1999 Project: Games 66-69

Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.

mcgwiremets.jpgJune 17, 1999: Mets 4, Cardinals 3

Bruce Benedict piloted the Mets for the second and final game of Bobby Valentine’s suspension. This outing in St. Louis was a bit more of a nail-biter than his first one.

It didn’t look that way at first. Al Leiter threw seven great innings, giving up only one run, three hits, and striking out nine. The Cardinals strung together two hits and a sac fly to plate a run against Leiter in the second, but the lefty was otherwise perfect.

The Mets scratched out one run each in the fourth and fifth innings, then got a two-run homer from Robin Ventura in the sixth to go up 4-1. Armando Benitez pitched a 1-2-3 eighth to set up things nicely for John Franco.

But as he so often did, Franco made things difficult. A single by future Met Joe McEwing and a double by Edgar Renteria put runners on second and third for Mark McGwire. Franco got a comebacker from McGwire, but inexplicably threw to third to try and tag out McEwing. The attempt failed, thus loading the bases with no outs. Another future Met, Fernando Tatis, followed with a two-RBI single to cut the lead to one slim run.

Benedict yanked Franco in favor of Dennis Cook, who warmed up quickly in the midst of his fellow lefty’s meltdown. Cook got a strikeout, flyout, and pop-up to strand the tying and winning runs on base and make Benedict a perfect 2-0 in his brief managerial stint.

June 18, 1999: Mets 6, Cardinals 2

With Bobby Valentine back in the driver’s seat, the Mets got some more excellent pitching performances, with a dash of aches and pains. Starter Orel Hershiser gave up only one hit but had to leave after five innings with back spasms. Turk Wendell took over and set the Cards down in order in the sixth and seventh. Two RBIs for both Edgardo Alfonzo and Rickey Henderson, plus a run-scoring single from Rey Ordonez, gave the Mets a 5-0 lead.

Wendell began to tire in the bottom of the eighth, walking the first two batters he faced. He induced a double play, but then gave up a two-run homer to Thomas Howard and single to McEwing. Valentine turned to Benitez to stop the bleeding, but he walked Renteria to bring McGwire to the plate as the tying run.

In all of their previous confrontations, Benitez had either walked or struck out McGwire. It looked like the result would be the former when he quickly went 3-0 on the slugger. But Benitez followed with three called strikes to retire McGwire and end the inning. The last called strike was knee high, in Benitez’s opinion, or lower, as Tony LaRussa saw it. The St. Louis manager argued the called third strike and was ejected for his trouble.

Mike Piazza hit a solo homer in the top of the ninth to give the Mets some insurance. Wanting to stay away from John Franco after his struggles in the previous game, Valentine left Benitez in for the bottom of the ninth, and he retired the Cards with little incident to preserve the victory.

On the transaction front, the Mets made a trade, though not the expected one. Many thought they’d try to deal Bobby Bonilla, who’d contributed little but headaches up to that point in the season.

Instead, the Mets dealt Queens native Allen Watson, who’d made a few starts earlier in the season, to the Mariners in exchange for reliever Mac Suzuki. Watson was out of minor league options and would’ve had to pass through waivers, had the Mets tried to send him down again. Steve Phillips cited Pat Mahomes’ effectiveness as a long reliever as the main impetus behind the deal.

Bonilla was apparently still on the trading block, however. The last whispers said the Red Sox might be interested in the grumbling former slugger.

June 19, 1999: Cardinals 7, Mets 6

Both starters were ineffective in this excruciating, nearly-four-hour affair, the longest nine-inning game in Mets history. After a few encouraging outings, Jason Isringhausen was tattooed for six runs in only 2 2/3 innings of work, including a three-run bomb from McGwire in the first. But Cardinals starter/future Met Darren Oliver fared no better, giving up six runs of his own and two homers (Henderson and Piazza) in four innings of work. Reliever Pat Mahomes gave up an RBI double to Willie McGee (serving his last tour of duty in the bigs that year) in the fourth inning that proved to be the difference.

The Mets almost tied the game in the top of the fifth. With Bonilla on third and Henderson on first, Cards reliever Manny Aybar tried the seldom successful fake-to-third-throw-to-first gambit. As he did, Henderson took off for second, then Bonilla broke home. But McGwire fired a throw home and Bonilla was called out on a close play at the plate. Replays seemed to confirm Valentine’s insistence that Bonilla was safe, but home plate umpire Charlie Williams did not agree.

If it was any consolation, Williams was rough on both teams. His tight strike zone resulted in a ridiculous number of full counts and drove up pitch totals for all hurlers. Oliver, who was unhappy with Williams’ strike zone, threw 121 pitches in only four innings.

June 20, 1999: Mets 9, Cardinals 6

Rick Reed did not fare well in this outing, giving up two homers (including yet another McGwire blast, his 21st of the year) and five runs. But his offense picked him up, paced by Rey Ordonez, of all people.

The normally lumber-allergic shortstop went 3-for-4, and showed some hustle by scoring from second on an infield single–twice. In the top of the third, he plated the Mets’ first run when he ran all the way home on a slow Roger Cedeno groundout. McGwire had his back to the plate, and by the time he realized what was happening, he had no play.

Then in the top of the sixth, Ordonez helped the Mets rally from a four-run deficit to tie and then take the lead. After RBI hits from Robin Ventura and Benny Agbayani cut the Cards’ lead to two, Ordonez hit a two-RBI single to knot the score at 6. He then put the Mets in front on a bizarre play.

St. Louis reliever Rick Croushore attempted to field another Cedeno grounder, but fell down on the field and had no play. Ordonez crossed from second to third on the play, so Croushore–in a sitting position–looked him back before turning his attention to the umpire, for some reason. Ordonez took one step back toward third, then dashed for home. Croushore could not throw him out from his knees, and the Mets had a 7-6 lead.

A sac fly from Luis Lopez and a Piazza RBI single in the top of the ninth padded the Mets’ lead. John Franco allowed a one-out double to McEwing in the ninth, but got a groundout and struck out McGwire to end any further threat.

Ordonez credited his resurgence to either his still-mysterious benching earlier in the season (a knee injury was the professed reason, though many doubted this explanation) or the blond highlights he’d added earlier in June.