1999 Project: Games 110-116 (Mets Drive 55)

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

At the season’s lowest point, Bobby Valentine said he should be given 55 games to lead the Mets out of the wilderness. Game 55 arrived as the Mets returned to Shea, and found the Mets with the best record in baseball, 1.5 games up in first (the Braves shaved a half game off their lead with a win on a Mets off-day).

“When I talked about 55 games, I remember saying, ‘Who knows, maybe we can win 40 of them,’ ” Valentine told Mike Lupica. Amazingly enough, a win in the series opener against the Dodgers would mean the Mets went 40-15 over that stretch.

“Now we’ve got the chance. Now let’s see how we do over the next 55.” As Lupica pointed out, for the Mets to play another 55 games, they would have to make the playoffs.

hundley.jpgThe Dodgers series also meant a Shea return for Todd Hundley. In the Mets’ leaner years, the switch hitting catcher had been a fan favorite (particularly when he set the single-season home run record for catchers). But Mike Piazza’s arrival, repeated clashes with Valentine, and rumors of a drinking problem (among other things) made Hundley expendable. He was dealt in the previous off season, in a three-way trade that brought Armando Benitez and Roger Cedeno to Queens.

The Daily News anticipated a warm reception for Hundley, and no such thing between him and his former manager. Asked if it would be odd to be on the same field as Hundley again, Valentine simply said, “Why would I give a shit?” For his part, Hundley said he wanted “to try to meet [Valentine] in a dark alley.”

The series also meant a return to Shea for LA manager Davey Johnson, who’d led the Mets to a World Series ring. In one of those Only In NY stories, before the series, Johnson was greeted warmly in his hotel lobby by an NYPD officer who was also a September call up for the ’86 Mets. “Funny how small the world is,” Davey marveled.

August 6, 1999: Mets 2, Dodgers 1

Octavio Dotel rebounded from his last rough outing to pitch seven excellent innings and strike out 10 Dodgers–including Hundley three times swinging, much to the delight of Valentine. Despite his futility at the plate, Hundley received a standing ovation from the Shea crowd

The lone LA run came on a bout of rookie jitters in the top of the third. After striking out the first two batters, he allowed a single to opposing starter Chan Ho Park (who brought a good number of Korean-Americans to the ballpark, according to the Daily News). Perhaps a bit rattled, Dotel hit a batter and issued a walk to load the bases, then balked to bring in a run.

But the Mets came right back in the bottom half. Cedeno hit a one-out single, stole second and third, then scored on a sac fly from Edgardo Alfonzo to tie the game. In the fourth, Robin Ventura continued his hot hitting with a leadoff double, moved to third on a sac bunt, and scored on a sac fly. It was all the offense the Mets would need. Dotel allowed just three hits and two walks.

After retiring the first two batters in the eighth, Dennis Cook allowed a double to Mark Grudzielanek. Turk Wendell came on to induce an inning-ending pop-up from pinch hitter Gary Sheffield. In the ninth, after striking out Devon White, Benitez allowed a single to Eric Karros and a walk to Hundley to put the go-ahead runs on base. But he fanned Raul Mondesi and Adrian Beltre to end the game.

August 7, 1999: Dodgers 7, Mets 6

Al Leiter wasn’t overpowering–he gave up four runs–but he did have stamina, going 7 2/3 innings. That looked like it might be enough when the Mets scored five runs off of Dodger starter Jamie Arnold. Cook bailed out Leiter from a jam in the eighth to preserve the lead.

In the top of the ninth, Valentine was reluctant to turn to Benitez, who’d struggled lately and thrown 26 pitches in his save in the previous game. So he brought in the recently acquired Billy Taylor. The big righty had experience as a closer, but didn’t look like it when he fell behind to Gary Sheffield, then gave up a game-tying homer.

Taylor got into more trouble with a one-out walk to Mondesi, who then stole second. After an intentional walk to Beltre, Valentine brought in another recent acquisition, Chuck McElroy. But Mondesi and Beltre stole third and second, and both scored on Craig Counsell’s two-out double.

The Mets tried to mount a comeback in the bottom of the ninth. Cedeno singled to lead off the inning, stole second, and moved to third when Alfonzo reached on an error. Olerud followed with an RBI single, and the Mets looked poised to tie the game. But with the infield drawn in, Piazza hit into a double play, and Agbayani grounded out to end the game.

The Braves’ 15-4 drubbing of the Giants in Atlanta brought the Mets’ lead in the NL East down to a mere half game.

August 8, 1999: Dodgers 14, Mets 3

After a promising start his last time out, Rick Reed was forced to leave this game after only 26 pitches with a strained middle finger. It was unpleasantly reminiscent of the injury suffered by John Franco earlier in the year, one that had him on the shelf for five weeks already. “Last year…every catcher who came up got hurt,” Reed recalled. “Now I guess we’re the middle finger team.”

Presumably, Masato Yoshii would replace Reed if he was out for an extended period of time. So Valentine brought him in to be the long man, and the first pitch he threw was clubbed for a three-run homer. By opposing pitcher Darren Dreifort. To straight-away center, 406 feet away. It was that kind of day for the Mets.

Yoshii gave up five runs total, and none of his fellow relievers fared much better. Pat Mahomes gave up three runs, Chuck McElroy two. For the second time that season, Valentine was forced to use Matt Franco as a reliever in the ninth inning, this time for a full inning (he swapped places with McElroy, putting the lefty reliever in left field). Franco gave up a hit, a run, walked three, and struck out one, thus earning the best line of any Mets pitcher that day.

The only bright spot was Atlanta’s loss to the Giants, which kept them in first place by a half game. For now.

August 9, 1999: Dodgers 9, Mets 2

Kevin Brown was nigh unhittable, and Orel Hershiser was anything but. The Mets could do almost nothing against Brown; two singles in the fourth passed for a rally. Brown–owner of the most ridonkulous contract of his era (both in terms of money and years)–induced groundball after futile groundball. He was only lifted after seven innings because the Dodgers were already up 7-0.

Though this marked the first time in a month the Mets had lost three consecutive games, it was enough to send them back into second place, thanks to the Braves’ 5-3 win over the Astros.

August 10, 1999: Mets 4, Padres 3

Early on, this looked like another frustrating game for the Mets. Kenny Rogers gave up three runs to a Padres team that hadn’t scored that many times in 30 innings. He allowed two hits to the opposing pitcher, Andy Ashby (including a two-out double that scored the third San Diego run). The opposition pronounced Rogers “thoroughly unimpressive”.

A few promising rallies were squashed by double plays. And even after the Mets had tied the game at three in the bottom of the fifth on an Olerud two-RBI single, Piazza fouled out to strand the go-ahead on third.

But Olerud saved the day again with a single in the bottom of the seventh to score the go-ahead run. Another pop-up from Piazza earned him some boos from the fickle crowd; he’d gone 0 for 8 in the last two games.

Benitez worked around a leadoff single by Tony Gwynn (who had recently collected his 3,000th career hit) to save the game.

August 11, 1999: Mets 12, Padres 5

After waiting out a rain delay, Octavio Dotel struggled through a rough first inning, walking four and allowing two runs. The Mets tied it up, thanks to a two-run homer from Alfonzo in the bottom half. But Dotel struggled again in the fifth, giving up several hits and hitting a batter. Chuck McElroy was brought in to douse the fire, but he allowed an inherited runner to score. Pat Mahomes came to the mound after him and also allowed one of Dotel’s runners to come home to put the Padres up 5-2.

But not for the first time that season, Mahomes helped out his team with his bat, leading off the bottom of the fifth with a single. After a walk to Henderson moved Mahomes to second, Alfonzo doubled both of them home. Piazza singled Fonzie home to tie the game, and following a single by Agbayani, he came home with the go-ahead run on a Shawon Dunston single.

Given a lead to work with, Mahomes went back to the mound and quieted San Diego for two innings. His offense exploded for six runs in the bottom of the seventh, a rally started by a Ventura homer and continued by a bases loaded walk to Alfonzo (his fifth RBI of the game) and two-RBI singles from Olerud and Ventura. The rally assured Mahomes his sixth relief win of the year.

August 12, 1999: Mets 9, Padres 3

The Mets scored three runs in the first, third, and fifth innings to give a healthy lead to Al Leiter. Amazingly, the extremely light hitting Leiter contributed with a bases-clearing double in the fifth. The lefty kept the Padres out of the hit column for four innings, and cruised through his seven innings of work with little trouble, with the exception of a three-run top of the fifth.

For the offense, Hamilton and Cedeno hit homers, and Ventura drove in two runs. The victory meant the Mets would head to West Coast tied for first with the Braves, who had the day off.