Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
The Mets had just snapped an eight-game losing steak and left the limelight of the Subway Series behind. But the media (and the front office) weren’t ready to let the team off the hook just yet. Fred Wilpon (at the time a co-owner of the team, along with Nelson Doubleday) gave Bobby Valentine a tepid vote of confidence, but didn’t guarantee the manager would finish the season with the team.
To many writers, Valentine’s exit was not a question of if, but when. His recently departed coaches attested to his managerial skills, but their praise could do little to ensure his future. Meanwhile, Bob Raismann raked ESPN’s Jon Miller and Joe Morgan over the coals for their failure to ask Steve Phillips tough questions during their Sunday night telecast.
Amid this maelstrom, the Mets had another interleague matchup, welcoming the Blue Jays to Shea. Toronto was a team mostly bereft of stars, save for their slugging first baseman Carlos Delgado. They also had a promising young pitcher, Roy Halladay, who started the first game of the series. But Doc was not yet the ace he would become, and the Mets touched him up for six runs and three homers (one by Mike Piazza, two more by Benny Agbayani) in five innings of work.
Almost as encouraging as two consecutive offensive explosions were two quality starts in a row. Orel Hershiser was certainly not overpowering, but the six innings and two earned runs on his record were more than appreciated by the Mets and their taxed bullpen.
After the game, the crafty pitcher told reporters that when his shoulders sagged on the mound, that didn’t mean he was tiring.
I looked like that on purpose. I’m kind of carrying myself out there like I’m tired, but I’m not really tired at all. I’m doing that to conserve energy before the pitch, because if I go out there and get all into it the way I feel emotionally, then I feel like I’m expending energy. So on hot days, it looks like I’m tired, but I’m not.
Jason Isringhausen pitched 5 2/3 solid innings, allowing only two runs on two hits. Mindful of his injury history, Valentine removed the righty once he’d hit the 100 pitch mark. Bolstered by a homer by Edgardo Alfonzo early and another by Roger Cedeno late, it was good enough for his first major league win in almost two years.
Izzy pitched knowing that Bobby Jones had just been cleared to throw again, thus jeopardizing his spot in the rotation. That, and his history of misfortune, weighed heavily on his mind. “I get teased that every time I go out there, there’s a black cloud over the stadium,” he told reporters. “At times, if I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all.”
Even in a season rife with straight-up insane games, this contest stands out, and provided a signature Bobby Valentine moment. The fact that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez threw out the first pitch is probably the least crazy detail.
The Mets were down two men before the game even began. Agbayani had been hit near the eye during batting practice and had to sit out. It was also announced that Bobby Bonilla would sit for the next six days for undisclosed reasons (the team denied insubordination was the cause).
David Wells made his first start in New York after being traded to Toronto for Roger Clemens. As Faith and Fear in Flushing noted, there were a considerable number of Yankee fans at Shea to cheer on Boomer. They had plenty to cheer about for the first eight innings, as Wells kept the Mets off the scoreboard. The Blue Jays got to Rick Reed for two solo homers and an RBI double, which looked like all the offense Wells would need.
But much like Curt Schilling did in May, Wells made the mistake of trying to throw a complete game. After John Olerud reached on a fielder’s choice, Piazza hit a single to bring Robin Ventura to the plate as the tying run. Wells still managed to get Ventura down to his last strike, but after fouling off five pitches, the third baseman ripped a double to score two runs.
Wells was removed for closer Billy Koch, but Brian McRae hit a double of his own to score pinch-runner Luis Lopez and tie the game. And then the fun really began.
As the game dragged on into extra frames, Valentine was forced to be creative, and in some cases reckless. He used Todd Pratt as a pinch hitter in the eighth inning, thus burning his only backup catcher. Even Jason Isringhausen was prepared to enter the game as a pinch runner.
Perhaps that’s why he got punchy in the top of the twelfth, when home plate ump Randy Marsh awarded Craig Grebeck first on catcher’s interference. Valentine argued the call vociferously and was ejected.
Reliever Pat Mahomes escaped that jam, and Valentine thought he’d found a way to escape his own predicament. He reentered the dugout wearing sunglasses, a Mets t-shirt, a black cap with an inscrutable logo, and an extremely fake painted mustache. This might have made his team laugh, but it didn’t amuse Marsh, who ejected Valentine for a second time. (The skipper’s costume hijinks would eventually lead to a suspension.)
In his absence, Mahomes pitched two more scoreless innings, and the Mets finally got their chance in the bottom of the fourteenth. Walks to Lopez and McRae started the inning, and after Cedeno bunted them over to second and third, the anemic bat of Rey Ordonez somehow managed to poke a single over the drawn-in infield to score the winning run.
Four hours and thirty-five minutes after first pitch, the Mets had an improbable victory, a three-game sweep of Toronto, and a four-game winning streak. The problems of the previous week weren’t quite in the rear-view mirror yet, but this was a good start.