managed to retire Williams to start the game.

Boone is booed loudly after his collision with Piazza last night. Boone's father, Bob Boone, was a catcher for many years. What would he say about that? Boone went into Piazza with his shoulder, and apparently was unable to speak when he got back to the dugout. He strikes out. Reed looks sharp early.

Hello, Larry. Guess what the reception is? Costas says Jones is "Hearing the sort of invective reserved for Midtown traffic and Reggie Miller." He rolls to second. Nice inning for Reed.

The Mets line up in similar fashion to last night. Olerud is 2nd, Alfonzo is 3rd. Cedeno is back in the lineup, batting 7th, and Hamilton starts in center, batting 6th, all against John Smoltz, who threw 11 pitches in his relief stint in Game 2. Costas and Morgan talk about how Smoltz has been battling elbow pain throughout the season, and changed his delivery from over the top to 3/4. He's managed to keep his velocity up despite this. He had been on the DL twice during the season, and had thought about retiring. But after experimenting with the new arm angle, and feeling good, he's kept going. He makes quick work of the Mets in the first.

It's the 30th Anniversary of the Mets capping off the greatest miracle of all, winning the 1969 World Series, Costas tells us as the 2nd inning begins. Costas and Morgan talk about how Reed reminds people of Greg Maddux. Gee, that's never been said before. He goes from inside to outside with his pitches, and always hits the corners. Reed finally came into his own with the Mets after knocking around forever. He has proven himself and overcome resentment after being a replacement player during the strike. But many of the Mets feel that he has earned the right to be here. He is very superstitious. He only eats chicken and pasta on days he starts, and always wears the same t-shirt when he pitches. "Thankfully, he washes it between starts," Costas adds.

Klesko battles against Reed before striking out on a high fastball. Klesko obviously is frustrated with himself. Reed retires Atlanta in order in the 2nd.

Piazza leads off for the Mets in the 2nd. "Mike Piazza, career .328 hitter, under .200 lifetime in postseason. Playing this october through clenched teeth. Bad thumb, weak knee, collision at the plate last night, if these games weren't so important, Piazza would be sitting," Costas tells us. Piazza hits the ball solidly, but can only fly to left. Ventura pops to 3rd. The crowd gets very loud as Larry gets set to catch the ball. But they cannot distract him. He makes the catch.

Both pitchers are perfect through the first two innings. This has the makings of yet another pitchers duel. Reed retires the Braves in order on 7 pitches in the 3rd. Cedeno leads off for the Mets with a flare into short left field for the game's first hit. But the Mets can't move him any further than second. Meanwhile, Costas is still raving over Smoltz's arm angle. He says that "Craig Biggio said that he had 50 career at bats against somebody else named John Smoltz. This is a whole different pitcher."

Reed is motoring in the 4th. We have a shot from the Blimp, and according to Costas, "Folks, it just isn't baseball without the view from above." With 1 out, Boone hits an 87 hopper up the middle for Atlanta's first hit. And Hello, Larry. Another friendly reception for Jones. On 1-1, Boone takes off. The pitch is a strike, and Piazza's throw is high, but Ordonez is right in position. He makes the catch and zips his arm down to slap a tag on Boone, in time for the out. On the next pitch, Jones makes a halfhearted swing through a slider in the dirt. Inning over. 9 pitches for Reed in the 4th.

Alfonzo is up with 1 out in the 4th. He was red hot until he faced Glavine in Game 3, whom he can't hit. He was 0-4 with 3K, and now 0-2 tonight after he K's here. Can one bad night against a pitcher you don't hit well throw you off your rhythm? Piazza follows, and on the first pitch to Piazza, Smoltz groans and shakes out his elbow. He obviously hurt it throwing what looked to be a breaking ball. He is still shaking it out one pitch later. Guess we won't be seeing any more sliders from Smoltz. He's still shaking it out a few pitches later. You figure he won't throw the slider if it hurts his elbow. You try to sit on the tailing fastball. So of course he comes back with the slider to K Piazza. But at what cost?

In the 5th, the report out of the Atlanta dugout is that Smoltz went into the clubhouse in between innings, came back and said he was fine. Apparently, his elbow always hurts, but he just did something in particular on that pitch to Piazza. Meanwhile, Reed just zips along, Jordan flies out, Klesko grounds to Alfonzo and Jones grounds to Ventura, and Reed is through the 5th inning on 6 pitches.

Smoltz comes back in the bottom of the 5th and does not appear to show any ill effects. Hamilton strikes out looking on a wicked fastball that moves inside and then tails back over the plate. He's dumbfounded. He argues with the umpire. It even crossed up Eddie Perez. Cedeno follows, and hits a high popup towards the seats near 3rd base. Larry gives chase, but it bounces in the seats, and bounces back to Jones. He takes the ball and walks back towards the infield. He looks at the ball, then he turns around and tosses the ball into the seats. A fan catches it, and the surrounding fans immediately begin yelling for the fan to throw the ball back. But the fan won't throw it back. Cedeno singles, his second hit of the game, on a 3-2 pitch. He's got the only 2 hits for the Mets so far, and he's been the only Met hitting with any real consistency in this series. He tries to steal a base, but Ordonez swings at the pitch he's running on and flies out.

In the 6th, Reed is again brilliantly efficient. He's thrown 46 pitches through the first 5 innings, and he gets through the 6th with 9 more. Not only that, he's faced the minimum. In the biggest start of his life, Reed has come up big, if only to keep the game even because his team's not hitting either.

Until John Olerud comes up with 2 out and nobody on in the bottom of the 6th. Any one run could win this game, and that's why it's significant when Olerud hits a 1-1 pitch like a rocket over the wall, a no doubt shot that lands just under the far right end of the scoreboard. Jordan turns and can't even give it a courtesy run. Costas' call: "Olerud drills it to deep right and this one is on its way and gone! And there's the breakthrough!" Valentine in the dugout reacts with only a brief nod of his head.

Now pitching with the lead, Reed goes back to work and mows the Braves down again in the 7th. But this time, he is battling a bit harder. Hello, Larry is the 3rd man to face him, and while the crowd continues to jeer and point at him, Larry works Reed to a 3-1 count. It's Reed's first 3-ball count of the night. But he rebounds, throwing a fastball on 3-2 that tails away from Jones, tails away from his bat for strike 3. Reed pumps his fist as he walks off. The crowd is electric. A fan has K cards with Larry Fine's face.

As the game moves to the top of the 8th, Rickey re-assumes his position out in Left Field. But suddenly, Mora is racing out to him, and Rickey sheepishly walks off. Valentine, admittedly, made a mistake. He wanted to send in Mora for defense, and forgot to make the move. But Rickey is sensitive, and Rickey is insulted. He storms off the field, and runs into the clubhouse. On the mound, Reed has thrown 70 pitches coming into the top of the 8th, and has just been cruising along. There's no reason to think he would have any difficulties here whatsoever, which is why it's so jarring when Brian Jordan drills the first pitch deep to center and off the USPS sign on the front of the bleachers. The ball bounces back on the field, and Costas surmises that it might have hit the top of the wall, as Mora fires the ball back in, but it was over the wall. Home Run, and just like that, tie game. Jordan does his dance-step around the bases, and finishes with his little sidestep across the plate, before charging into the dugout. Wendell and Cook are up in the bullpen immediately. Smoltz is whooping it up. And two pitches later, he's whooping it up even more when Klesko unloads and launches a long Home Run of his own, into the same spot Olerud's went. Klesko drops his bat and waves his arms before rounding the bases, pumping his fist. The Braves are all out of the dugout to greet Klesko. It's taken them 3 pitches, but all of a sudden, they're now 6 outs from the pennant. It's dead quiet at Shea except for the Braves. Wallace and Piazza walk very slowly to the mound. Reed looks disgusted. Everyone looks disgusted. With themselves, and with the world. Valentine can do nothing but pace in the dugout. Reed departs to a standing ovation, a 73 pitch effort that just came apart suddenly at the end. Wendell comes in. Reed is throwing cups around the dugout. Larry and Klesko are horsing around in the Atlanta dugout. Wendell gets through the 8th unscathed. But is there any fight left in the Mets?

Smoltz remains on for Atlanta in the bottom of the 8th, now 6 outs from the pennant. Cedeno leads off, with Remlinger and Rocker in the bullpen, and Matt Franco on deck to hit for Ordonez. Cedeno singles up the middle for his 3rd hit of the night. Agbayani is called back and Ordonez comes to the plate, again to attempt the sacrifice. If Valentine sends up Franco, Cox is certainly going to counter with Remlinger. Ordonez, however, can only pop up the bunt directly to Brian Hunter at first, in for defense. It's almost identical to the stinker he laid in Game 2. Ordonez is booed off. Franco is announced as the pinch hitter for Wendell, and as soon as he is, Cox emerges to remove Smoltz from the game, in favor of Remlinger. Here we go again. Every move the Braves make works, and the Mets can't get a damn thing right. Valentine counters by sending up Agbayani for Franco. Costas and Morgan are beseeching Cedeno to steal second. He bluffs and bluffs but won't go, and eventually, Agbayani strikes out. 4 outs to go for the Braves. Mora is next. On 1-0, Cedeno finally runs. The pitch is low, and it seems like Perez caught it almost standing up. His throw is way off to the right, no chance to get Cedeno. Now, it's down to Mora. And Mora works the count. On 2-0, Mora hits a long drive down the right field line foul. Mora works out the walk. Olerud follows, and Cox makes themove for Rocker. Olerud is now 0-9 with 5K against Rocker, so this is an easy call for Cox. He double switches Rocker into the game, with Ozzie Guillen coming in for Weiss at SS. And as Rocker dashes in, more boos and more projectiles come flying from the stands. Cedeno and Mora talk on the basepaths. There needs to be a plan against Rocker. Try to shake him up and change the Mets luck against him. If not now, then never. He cannot celebrate on our field. Everyone on the Mets side knows this. Rocker is grunting audibly on each pitch again. On 1-1, the runners go. Rocker's pitch is low and in the dirt. Perez cannot make a throw and it's a double steal. Maybe they figured out there is no tomorrow, and now they're letting everything go. The crowd is up again. On 2-2, Olerud bounces one through the middle. Guillen makes a valiant effort, but can only deflect it with his glove, out into short center field! Cedeno scores! Mora is racing for the plate right behind him! Mora scores, and jumps into Cedeno's arms at home. Finally, the Mets catch a break!

Costas' call: "A bouncing ball through the middle. Guillen! Knocks it down but can't make the play! The tying run scores and here comes the lead run as Mora comes across!"
It wasn't at all a pretty hit by Olerud, but it did the job. Finally, the break came for the Mets. Finally, a move worked against the Braves. This was a tough play for Guillen, in the game cold and all, but it's questionable if even Weiss could have made the play. It wasn't much of a hit, but it plates two. Olerud battled Rocker and finally came through. Rocker came with the curve, but it wasn't snapped off quite as sharply as he normally gets it off. With the runner on third, he could not afford to do so, lest he risk a wild pitch. Benitez is finally able to warm up and take the mound with the lead, and the Braves have not been able to hit him at all. Alfonzo Ks, but the Mets get a standing ovation. For the first time in the series, they have gotten the break and taken the late lead. Rocker skulks off the mound quickly, and is stone-faced in the dugout. He sips Gatorade and glares out at the field in frustration.

Benitez comes on for the Mets in the 9th, with the Braves 0-23 against him this season. Guillen leads off, and on 2-1, he gives every fan in attendance a heart attack when he launches a drive deep down the right field line. It has Home Run distance, but it hooks just barely foul at the last second. On the 3-2 pitch, he lines one to right. Cedeno seems to misjudge the ball briefly, and it nearly goes over his head before he twists around, stretches out and makes the catch. Williams flies out to Cedeno on the first pitch. One out from Game 5. Keith Lockhart, a pesky, annoying hitter, hits for Boone. On the bench, Benny Agbayani is praying for the last out. Benitez is pumping fastball after fastball, and Lockhart can't catch up. His final pitch is another one, just on the outside corner. Lockhart is frozen. The Mets have finally broken through in this tense 3-2 victory. "There it is!" is the call from Costas as L.A. Woman plays and the crowd roars. Piazza walks to the mound and embraces Benitez as the Mets stream out of the dugout, victorious at last.

To recap, Costas says "Tonight, at least late in the game, Bobby Valentine's moves worked."
Right after the double switch, Olerud gets the hit off of Guillen's glove, Cedeno and Mora score after a double steal. The ride's not done yet.

On the postgame show, Olerud is his usual blase self. He doesn't say too much, only that "We gotta take it one game at a time. I know that's a cliché, but that's what we got."

Reed follows with "If I coulda crawled under the mound, I would have. But the team battled back and picked me up. There's already pressure, there's no sense in adding pressure to it. We can't win 4 games in one night."

Finally, it's Valentine, who after being asked what he thought about the game, gives the response, "Great for TV, I guess! It's a great break for us." Later, when asked about his team, he offers this response: "I thought we were gonna leave it on the field tonight, and we left it on the field...For 3 games everything we had wasn't working, but those two stolen bases were big...We can't get 3 tomorrow, we can only get one and...someone's gonna do this someday."

Reed is sitting in Valentine's office, and when Bobby comes in, he plants a kiss on Reed's cheek. Costas and Morgan review the highlights of the game. Because it's such a fast game, at 2:20, there's room for more talk and a real postgame show. I return home around midnight, and check the score on my computer. Immediately, I get an instant message from a friend, that simply reads. "ROCKER!!! WE BEAT ROCKER!!!" That's all I need to know.

It's just a prelude for the real drama.

Final Score
Mets - 3
Braves - 2
Braves Lead Series, 3-1

To Be Continued...
Part VII - Just Like You Imagined

1 comment:

dtro said...

I was at this game. And the Todd Pratt game. I've been reading this series on that 99 favorite team of all time, and I just want to thank you for reminding me of all this.

The whole stadium was chanting "Rocker takes it up the ass!" and the Braves' bullpen had tarps stretched over it because all the Mets fans realized that batteries make good projectiles. All I can say is that this night was maybe the highlight of my 13 year old life at the time...until game 5.