1999 Project: Atlanta, Round One

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

chipper2.jpgJune 25, 1999: Mets 10, Braves 2

This late June tilt in Atlanta was, amazingly, the first time the Mets faced the Braves in 1999. The series held some importance, with the Mets only three games out of first after their three-game sweep of Florida. However, as hard as it might be to believe now, the intense rivalry between the two teams hadn’t yet been formed.

For one thing, while the Braves dominated the entire decade of the 1990s, the Mets stayed strenuously non-competitive. It’s hard to start a rivalry when one team refuses to put up a fight.

Granted, at the end of the 1998 season, Atlanta had swept the Mets as part of the five-game skid that cost them a wild card berth. No one seemed to believe that was personal, however (even if those games meant nothing to the Braves, who had already clinched yet another division title). If you read the newspaper accounts prior to this series, you see none of the vitriol and animosity that would emerge in later years–due largely to the many games between the two teams in 1999.

In the Daily News, John Harper wondered if two mainstays of the Braves’ rotation–Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine–were losing their invincibility. The pitchers’ stats to that point in the season were not up their usual lofty standards.

The culprit, so everyone thought, was a more strenuous enforcement of the strike zone. Maddux and Glavine had won Cy Youngs by getting generous strike calls a few inches off the plate. But it would soon become abundantly clear that any rumors of their demise had been greatly exagerrated.

The start of the first game was delayed 45 minutes, due to lighting issues at Turner Field. The Mets would be without Mike Piazza, who was nursing a sore neck he sustained on a Bruce Aven backswing during the Marlins series.

Despite these ill omens, things looked good in the series opener. The Mets took an early lead on a Benny Agbayani solo homer off of Odalis Perez in the top of the second, then notched three more runs against Perez in the top of the sixth with RBI singles from Todd Pratt, Roger Cedeno, and starter Rick Reed. They piled it on against the Braves’ usually strong bullpen, scoring one run in the seventh, two in the eighth, and three in the ninth, en route to a 10-2 victory–their first at Turner Field in almost two years.

Atlanta was reportedly perturbed when Rickey Henderson stole second in the top of the ninth, with the Mets already up 7-2. After the game, Bobby Valentine defended the move, telling reporters, “Rickey’s been in that situation as much as anyone in this room or that room [clubhouse].” In other words, Rickey can steal whenever Rickey feels like it.

June 26, 1999: Braves 7, Mets 2

Pitching prospect Octavio Dotel was called up to take Jason Isringhausen’s spot in the starting rotation and make his major league debut at Turner Field. The jewel of the Mets farm system, Dotel impressed at Norfolk, striking out 17 batters in one triple-A outing. “Dotel, he’s one of their bright ones, right?” Bobby Cox asked reporters before the game. He then invoked the ill-fated memory of Generation K.

It didn’t take long for Dotel to fall behind, as he gave up two walks and a three-run homer to Ryan Klesko in the bottom of the first. The young righty settled in for the next few innings, but was touched up for another three runs in the bottom of the fifth, then yanked for Pat Mahomes.

Tom Glavine was, of course, Vintage (Atlanta) Glavine, going seven innings and giving up only one run. Other than a three-hit top of the sixth that produced a run, the Mets never truly threatened.

During the game, Piazza was bothered by a fan sitting behind the Atlanta dugout who called out his position behind the plate before each pitch. Home plate ump Bob Davidson stalked over in the fan’s general direction just as he removed himself from the stands of his own volition. According to the Daily News, “Piazza was afraid that the extra information may have caused extra contact at home plate.”

June 27, 1999: Braves 1, Mets 0

Masato Yoshii turned in a very good seven innings. Unfortunately, he was opposed by eight excellent innings from Greg Maddux.

The game’s only run came in the bottom of the third, when Eddie Perez hit a one-out single. After Maddux bunted the slow-footed catcher to second, he came around to score on an Ozzie Guillen double. It was the only damage Yoshii would allow, but it was one run too many.

The Mets got a few chances late, but could not convert. In the top of the eighth, Brian McRae worked a leadoff walk, then found himself on third after a sac bunt and a groundout. Valentine sent up Matt Franco to pinch hit, and he worked a full count but flailed at a sharp curveball to strike out and end the inning.

In the top of the ninth, Edgardo Alfonzo managed a one-out single against the Braves’ newly minted closer, John Rocker. Pinch runner Melvin Mora moved to second on a groundout, but after an intentional walk to Piazza, Rocker struck out Robin Ventura to end the game.

After the offensive explosion of the first game, the Mets scored a mere two runs in the last two contests. Still, the Mets–a bit hubristically, perhaps–pronounced themselves optimistic that they could hang with Atlanta for the remainder of the season.

A typically cocky Rickey Henderson said, “From what I see, we have the better club…The one thing I’ve always said about the Atlanta Braves is they’re a lucky club. When you
have luck rolled in and balls going their way, I think they have the little edge over us right now. I think it’s going to be a good run to the end.”

Meanwhile, an atypically generous Chipper Jones said, “I don’t see them going away. They have too many good players.”