1999 Project: Post-All-Star-Break Interleague (and International) Extravaganza

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

A quick jaunt through the eight-game road trip that started the second half of the season (and a desperate attempt to catch up with this crazy project).

After the All-Star Break, baseball’s attention was diverted by the umpires, who threatened to resign en masse on September 2 if they could not negotiate a new contract with MLB. They adopted this strategy because their current contract prevented them from striking, and they hoped going on the offensive would force the owners’ hands. It was a bold move, but for some of the umps, it would not end well.

canseco_rays.jpgJuly 15, 1999: Mets 8, Devil Rays 7 (10)

First up: the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in their second year of existence and not yet shorn of their demonic name. They were also not ready for the same meteoric rise as their expansion-mates, the Diamondbacks (who were 6 games over .500 and on their way to a division title). Though they did outpace Arizona in hideous uniforms, as you can see here.

Tampa was a mix of superstars at the end of their careers (Wade Boggs, Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco) and everyday starters who’d be be no more than complimentary bench players on virtually any other team (such as future Mets Bubba Trammell and Miguel Cairo).

Still, the Mets trailed early in this one. Al Leiter gave up a solo shot and a two-run homer to put them in a 3-0 hole. They rallied for two runs without benefit of a hit in the top of the fifth, thanks to some walks and a throwing error by Aaron Ledesma (a rushed throw caused in part by the speed of Roger Cedeno). More walks and more bad fielding led to four more runs in the seventh and one in the eighth, giving the Mets a seemingly comfortable 7-3 lead.

But the bullpen was not up to the task. First, Turk Wendell came on in place of Leiter in the bottom of the eighth and gave up a couple of singles. Dennis Cook relieved him, but allowed an RBI single to make the score 7-4.

Then in the bottom of the ninth, Armando Benitez struggled for the first time since taking over the closer’s role for the injured John Franco. After a walk to Cairo and a double by Ledesma, McGriff knocked them both in with a two-out single to trim the Mets’ lead to one run. Singles by John Flaherty and Trammell brought in the tying run soon thereafter.

Benny Agbayani and Cedeno bailed him out in the top of the tenth. Agbayani hit a one-out double off of ex-Nasty Boy Norm Charlton, then Cedeno drove him in with a two-out single. Bobby Valentine let Benitez atone for his sins in the bottom half, and he struck out the first two batters he faced, then got Cairo to fly out to preserve the win.

Following the game, his teammates chose to focus not on the blown save, but his ability to recover from it. Still, with Franco gone for an indeterminate amount of time, the Mets looked to bolster their bullpen, and were rumored to be interested in lefty reliever Arthur Rhodes, currently toiling for a go-nowhere Baltimore team they’d be visiting very soon.

July 16, 1999: Mets 9, Devil Rays 7

The Mets ran all over Tampa in this game–literally. Thanks to the DH, Valentine could bat Cedeno ninth in the lineup as a secondary leadoff hitter, and he took full advantage, swiping two bags and scoring two runs. Not to be outdone, the real leadoff hitter, Rickey Henderson, stole three bases and scored three runs of his own.

This was not a pretty game, however. The Mets rallied for three runs in the top of the third, then Tampa rallied for three of their own in the bottom half. New York came back to score two in the top of the fourth, but Tampa tied it again with two in the bottom of the fifth. In between, Mike Piazza was caught stealing home (!) on what I assume was a botched suicide squeeze (none of the game stories I found mentioned it; I just doubt Bobby Valentine would let anyone steal home, let alone Piazza).

The Mets got two runs off of future Yankees pitching coach Dave Eiland in the top of the sixth, then two more on a Matt Franco homer in the seventh. That looked to be more than enough, especially when Jason Isringhausen pitched scoreless seventh and eighth innings.

But Izzy had a rough ninth. He gave up a lead off double to Terrell Lowery, then a wild pitch to move him to third. After a strikeout, he walked Wade Boggs, with the fourth ball coming on another wild pitch that brought in a run. Following another strike out, Izzy allowed a single to McGriff, and then a passed ball caused another run to score. Valentine brought in Cook to restore order, and he struck out Flaherty to finally end a very ugly game.

July 17, 1999: Devil Rays 3, Mets 2

The Mets could not complete a sweep in Tampa, but at least this game had far less drama than the first two.

Perhaps they were thrown off by the retro flannel uniforms (“There’s a reason they’re not made like this anymore,” Bobby Valentine opined), worn in celebration of Turn-Back-the-Clock-Day at Tropicana Field. Since the Rays had no history yet, they adopted that of their opponents, with Tom Seaver throwing out the first pitch, and a National Anthem sung by Tug McGraw and Ron Swoboda. Not a bad idea, considering the mass numbers of ex-New Yorkers in Florida.

Orel Hershiser struggled early, walking three and allowing two runs in the first inning, then giving up a solo homer to future Met Mike DiFelice in the second. He settled in after that, retiring 11 of the last 12 batters he faced, but the Mets could not catch up. They got a few opportunities against the Tampa bullpen, but could not capitalize–such as the top of the seventh, when Agbayani was picked off of second to squash a potential rally.

Another future Met, Roberto Hernandez, closed out the game for the Rays, despite nearly giving up a game-tying pinch-hit home run to an ex-teammate. “Pinch-hitter Robin Ventura hit a long fly ball off Roberto Hernandez that hooked 10 feet foul in the ninth,” wrote Rafael Hermoso in the Daily News. “The two former White Sox teammates looked at each other and laughed as Ventura returned to the plate, then flied out to another former White Sox, Dave Martinez, on the right field warning track.”

July 18, 1999: Mets 8, Orioles 6

Henderson ignited the Mets in the series opener in Baltimore, hitting a leadoff homer for the 75th time in his career. He also beat out an infield single that helped spark a three-run rally in the top of the fifth, and singled following a Cedeno walk in the top of the sixth in the midst of another three-run inning.

Masato Yoshii pitched well for six innings, less so in the seventh. The Orioles were able to score four in the seventh and one in the eighth to make things close, but Benitez worked around a leadoff walk in the ninth to set down his ex-teammates and seal the win.

Henderson scored three runs, leaving him just two behind Willie Mays for fifth on the all-time list. His RBI left him one shy of 1000 for his career. “So now I have a chance to get them both in one day tomorrow,” he told reporters after the game.

This game was siginificantly overshadowed by David Cone’s perfect game back in the Bronx As amazing an accomplishment as that is, I kind of doubt it “healed the nation” after the death of JFK Jr., as MIke Lupica insisted in the Daily News.

July 19, 1999: Mets 4, Orioles 1

Fresh up from Norfolk and pitching on three days’ rest, Octavio Dotel turned in an impressive outing, limiting the Orioles to three hits and one run in seven innings. He retired the first ten batters he faced, and the only run he gave up came on a solo shot by WIll Clark to lead off the bottom of the fifth.

Dotel had long been rumored as a trade chip in the Mets’ pursuit of another starter, but his performances to date showed that maybe he was the starter they’d been looking for. Even so, the Mets’ farm system was bereft of dealable talent; their best prospects (Alex Escobar, Paul Wilson, and Jae Seo, in the Times‘ estimation) were all out for the season with injuries.

Henderson led the Mets’ offense yet again, singling and scoring in their two-run fourth inning. The other two runs came on solor homers by Alfonzo and Ventura in the seventh. Benitez set the Orioles down 1-2-3 in the ninth for his second straight save against his former team.

July 20, 1999: Orioles 4, Mets 1

For their third straight series, the Mets could not complete a sweep. Al Leiter had a surprisingly ineffective outing, failing to last six innings for the first time in two months. He hit Will Clark with the bases loaded in the first to give the Orioles an early lead, then allowed a two-run homer to Albert Belle in the fourth that put the game away.

Offensively, the Mets could not solve the young, hard-throwing righty Sidney Ponson (not yet known for fighting judges on the beach), who went the distance and limited them to six hits and one run. Henderson provided the sole highlight of the day; by scoring the Mets’ only run, he tied Willie Mays for fifth all time.

“The stolen base record has been done and gone,” Henderson said after the game. “I’m looking for a record that’s going to mean something.” He also said he planned on digging up home plate when (not if) he passed Ty Cobb for most runs scored. “I’m digging it up. It might have to wait until the game’s over and it’s 12 o’clock at night, but I’m digging it up.”

July 21, 1999: Mets 7, Expos 3

In the first game of a brief two-game series in Montreal, the Mets’ offense got started early with a two-run homer from Piazza in the first, followed immediately by a homer from Ventura. They padded their lead with single runs in the second, fifth, seventh, and eighth innings. Starter Rick Reed gave up ten hits to the Expos, but only three runs (two earned, both coming on solo homers), and it was enough for a relatively easy victory.

The only drama of the day came in the eighth, when Wendell brushed back Vladimir Guerrero twice. Guerrero shouted “a Spanish expletive” at the lefty, according to the Daily News, but was satisfied with drawing a walk. Guerrero was perhaps edgy after being similarly brushed back multiple times in the Expos’ series at Yankee Stadium (and maybe because his team had been kept off the bases completely by David Cone to boot).

July 22, 1999: Mets 7, Expos 4

Orel Hershiser went seven innings and allowed only two runs, good enough for his 200th career victory. At the time, he was one of only three active pitchers with 200 wins (Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux completed the trio). Hershiser even contributed with his bat and his legs, hitting two singles and stealing third on the front end of a double steal in the top of the seventh. Although he also prevented Rickey Henderson from knocking in his 1000th career RBI, when he was unable to score from first on his double in the top of the second (for which Henderson would mock him for the rest of the game).

The Mets broke the game open early, scoring six runs in the top of the second and hitting six doubles (one shy of the major league record for one inning). Isringhausen (newly rumored to be on the trading block) and Cook threw an inning apiece to close out the game.

Next up, a return to Shea (finally), with three game sets against the Cubs and Pirates.