1999 Project: Games 117-122 (West Coast Swing #1)

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

candlestick.jpgThis West Coast trip would include the Mets’ last series at Candlestick Park (called 3Com Park at the time, thanks to corporate whim). The Giants were set to move to brand new Pac Bell Park the following April, a stadium whose downtown location and planned amenities already drew raves. In a bit of news I don’t think came to pass, the Daily News reported “the actor Don Novello, also known as Father Guido Sarducci on Saturday Night Live, is training dogs to jump into the South Beach bay and
retrieve baseballs”.

Trained dogs or no, Pac Bell would be a marked improvement over Candlestick, to say the least. The old ballpark would not be missed by many, least of all the athletes who had to play there. Darryl Hamilton (an ex-Giant) hated the place so much that, during his last trip there as a Rockie, according to the Daily News, “he gave the ‘Stick a parting salute” (leading the reader to believe his salute was of the one-gun variety).

Swirling wind and frigid conditions at all times of the year, combined with shoddy construction, made Candlestick one of the game’s least liked facilities. It was certainly unliked by the Mets, who traditionally struggled there and on West Coast trips in general. That didn’t bode well for the team, since this would be their first of three cross-country trips before the end of the season.

August 13, 1999: Giants 3, Mets 2

In his injury-necessitated return to the starting rotation, Masato Yoshii performed okay, but put himself in a jam in the first inning by giving up a double and walking two to load the bases. Bill Mueller hit a grounder to second that might have resulted in an out by the sure-handed Edgardo Alfonzo, but Luis Lopez was starting in his place (Fonize was attending a family funeral in Venezuela), and he committed an error that allowed the first Giants run to score.

Yoshii also gave up solo homers to Rich Aurilia and Marvin Benard, which proved to be the difference. The Mets could do little against Russ Ortiz, the Giants ace on his way to an 18-win season. Mike Piazza hit a solo shot off of him in the fourth inning, and the Mets scratched out a run on a groundout in the seventh, but nothing else.

The Mets almost rallied, with two two-out singles in the ninth against closer Rob Nen, but  Benny Agbayani grounded out to end the game. The loss, combined with a Braves win in LA, dropped the Mets back into second place.

August 14, 1999: Mets 6, Giants 1

Orel Hershiser played for the Giants in 1998, but opted to sign with the Mets in the off-season. This annoyed San Francisco GM Brian Sabean to the point that he talked smack about Hershiser at every conceivable opportunity. Following the Mets’ three game sweep of the Giants at Shea, outfielder Charlie Hayes called the Mets’ starters from that series (which included Hershiser) “probably the worst three starters we’ve faced all season.”

His former team also tried to test Hershiser in the field; the first two batters he faced (Benard and Ramon Martinez) laid down bunts to try the mobility of the 41-year-old. So the righty had plenty of motivation to stick it to the Giants, and stick it he did. Ironically, he was the rare hurler who liked pitching at Candlestick. “The wind has been a lot of fun for me because it helps my movement,” Hershiser said.

Though Hershiser gave up a run on a single by Giants starter Kirk Reuter in the second, he allowed nothing else in his six innings of work. The Mets put up a five-spot in the fourth inning, which included a two-run homer from Piazza. With numerous relatives in attendance who’d made the trip from Hawaii, Benny Agbayani went 3 for 5 and knocked in two runs.

August 15, 1999: Mets 12, Giants 5

The Giants took an early 3-1 lead against Kenny Rogers, thanks in part to solo homers from Aurilia and Barry Bonds (whose bat had been mostly quiet throughout the series). But for the second straight game, the Mets notched a five-run inning. All five runs scored with two outs, all against Livan Hernandez, a trade deadline acquisition they’d faced twice that season as a Marlin.

Rey Ordonez led off the top of the fifth with a single, and after two outs, Alfonzo (just back from Venezuela) finally knocked him in with an RBI single. After Fonzie stole second, Hernandez issued walks to Olerud and Piazza, which brought up Ventura with the bases loaded. As he’d done twelve times in his career (and twice in one day earlier this season), the third baseman connected for a grand slam to give the Mets a 6-3 lead. Fonzie made his presence known in his return to the lineup. He hit a homer to lead off the seventh, and double home two more runs in the eighth, bringing his RBI total to four.

Rogers gave up a two-out, two-RBI double to Aurilia in the bottom of the seventh, but by that point, the Mets were already cruising to victory. He was economical enough to go the distance, the first complete game by any Mets pitcher that season. He also rankled the opposition when he tried to bunt for a hit while enjoying a comfortable lead. The Giants were still after Rogers to pay for a bank of telephones he destroyed during an interleague series in June.

August 16, 1999: Mets 4, Padres 3 (10)

I’ve written about this game briefly before, but it deserves a bit more than broad strokes. Octavio Dotel continued his on-again off-again pattern, following a mediocre outing against the Padres at Shea with six no-hit innings in the series opener in San Diego. His offense staked him to a 2-0 lead with solo homers from Piazza (the fourth game in a row in which he’d homered, duplicating a feat he achieved in May) and Henderson.

Despite a pitching-rich history, the Mets have (in)famously never had a no-hitter pitched for them. Neither have the Padres, and San Diego must have wanted to continue to have company in that category. Because after back-to-back walks to start the bottom of the seventh, Phil Nevin deposited a 3-2 pitch into the left field stands. (Ironically, Nevin had spoiled another no-hitter the previous season as a member of the Angels. The opposing pitcher in that game: Sterling Hitchcock, the Padres starter in this contest.)

Not only was the no-hitter gone, but the Mets now trailed 3-2. Dotel finished the inning, striking out two in the process (and nine total in the game), but he immediately stalked off the mound and into the visiting dugout tunnel. The 1999 Mets highlight video contains a heartbreaking shot of Dotel sitting on the bench after this inning, close to tears.

But this evening, Alfonzo would single-handedly bail out the rookie. He led off the top of the eighth with a single, then moved to third on a single by Olerud. The Mets looked primed for a big inning, but Padres reliever/future Met Dan Miceli induced a ground ball double play from Piazza. Nonetheless, Fonzie was able to trot home with the tying run.

99_fonzie_0816.pngTurk Wendell held serve in the bottom of the eighth. Dennis Cook got into a little trouble with a two-out walk and single in the ninth, but struck out Ben Davis to end the threat. That set the stage for Fonzie to play hero yet again. With one out in the top of the tenth, he hit a tie-breaking homer off of reliever Jeff Cunnane.

The Mets threatened for more, but once again were thwarted by a double play grounder from Piazza. Benitez made sure it didn’t matter, striking out the first two batters in the bottom of the tenth, then working around a walk to get a game-ending grounder.

August 17, 1999: Padres 3, Mets 2

Al Leiter pitched (mostly) well enough to win, but his teammates were stymied by Woody Williams (former Toronto teammate of Leiter’s), who pitched into the eighth and held the Mets to four hits. Williams also helped his cause with an RBI double in the bottom of the fourth.

Leiter got into many jams, but was able to wriggle out of most of them without allowing too much damage. However, he also walked four straight batters in the second inning to force in a run (the last walk coming against Williams, of all people), which proved costly in this one-run affair. In an uncharacteristic bout of wildness, Leiter issued eight free passes in total.

The Mets made a bid to tie it against Trevor Hoffman in the top of the ninth. Henderson hit a long fly to center field that looked like it might go out. Henderson certainly thought so, since he took a leisurely stroll toward first, but he had to turn on the jets when the ball bounced off the wall. “It probably wouldn’t have made a difference,” Henderson said after the game. “I’m always slow out of the box when I hit a ball like that. I’m no speedster.” An odd statement from the all-time leader in steals.

Henderson managed to trot to second, but that was as far as he would get. Alfonzo grounded out and Olerud struck out, leaving the heroism to Piazza. Back in April, Piazza hit a walk-off homer off of Hoffman, but twice in the same season was perhaps asking too much. He grounded out to end the game. Luckily, the Braves also lost by a 3-2 score, thus maintaining the tie for first in the NL East for one more day.

August 18, 1999: Mets 9, Padres 1

After none of their pitchers went the distance for most of the season, the Mets saw their second complete game in a week. This one came from unlikely candidate Masato Yoshii, who’d been banished to the bullpen a mere week ago and was only starting because Rick Reed was injured.

The evening didn’t begin well for Yoshii. After a Ventura homer staked him to a 3-0 lead in the top of the first, he gave up a run of his own in the bottom half on a Tony Gwynn RBI double. Valentine even got Pat Mahomes up in the bullpen, anticipating another short outing. But Yoshii recovered well, retiring 16 batters in a row at one point and scattering only four hits the rest of the way.

Though it came against a light-hitting opponent, Yoshii’s performance marked a true first for the Mets that season: one trip through the rotation with great starts from all five members (Leiter’s loss the night before notwithstanding). This also marked the eighth straight road series the Mets had won. Most importantly, the Braves’ loss in Colorado meant the Mets were once again alone in first place.