1999 Project: Games 123-128

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

mcgwire_milk.jpgAugust 21, 1999: Mets 7, Cardinals 4

A six-game homestand for the Mets began with a rainout, which necessitated a doubleheader against the Cardinals. The inclement weather prompted Bobby Valentine to reorder his starting rotation. Orel Hershiser was set to start the series opener, but after warming up before a game that was never played, he would instead pitch in game two of the twinbill.

Meanwhile, the Braves won both of their games while the Mets were idle, meaning the two teams were once again tied for first. That made this a big homestand for the Mets, and not just because The Mark McGwire Show was in town.

Kenny Rogers started the first game of the series and did not fare well. He loaded the bases in the top of the first on two singles and a walk, then gave up a two-RBI single to future Met Fernando Tatis. Mike Piazza responded with a three-run homer in the bottom half, but Rogers couldn’t hold on to the lead, giving up three straight hits and a sac fly in the top of the third to put the Cards back on top, 4-3. Rogers was done after three innings, and was later revealed to be suffering from back spasms.

Once again, long man Pat Mahomes came to the rescue, throwing 3 1/3 scoreless, hitless innings that allowed the Mets to come back. They scratched out a run in the bottom of the third on a Shawon Dunston groundout to tie the game, then went ahead on a Rickey Henderson RBI single in the sixth. Two runs in the eighth (coming on another Dunston RBI groundout and a Benny Agbayani RBI single) padded their lead.

After Mahomes issued a one-out walk to J.D. Drew in the top of the seventh, Valentine turned to Turk Wendell to get McGwire out. No one seemed to know why, but Wendell was kryptonite for McGwire; he’d faced Big Mac six previous times and retired him in each instance. Despite a wild pitch that moved Drew to second, Wendell struck out McGwire to extend his history of inexplicable success against him.

He also worked around a one-out single to pitch a scoreless eighth inning. Armando Benitez closed out the game in style by striking out the side in order. The victory helped the Mets keep pace with Atlanta, who beat the Padres that day.

August 22, 1999: Mets 7, Cardinals 6 (Game One); Cardinals 7, Mets 5 (Game Two)

99_mcgwire_scoreboard.pngIn game one of this doubleheader, Octavio Dotel followed up a (mostly) excellent performance in San Diego with a more uneven one at home. He gave up a leadoff home run to future Met Joe McEwing, a man not exactly known for his power. One out later, McGwire hit a titanic longball that traveled an estimated 502 feet. It would have gone longer, if not for the huge scoreboard in the way. The ball was hit so hard and so high, it knocked out a few lights in the visiting batting order. The shellshocked rookie then gave up a double, a single, and a sac fly to put the Mets in a 3-0 hole

Dotel managed to work his way through five innings, giving up another run in the top of the third and striking out five. Rarely used reliever Jeff Tam came on to pitch three innings, and gave up two solo homers (one to Alberto Castillo, another to McGwire for his 50th of the season) that stretched the Cards’ lead to 6-1.

Future Mets long man Darren Oliver kept the Mets off balance for seven innings, but they rallied big time in the bottom of the eighth. Rey Ordonez led off with a double, then Henderson worked a one-out walk. Tony LaRussa yanked Oliver and brought in reliever Rick Croushore, but he walked Edgardo Alfonzo to load the bases. John Olerud followed with a grand slam to bring the Mets within a run. Croushore barely had time to catch his breath when Piazza crushed a solo shot to straightaway center to tie the game.

Unfortunately, Benitez could not keep the score tied. He walked Drew to lead off the top of the ninth and gave up a single to McGwire. Drew then stole third, allowing him to score on a groundout that put the Cards back on top, 7-6.

Thus the stage was set for another dramatic rally. Ricky Bottalico (yet another future Met) came in to close the game with one out and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, and issued back-to-back walks to Ordonez and pinch hitter Matt Franco. Henderson followed with a double that drove in the tying run and sent Franco to third.

99_fonzie_0822.pngWith Alfonzo up next, LaRussa brought the infield in, hoping to get a play at the plate. But Fonzie hit a hard grounder between the third baseman and shortstop. Both dove, neither could reach it. Franco trotted home with the go-ahead run, and the Mets had a walkoff win.

A sweep was not to be. Orel Hershiser went seven innings in the nightcap and allowed only three runs–none, amazingly, on a McGwire home run. However, he did give up a two-run homer to Craig Paquette, who the Mets traded to St. Louis for Dunston a few weeks prior.

Hershiser helped his cause with an RBI sac fly in third, and the Mets took advantage of an error by Drew to score an unearned run in the sixth. But the bullpen let the game get away, with some help from Matt Franco. In the top of the eighth, with the bases loaded, two outs, and a run already in, Adam Kennedy hit a line drive to left that Franco misjudged. The ball zipped right over his head, three runs came in, and the Cards were up 7-2.

The Mets threatened in the ninth. With one out, Agbayani was hit by a pitch, then singles by Todd Pratt and Ordonez drove him home. After Ordonez stole second and Luis Lopez struck out, Piazza (who’d been given the nightcap off) drove in two more runs with with a single. It marked the tenth game a row with an RBI for Piazza, a club record, and it brought Edgardo Alfonzo to the plate as the tying run.

But the Mets couldn’t complete the comeback. Despite a recent deluge of heroics from Fonzie, he grounded out to end the game. Thanks to a Braves walkoff win over the Padres, the loss put them back into second place, a half game behind Atlanta.

August 23, 1999: Mets 3, Astros 2

Al Leiter pitched well yet again, going seven innings and fanning seven Astros in the series opener. His offense staked him to a 2-0 lead, thanks to an Alfonzo homer in the first and a Roger Cedeno sac fly in the fourth. But Leiter gave up a homer to Matt Mieske in the fifth, and another one to former Met/dinosaur doubter Carl Everett in the seventh, a 400-foot bomb that tied the game at two.

In the top of the seventh, following Everett’s homer, two one-out singles and a sac bunt put runners on first and third. Leiter walked Craig Biggio intentionally and induced a groundout from Lance Berkman to end the threat. Turk Wendell worked around a leadoff single in the eighth to retire the Astros without incident. In the top of the ninth, he set down the first two batters easily, then gave up back-to-back singles to put the go-ahead run on third. But Benitez came in to strike out Berkman and keep the game tied.

Scott Elarton kept the Mets mostly quiet for eight innings, but Houston manager Larry Dierker pinch hit for him in the top of the ninth. Jay Powell came on in relief, and after striking out Robin Ventura, he gave up a double to Darryl Hamilton. Cedeno followed with a fly to the outfield deep enough for Hamilton to tag up and move to third.

99_0823.pngRey Ordonez was next, but for some reason Dierker opted to walk him and bring up the pitcher’s spot. My guess is he wanted to force Valentine to bat for Benitez, thus sparing the Astros from facing him in the tenth inning. Valentine obliged by sending up Matt Franco as a pinch hitter, and he parachuted a single down the left field line to bring home Hamilton and notch the second walk off win of the homestand.

Though Franco was the hero of the game, Valentine gave all the praise to his bullpen, which had been lights out as usual. The manager told the Daily News this was the best relief corps he’d ever managed–prompting a hearty “hell yeah!” from Wendell.

There was plenty of chatter from the visiting clubhouse, too. Houston manager Larry Dierker was thoroughly unimpressed with Leiter’s performance. “You don’t expect to go out there and knock a guy like [Leiter] out of the game,” he told the Daily News. “But the way he was throwing, I think last year’s team would have knocked him out.” The Astros had been a powerful offensive team in 1998, slugging their way to 102 wins, but thanks to a plethora of injuries to their starting lineup, their pitching kept them afloat in 1999.

Leiter fired back later. “I think that might be his being frustrated that his team got two measly runs off of a guy who he thought didn’t pitch that well,” he said. “Whatever. If that’s what he wants to say, fine. If thinking that I got lucky makes him sleep better at night, fine.”

August 24, 1999: Astros 5, Mets 1 (10)

In an unlikely pitchers’ duel, Masato Yoshii traded zeroes with Mike Hampton for most of the game. Each pitcher made only one mistake, but both were crushed. Leading off the top of the second, Everett mashed a Yoshii pitch 459 feet off the scoreboard in right center for his fourth homer in as many games.

Hampton looked good enough to make that one-run lead stand. He set down the first nine batters in order, didn’t give up a hit until the fourth inning, and induced a couple of double plays to erase the few base runners he did allow. Then Piazza began the bottom of the seventh with his own moon shot, hit 445 feet into the picnic seats in left field, to tie the game at 1.

Yoshii pitched into the eighth but got into some trouble when he allowed a one-out single to Paul Bako, then saw Hampton reach on an error by Alfonzo. Valentine turned to Wendell, who bailed out Yoshii with two groundouts to end the inning. Benitez allowed two walks in the top of the ninth (one intentional), but no runs. In the bottom half, Houston closer Billy Wagner set down the Mets in order.

Dennis Cook was brought in to pitch the top of the tenth and gave up a bloop to pinch hitter Tony Eusebio that went for a leadoff double. (“The bloops got even tonight,” Valentine opined after the game, remembering Matt Franco’s lucky hit of the day before.) After a strike out, Cook walked Biggio intentionally to face the less dangerous Ricky Gutierrez, but the shortstop drove home Eusebio with a single. That brought up Jeff Bagwell, who turned on a Cook offering and sent it just over the right field fence for a three-run homer; Roger Cedeno leaped for it, to no avail.

Reportedly, Cook had cut a finger on his pitching hand on the broken glass handle of a blender (say that three times fast). Valentine had not used him in a few days, presumably for that reason, but the lefty insisted that was not the cause of his poor outing (“There’s nothing wrong with my finger. I just didn’t get the job done.”). In any case, Cook’s four-run meltdown cost the Mets both this game and a game in the standings, as the Braves beat the Reds in Atlanta.

August 25, 1999: Mets 4, Astros 0

The Mets rebounded from a disappointing loss the night before, and Kenny Rogers bounced back from a brief outing in his last start, to take the rubber game of the series. Astros starter Shane Reynolds held the Mets in check through five innings, but they rallied for four runs in the bottom of the sixth, all of them scoring with two outs.

Henderson led off the inning with a single, though he looked like he might be stranded when Alfonzo and Olerud flew out in succession. But Piazza doubled to move him to third, and Ventura followed with a single that drove both of them in. Not known for his speed, Ventura showed some hustle when he went to second on an attempt to throw out Piazza at the plate. He showed even more hustle when he scored from second on the single by Hamilton that followed, sliding around a tag from the catcher. This one-man show prompted chants of “MVP!” from the Shea crowd.

The Mets tacked on another run in the sixth, thanks to a Houston error, but it proved unnecessary. Rogers shut down the Astros into the ninth inning, and got some assistance from the previous game’s goat, Dennis Cook, to get the last two outs and preserve the win.

That made five winning series in a row for the Mets. Next up: another trip out west that included Arizona, Houston, and one of the best offensive performances in club history.