Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
This was another highly anticipated series. For one thing, the Astros had playoff aspirations, which was reasonable, given they won 102 games the year before. For another, the two teams had some unresolved issues from the previous season.
In 1998, the Mets won three out of four at the Astrodome in a thrilling late September series, the last victory aided by a dramatic homer by Mike Piazza off of Houston closer/future Met Billy Wagner with two out in the ninth inning. The wins catapulted the Mets into the wild card lead (briefly, as it turned out), and also planted the seeds for some serious hostility.
In the only game the Astros won, (another future Met) Derek Bell admired a home run just a bit too long, drawing the ire of reliever Turk Wendell. This led to a few beanballs and chin music the rest of the series and carried over into the teams’ spring training meetings in 1999. Despite all of this, Wendell insisted all was well between the two teams (he and Wagner were real close, or so he said). Craig Biggio was not so sure.
I don’t want to comment on it…There’s been some stuff that’s happened here. Baseball usually takes care of itself. We just play.
In the 1999 series opener, Roger Cedeno subbed for Rickey Henderson in left and had a Henderson-esque day, swiping two bags, scoring two runs, and turning a single into a double. The Mets struck for four runs in the first inning against Chris Holt–although right fielder Mike Kinkade drove in a run by being struck with the ball with the bases loaded–and never looked back.
The Astros pulled close on a two-run homer by (yet another future Met) Richard Hidalgo, but Cedeno’s double and subsqeuent scoring plated a much needed insurance run. In his first start since coming off the disabled list, Rick Reed threw six solid innings, despite having nothing but his fastball to work with. John Franco set down Houston 1-2-3 in the ninth for his tenth save in as many chances.
Al Leiter threw six good innings, limiting the Astros to just one run. Unfortunately, he continued to pitch after that.
In the seventh, after getting two quick outs, the lefty gave up a triple to opposing pitcher/still yet another future Met/school system critic Mike Hampton, who was not yet known as a good-hitting pitcher (at the time, his lifetime batting average was .192). This was followed immediately by an RBI double to Biggio and a two-run homer to Bell.
Despite a 4-1 deficit, Leiter had a reasonable pitch count and came out to start the eighth. But he gave up hits to the first three batters he faced and was promptly lifted.
This was the second time in a month that Leiter was left in to absorb more damage after a big inning, but the pitcher didn’t blame Bobby Valentine. “If anything, I’m more pissed off at myself,” Leiter said after the game.
This game wasn’t Armando Benitez’s first failure as a Met, but it was probably the one that began the Benitez Rumblings. The ones that lingered from his days in Baltimore, where it was said he was incapable of getting The Big Outs. (You know, those rumblings that turned out to be totally true.)
The Mets took a 4-3 lead into the eighth. Bobby Jones threw five decent innings and the bullpen held the Astros at bay until the eighth. Benitez came on and promptly walked thoroughly anemic batter Chris Spiers. He retired Biggio and Bell with little incident, but then gave up a two-run homer to Jeff Bagwell, thus giving the Astros the 5-4 lead they would never relinquish.
The Mets put threatened briefly in their half of the eighth, after a walk and a hit batter with two out. But then Wagner was called on for a four-out save, and the closer promptly struck out all four men he faced. It was a disappointing loss, as the Daily News pointed out:
there’s a big difference between a 7-2 home stand and 6-3 when you lose the last one. Or more specifically when you lose a game you figured you had won.