Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
This marked the second of three West Coast trips the Mets would take at the end of the 1999 season. First up, the Arizona Diamondbacks. Despite being in their sophomore season, not only were the Diamondbacks in first place in the NL West, but at the start of this series they enjoyed a 7.5 game lead over the Giants and were poised to run away with the division.
In his brief career, Octavio Dotel had the uncanny habit of alternating good starts with so-so ones. In his last outing at Shea, he was less than impressive against the Cardinals. So naturally, in the series opener in Arizona, he was lights out. In eight innings of work, Dotel allowed just four hits, one run, and struck out six. D-Backs ace Randy Johnson, usually not one to dole out compliments (or say much of anything at all), predicted a “bright future” for the young righty.
The Mets took a lead two batters into the game, when Rickey Henderson led off with a double and Edgardo Alfonzo singled him home. Offensively, they were led by Rey Ordonez (of all people), who hit an run-scoring groundout in the second inning and a two-RBI single in the sixth. They tacked on two runs against the Arizona bullpen; Alfonzo scored from third when reliever Brian Anderson balked in the seventh, and later came home on a Mike Piazza double in the ninth.
That gave the Mets a comfortable 6-1 lead. Dotel had thrown 110 pitches through eight innings, and had also shouldered a considerable workload increase during his first professional season. This prompted Bobby Valentine to bring in Billy Taylor to pitch the ninth. Taylor had struggled thus far in his brief Mets tenure, and he struggled here, giving up consecutive singles to Jay Bell, Luis Gonzalez, and Matt Williams. Bell came around to score on Williams’ hit, and the Mets’ lead was down to 6-2, with runners on first and third and nobody out.
So Valentine was forced to bring in Armando Benitez to clean up Taylor’s mess. Benitez struck out Erubiel Durazo, got Steve Finley to pop up to the catcher, and, after an RBI single to ex-Met Kelly Stinnett, induced a pop up from Andy Fox to end the game.
A nervous Dotel watched the ninth inning from the bench, foregoing his postgame workout routine. That led to a curious sight in the visiting clubhouse after the game–Dotel addressed the media while pedaling away on a stationary bike. He’d made another case for staying in the starting rotation, though Rick Reed–who’d just made a less-than-encouraging rehab start for Norfolk–insisted he was ready to return to the club.
In other injury news, Bobby Bonilla started in the same game as Reed as a DH and went 1 for 4. He would rejoin the team once rosters expanded on September 1, although few people associated with the team (and even fewer fans) seemed anxious for him to come back.
The Mets and D-Backs played a baseball version of HORSE for six innings. Every time New York scored, Arizona would respond to tie it up. Piazza led off the top of the fourth with a walk, moved to third on a groundout, and scored on a Roger Cedeno single. So Tony Womack left off the bottom half with a walk and scored on a single by Bell.
In the top of the sixth, John Olerud reached on an error and scored on a Robin Ventura double. Ventura then scored on another Cedeno single to give the Mets a 3-1 lead. In the bottom half, Orel Hershiser gave up three consecutive singles and a run. He was yanked in favor of Dennis Cook, who got Finley to hit a slow roller up the middle. Cook might have been able to field it, but was distracted by Finley’s shattered bat. It went for an infield single, and scored Gonzalez from second to tie the game.
Cook’s bad luck continued in the seventh after he walked Hanley Frias to lead off the inning. It looked like Cook might escape danger when he retired the next two batters. But Bell hit a ball to the outfield that Rickey Henderson could not catch up to, and Womack (who took first when Frias was retired on a fielder’s choice) scored all the way from first to put the Diamondbacks up 4-3.
Arizona tacked on with a solo homer from Williams in the eighth, and the Mets went quietly in the ninth against Arizona closer Matt Mantei (a trade deadline acquisition from the Marlins). The loss put the Mets 2.5 games behind the streaking Atlanta Braves, who’d won nine games in a row.
Al Leiter had a rough first inning, giving up four runs. One of those runs was unearned, but it scored as a result of an error by Leiter himself–the lefty fired an errant throw to first that allowed Greg Colbrunn to reach safely. He was also victimized by some outfield miscommunication, when Darryl Hamilton and Rickey Henderson nearly collided on a fly ball. Both backed off, neither caught it, and the ball bounced off the warning track as the first Arizona run scored.
The Mets responded in the top of the second with four hits and RBI singles from Ordonez, Henderson, and Alfonzo. But Gonzalez hit a two-out RBI single in the bottom half to stretch the Arizona lead to 5-3. Gonzalez also hit a solo shot in the seventh that finally knocked Leiter out of the game.
Chuck McElroy and Billy Taylor combined to give up two more runs in the eighth and put the game out of reach. Thanks to Atlanta’s tenth win in a row (capped by a twelfth inning homer by Chipper Jones), the Mets were now 3.5 games out of first place.
The score should probably read “Alfonzo 17, Astros 1”, because the Mets’ second baseman all but defeated Houston singlehandedly. In the series opener of the Mets’ last trip to the Astrodome (Enron Field would open in 2000), Alfonzo went 6 for 6, clubbed three homers off of three different pitchers, drove in five runs, and scored six times. The only other player to get six hits in a game in 1999 was Cal Ripken, Jr.
Fonzie’s feats tied or broke several Met single-game records, and challenged a few major league marks. No Met had hit three homers in a game since Gary Carter did it in 1985, and no opposing player had ever done it at the pitcher-friendly Astrodome. His 16 total bases broke a club record set by Darryl Strawberry (also in ’85), and were just two shy of the all-time mark. His six runs scored tied the modern era record for most in a game.
Alfonzo got the scoring started in the first with a solo home run off of Houston starter Shane Reynolds. He then singled and scored in the midst of the Mets’ six-run second inning. His two-run homer off of Astros reliever Brian Williams gave the Mets a comfy 9-0 lead, and another solo shot in the sixth off of Sean Bergman put his team up by 11 runs. He singled and doubled in the eighth and ninth innings, respectively, and came around to score both times.
It was an offensive performance so impressive that, when he rapped out his sixth hit of the game in the top of the ninth, the few remaining Astros fans in attendance stood and applauded. So what was Alfonzo’s favorite moment of the day?
“The last out, because we won the game.”
Atlanta had finally lost a game, so the Mets’ victory pulled them back within 2.5 games of first place.
Following this game, Fonize had hit 24 home runs and notched 94 RBIs. He’d also played nearly flawless defense at second base, even though he only moved there to accommodate the arrival of Robin Ventura at third. “A potential most valuable player candidate?” Judy Battista wondered in The New York Times. “Sure, if anyone in baseball was even aware of him.”
Of course, Alfonzo was not the only contributor in this game. His team banged out 21 hits, their highest total all season. Houston pitchers seemed incapable of getting any Met out, even as Valentine removed his starters in the midst of a rout. Shawon Dunston batted for reliever Jeff Tam in the seventh inning, then stayed on to play the outfield–and still managed to collect two hits and three RBIs.
For once, Alfonzo’s work overshadowed the accomplishments of others (rather than the other way around). Cedeno stole third in the second inning, his 59th stolen bag of the year, which broke the single-season mark set by Mookie WIlson in 1982. After getting a day off to deal with a sore shoulder, PIazza hit a two-run homer in the second to continue his hot hitting at the Dome (he’d hit .431 there going into this game). And Masato Yoshii pitched six strong innings, furthering his case to stay in the rotation when Rick Reed returned from the DL.
Unfortunately, the Mets couldn’t carry their offensive mojo into the next game, as future Met/lively dancer Jose Lima shut them down for seven innings. They had a few chances in the early innings, but made a couple of critical outs at third base: Ventura in the third and Henderson in the sixth (the latter of which particularly bothered Valentine).
Kenny Rogers matched Lima for six (despite a troublesome back), but was victimized by his defense in the seventh. After walking Jeff Bagwell, Rogers gave up a single to Ken Caminiti that Henderson bobbled in the outfield, allowing Bagwell to move to second. Russ Johnson followed with a squeeze bunt that went right to Rogers, but the lefty fell to his knees trying to field it, and was forced to throw to first as Bagwell scored. Ryan Thompson followed with a long RBI double to put the Astros up 2-0.
The Mets finally got to Lima in the eighth, thanks to a two-out error by Caminiti that allowed Alfonzo to reach safely. Olerud took this opportunity to launch Lima’s first pitch into right-center field and tie the game.
Valentine had kept the overworked Turk Wendell out of action for six straight games, in an effort to keep the lefty fresh down the stretch (and hopefully the playoffs). But once the game was tied, he turned to Wendell in the bottom of the eighth to keep it that way. After retiring the first batter, Wendell walked Craig Biggio, then gave up a booming double to Matt Mieske. Cedeno’s fleet fielding kept the runners at second and third, so Wendell walked the righty Bagwell and opted to face the switch-hitting Caminiti. The former MVP atoned for his error by hitting Wendell’s 1-1 pitch for an opposite field grand slam.
Billy Wagner set down the Mets 1-2-3 in the ninth. The loss, combined with another Braves win, dropped the Mets back to 3.5 games out of first.
With the expansion of the rosters, the Mets finally reactivated Bobby Bonilla from the disabled list, and the disgruntled outfielder immediately busied himself with playing cards (not for the last time that season). Bonilla was joined by minor leaguers Melvin Mora, Jay Payton (still struggling to overcome two devestating elbow injuries), and reliever Jorge Toca.
On the field, the Mets picked up where they left off in the series opener, touching up Houston pitching for 18 hits. Ventura led the way with four RBIs (bringing his total to a career-high 108) and a homer (his 200th career longball). Piazza and Olerud each had two doubles, and Cedeno had three hits and drove in two runs. Continuing his on-again off-again trend, Dotel pitched five okay innings and allowed four runs (three earned). Pat Mahomes, Cook, and Benitez combined to limit the Astros to one run the rest of the way.
On the negative side, Darryl Hamilton aggravated tendinitis in his left knee (a condition that would require off-season surgery) and had to leave the game. Also, yet another Atlanta win kept the Mets 3.5 games out of first. But they maintained a four-game lead over Cincinnati for the wild card berth.
In other news, the umpires union’s gambit of resigning in protest over their union contract was already a dismal failure. Though the union threatened the resignation of all major league umps, only 22 did so at the self-imposed September 1 deadline. Faced with nothing resembling a united front, the owners and Bud Selig played hardball against the umps who quit. MLB had already officially hired 25 replacement umpires, and referred to them publicly as “permanent employees”.
What this meant–other than the end of several men’s livelihoods–was that nearly a third of the umpires in the majors were recent promotions from the minor leagues. And this was happening in the last month of the season, with most playoff spots far from decided. So some of the most important games of the year would be decided by umpires with little or no major league experience.