1999 Project: Games 104-109 (Flirting with First)

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

wrigley.jpgJuly 30, 1999: Mets 10, Cubs 9

The Mets began a six-game road trip by outlasting the Cubs in a sweltering game at Wrigley. A heat index of 114 knocked out local TV transmission and some of the traffic lights outside the stadium. Even players who hailed from the Caribbean and South America said it was some of the most oppressive weather they’d ever played in. “Just thank God there was no Astroturf,” Mike Piazza said after the game, “or they would have been taking corpses off the field.”

Masato Yoshii had his shortest outing of the year, lasting only 1 1/3 innings and allowing seven runs. After giving up a 465-foot bomb of a homer to Sammy Sosa in the first, Yoshii was knocked out of the game by a brutal second inning in which he gave up seven consecutive hits (including a single by starter Steve Trachsel and back-to-back triples by Mickey Morandini and Sosa).

Pat Mahomes came on in long relief and held the Cubs to two hits and one run in 4 2/3 innings, allowing the Mets the chance to come back. He also helped spark that come back with an RBI double that sent Trachsel to the showers in the fourth. The Mets took an 8-7 lead thanks to two-run rallies in the third, fourth, and fifth, but a solo shot from Jose Hernandez in the bottom of the fifth tied the game up. Rickey Henderson responded with a homer of his own in the top of the sixth, and John Olerud hit another to give the Mets a 10-8 lead.

Brought in for the save, Armando Benitez got two quick outs, then gave up a double to Morandini and an RBI single to Sosa that shaved the Mets’ lead to one run. Mark Grace followed with a single that moved the tying run to third. Pinch hitter Tyler Houston hit a shot off of Benitez’s right leg, and the pitcher could not locate the ball at first. After a few helpful screams from Piazza, Benitez threw Houston out at first to end the game.

The reward for their perserverence (other than the win, of course): first place, thanks to a Braves loss to Philly. The Mets hadn’t been in first so late in a season since 1990.

July 31, 1999: Cubs 17, Mets 10

Octavio Dotel had a truly brutal outing, giving up nine runs in just two innings of work. He allowed two runs to score in the first on bases loaded walks, then gave up a grand slam to Gary Gaetti.

The Mets did their best to overcome this deficit, and even tied the game in the fifth inning, thanks in large part to two two-run homers and six RBIs from Robin Ventura. But the Cubs pounded the Met bullpen for eight runs, while the Cub relievers stifled the Mets the rest of the way. Jason Isringhausen got the worst of it, giving up five runs. With a depleted relief corps, Bobby Valentine was tempted to use Matt Franco as a pitcher for the second time that season.

He was spared that decision, but not much else. The Mets loss and an Atlanta win dropped them back into second place.

Back in New York, GM Steve Phillips made a few deals to bolster the Mets’ bench and bullpen just before the non-waiver trade deadline. Brian McRae, Rigo Beltran, and a minor leaguer were dealt to Colorado for outfielder Darryl Hamilton and lefty reliever Chuck McElroy. Minor leaguer Craig Paquette was traded to St. Louis for Shawon Dunston. Both Dunston and Hamilton would help out the Mets in big ways down the stretch, and neither had cost the Mets too much in terms of talent.

But Phillips being Phillips, he also managed an incredibly shortsighted deal: Isringhausen was shipped to Oakland for reliever Billy Taylor. Although Taylor had 100 saves under his belt, most of the dividends of this trade would go to the A’s (as was the case pretty much every time Billy Beane dealt with the Mets).

August 1, 1999: Mets 5, Cubs 4 (13)

Al Leiter had one of his best outings of the year, striking out 15 Cubs. He also went seven innings, which should have limited the stress on the Mets’ overworked bullpen. But Benitez could not protect the 3-2 lead he was handed in the ninth, giving up a leadoff homer to Henry Rodriguez to tie the game. Thus began yet another parade of relievers on another hot Chicago afternoon.

The Mets went ahead again in the top of the tenth, when Henderson walked, stole second, advanced to third on an error, and scored on an Edgardo Alfonzo sac fly. But Valentine opted to stick with Benitez in the bottom half. He walked the first two batters and got the hook. After Billy Taylor induced a groundout and issued an intentional walk, Dennis Cook got a grounder to first that might have resulted in a force out at home or a game-ending double play, but it kicked off of John Olerud’s glove for an error, allowing the tying run to score.

The eleventh and twelfth innings passed with little incident for both sides. Then Roger Cedeno led off the top of the thirteenth with a double. After two hard outs that failed to advance him, the Cubs opted to walk Benny Agbayani and face reliever Pat Mahomes, knowing the Mets couldn’t afford to pinch hit for their long man. Mahomes responded with an RBI single to put the Mets on top yet again. He worked around a two-out double in the bottom half to seal the win.

1999_ventura_mil.pngAugust 2, 1999: Mets 7, Brewers 2

“Rick Reed pitched like he used to,” wrote Rafael Hermoso in the Daily News, “and so did Hideo Nomo.” In Reed’s case, Hermoso referred to Reed the former All Star. The righty went seven innings and limited the Brewers to two runs in the series opener in Milwaukee.

His improvement was credited to either a new glove placement (devised after watching video of his earlier, more successful self) or the suggestion of Leiter and pitching coach Dave Wallace to throw more breaking pitches. Valentine also surmised that with the trade deadline passed, Reed was no longer worried about being dealt. In either case, after months of struggling, Reed had a brief, R-rated summation of his performance: “Fuckin’ finally.”

In Nomo’s case, Hermoso was not referring to the pitcher who baffled the National League in 1995, but the one the Mets released in spring training. He gave up solo homers to Ventura, Darryl Hamilton (in his first Met start), and Piazza, Nomo’s battery mate during his heyday. The win brought the Mets back into a tie for first place with the idle Braves.

One sour note: Henderson aggravated a hip flexor trying to leg out a double in the third inning and had to leave the game. Shawon Dunston took over for him and collected a hit, an RBI, and a run scored.

August 3, 1999: Mets 10, Brewers 3

Before the game, the Mets surprised almost everyone by announcing that Masato Yoshii would be moved to the bullpen. Many suspected the odd man out of the rotation would be either Reed or Orel Hershiser. But Reed had just pitched a fine outing, and Hershiser reinforced the decision with 7 1/3 (mostly) strong innings of his own.

The Mets scored six runs against one-time Generation K member Bill Pulsipher, including one homer apiece from Piazza and Ventura (who had four hits total and three RBIs). They also got two runs on a double steal, thanks to a throwing error by Brewers catcher Brian Banks.

Hershiser left a mess for Turk Wendell in the eighth, with one run in already and the bases loaded with one out. But the lefty induced a double play to end the inning, and Yoshii retired the Brewers easily in his first relief appearance in the ninth.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Kris Benson shut down the Braves as easily as he’d shut down the Mercury Mets the week before. So the Mets found themselves all alone in first again, a game ahead of Atlanta.

August 4, 1999: Mets 9, Brewers 5

Ventura hit a two-run homer, his third long ball in as many games. With the recent news that Mark McGwire was (supposedly) no longer taking androstenedione, the third baseman insisted, “I’m not either.”

The Mets touched up Milwaukee starter Kyle Peterson for seven runs in the first three innings. Kenny Rogers wasn’t exactly overpowering; he allowed three home runs (after allowing only eight in his previous 125+ innings) to account for all five of the Brewers’ runs. But he also contributed an RBI single in the top of the second.

In Pittsburgh, the Pirates edged the Braves 3-2, meaning the Mets would return to Shea a full two games in first place. The team had lost only four games since the All Star break, and it seemed nothing could break their momentum or concentration. Not even the fabled Milwaukee Sausage Race.