Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lost Classics: August 1, 1998

This was the unofficial winner of the Choose the Lost Classic for 1998 poll.

With the current version of the Mets spiraling hopelessly out of control, I guess I should stop channeling my frustrations towards the team into this Blog, and start doing more Lost Classics, and fond memories of the Mets and Shea Stadium as its days wind down.

10 years ago, the Mets were in the beginning stages of their late 90s renaissance under Bobby Valentine. An uneven start to the season turned to a midsummer hot streak, beginning with the Mike Piazza trade of May 22nd. Players like Al Leiter and John Olerud were enjoying career years, and Rick Reed emerged as an All-Star talent.

Say, let's talk a little more about Rick Reed.

In 1998, Rick Reed came into his own. After resurrecting his career in 1997, Reed began '98 firmly entrenched in the Mets rotation. He began to reel off a string of stellar outings, including a tantalizing near-perfect game on June 8th, which would eventually earn him a spot on the National League All-Star team. By the end of July, he stood at 11-7, with a sterling 2.75 ERA. His won-loss record suffered, however, due to several outings in which he would pitch brilliant baseball for 7 or 8 innings, but the Mets bats failed to back him, and his efforts would go for naught.

This pattern appeared primed to continue in his start on August 1st, 1998, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Coming into this game, a Saturday night affair, the Mets stood at 56-50, 4 games out of the Wildcard spot behind the Chicago Cubs, and a hopeless 14 games behind the Atlanta Braves. The focus right now was on the Wildcard, and several moves were made in a frenzied trading deadline to try to bolster the Mets roster. Gone were players like Bernard Gilkey, and acquired for the stretch run were Outfielder Tony Phillips, acquired from Toronto for a minor leaguer, and pitcher Willie Blair and Catcher Jorge Fabregas, acquired from Arizona for Gilkey and prospects.

The Dodgers were hanging tough themselves. Loaded with talented new faces acquired from their dealing of Piazza on May 15th, the Dodgers stood at 57-52, merely percentage points behind the Mets.

This particular Saturday Night was Hispanic Night, in the midst of the highly popular International Week that the Mets used to hold during the late 90s and into the early 2000s. 42,224 were on hand for this game, on a beautiful late Summer evening, although from my recollection, the stadium seemed much more full.

Unable to find work after my first year of College, I had spent my summer, to this point, volunteering at a Child Services center in The Bronx. It exhausted me and sapped most of my days. Many of my nights that summer were spent at Shea Stadium. In fact, during the 1998 season, I spent 28 such nights (and afternoons) at Shea, often attending games on two or three consecutive nights, and mixing in several doubleheaders. I took a personal three-game winning streak into this game.

Generally, I had been sitting in the Loge, as those seats were both close to the action and, back in those days, affordable. But this night, the Loge was sold out. I asked for the Mezzanine. That was mostly sold out too. I settled for a seat far, far out in Right Field, Section 29, Row K, Seat 9. And I settled in for the 7:10pm Saturday night start.

It is, indeed, Rick Reed on the mound for the Mets, facing off against temperamental lefthander Carlos Perez for LA. And Reed and Perez settle down into a nice pitchers duel from the outset. In the first, Reed allows a single up the middle to Mark Grudzielanek with one out. But it goes nowhere as Sheffield follows by smacking a 2-1 pitch right to Alfonzo at 3rd, who zips a throw to Baerga at 2nd, and the quick turn to first for the DP to end the inning.

In the Mets half, more of the same. A 2-out single from Olerud is for naught as Piazza grounds into a fielders choice.

And so it went. Reed allows a 2-out double to Trenidad Hubbard in the 2nd. Perez walks Baerga and Ordonez with 2-out in the Mets half. Olerud reaches on a 2-out hit in the 3rd, and Perez follows by walking Piazza on 4 pitches. But Brian McRae grounds into a fielders choice to end the inning. In the 5th, it's the newcomer Phillips drawing a 1-0ut walk, but he's erased on an Alfonzo DP.

Meanwhile, Reed is humming along. After Hubbard's double in the 2nd, Reed proceeds to retire 13 Dodgers in a row, a string that lasts all the way to the 7th inning. This string is broken rather rudely when Grudzielanek leads off with a grounder up the middle for his 2nd hit, and Sheffield follows by fisting a bloop single in front of McRae. It's the first real threat by either team all night. If there was action in the Mets bullpen, I certainly didn't see it. Besides, I wanted to see Reed buckle down and get out of the jam. First, that Eric Karros fellow hit a lazy fly out to right. Huskey made the play, but Grudzielanek tagged up and moved to 3rd. Now, the Mets had to shorten up on the infield. The way this game was going, one run might well be the difference. Matt Luke followed, but Reed went right after him. After fouling off the first pitch, Reed gets Luke to whiff at the next two pitches for the second out. Hubbard follows, and on the 1-1 pitch, he slaps a harmless ground ball at Ordonez, who throws him out to end the inning. We all pump our fists emphatically as the Mets go off the field.

But Perez is just as game. In the Mets half of the 7th, Perez again walks Baerga and Ordonez, this time with 1 out. Reed hits for himself—perhaps a questionable move—and flies to center. Phillips, again a chance to be the hero in his Mets debut, hits a smash to 3rd, but right at Adrian Beltre, who throws to Eric Young at 2nd for the force. Perez exits after his 7 taut innings and 99 pitches, allowing no runs on 2 hits, and 4 strikeouts, but an unseemly 6 walks that could have undone him, yet didn't. He would not club any water coolers with a baseball bat following this solid outing.

It's clearly going to take an odd break for something to happen in this game. In the 8th, it appears that it's the Dodgers who are the recipient of a break.

With 2 out and nobody on, it's Alex Cora who bats for Perez. Luis Lopez had entered the game as a pinch runner for Baerga in the 7th inning. As Reed works the count to 1-2, the fans are all up, cheering Reed on for the strikeout. But Cora instead hits a grounder towards Lopez at second. Lopez eases to his right, but boots the ball. Cora is safe on the error. And he's running on the 2-0 pitch to Eric Young when Young turns on the ball and laces it just inside the left field line and down into the corner. The crowd, loud all night, is suddenly quiet as Cora races home with the game's first run, an unearned run at that. Young's double has broken the deadlock and is the first blemish on what has otherwise been a brilliant outing for Reed. Reed follows by getting Grudzielanek to line out to Olerud, finally ending the inning.

In the last of the 8th, it appears that the Mets might work a little magic of their own. Alfonzo leads off against Scott Radinsky by singling to left. Olerud follows by chopping a curve up the middle. It appears as though it might be a DP, but Grudzielanek can't handle it, and everyone's safe on his error. Now, it's the Mets turn to strike. The fans are up as Radinsky departs in favor of Antonio Osuna, the righty in to face Piazza. But the cheers for Piazza quickly turn to those boos that would chase him throughout the '98 season as he flies to Grudzielanek in short left. Osuna follows by striking out McRae, and getting Lenny Harris, pinch-hitting for Huskey, to line out to Sheffield in right.

Undaunted, Reed is back out there for the 9th. Why not? Aside from a 1-out single from Karros, Reed cruises through the 9th, and unless the Mets can come back, appears primed to be saddled with yet another undeserved loss. Over his 126 pitches, Reed allowed 6 hits, no walks, 6 strikeouts and one large unearned run. He deserves a better fate. But as Ace Closer Jeff Shaw trots in for the Dodgers, the chances of a better fate happening seem slim. But we believe. The scoreboard trumpets the Mets Marketing slogan for that season: "BELIEVE IN THE '98 METS!"

Luis Lopez, destined to be the evening's goat, leads off against Shaw by popping out to Young. Matt Franco follows up as the pinch-hitter for Ordonez. And it's Franco who turns the game around. Franco, to this point, had been the Mets key lefty pinch hitter, or at least in tandem with Lenny Harris. He'd been decent, if unspectacular, and he hadn't hit any HRs to this point in the season. Given his reputation, I wasn't exactly expecting one here.

I glance away for a second after the 1-0 pitch. The next thing I know, the entire stadium is on their feet screaming. I look up and see a ball sailing towards me, a bit to my right. I leap up and watch as it comes closer, and closer, and finally sails out of sight behind the end of the right field stands, landing into the Mets bullpen for the tying HR. It's Franco's first of the season, and, man, it couldn't have come at a better time. Shaw appears stunned on the mound. The fans continue to stand and cheer. I swear, if there were 42,000 fans at this game, people must have been materializing because it sure as hell sounded like 57,000.

But the Mets weren't done. Todd Hundley followed, pinch-hitting for Reed. Shaw, at this point, was clearly rattled. Not wanting to serve one up to Hundley, Shaw instead walked him on 4 pitches. Tony Phillips followed by working the count full before striking out for the 2nd out of the inning. It was Alfonzo next. Alfonzo took a pair of quick strikes before swinging at the 3rd pitch. He would send Shaw's offering deep into the gap in left center, splitting Luke and Hubbard and banging off the wall, near the 396 marker. Everyone was up and cheering as Hundley motored around the bases, being waved home. Hubbard's relay throw to Grudzielanek bounced, and Grudzielanek's throw home was nowhere close. Hundley scored standing, and the fans, whipped up into a tizzy by this stirring comeback, were just about ready to rush the field. The Mets streamed out of the dugout to mob Alfonzo near second base. With the Mets appearing doomed, Franco and Alfonzo turned the game around and gave the Mets a huge, 2-1 victory in midst of their drive towards a potential Wildcard berth.

But, lost in the shuffle of these clutch hits was the winning pitcher, the guy who absolutely pitched his heart out only to appear to be on the short end of the stick once again. Instead of an undeserved loss, he would be rewarded for his strong outing with his 12th win of the year. The winning pitcher? Rick Reed.

The Mets would continue to play strong baseball against the West Coast teams through August, and won a number of heart-stopping games in September as well. But their hopes of a Wildcard would be dashed in the end, after a 5-game losing streak hit them at the worst time, losing their final 3 games of the season in excruciating fashion to the Atlanta Braves, who seemed to enjoy beating the Mets a little too much.

Although it wouldn't end well, 1998 often gets lost among some of the better Mets seasons. The '98 Mets played a number of tight, exciting games throughout their season, and it's games like this that often are forgotten because of how the season turned out. It's games like this that are Lost Classics in the truest sense of the word.

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