Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
The Mets began their homestand with an ugly incident reminiscent of their early season struggles. Rey Ordonez and backup shortstop Luis Lopez got into a fistfight while on the team bus to Shea, following their flight back from Houston. The fisticuffs were bad enough to give Ordonez a six-stitch gash over his eye.
The cause of the fight was unclear, although it was rumored that Ordonez tried to defend Jorge Toca (a fellow Cuban defector) against some rookie hazing. Both players kept the party line repeated by GM Steve Phillips, that they’d patched things up between them and there were no hard feelings. A few days later, after the dust settled, teammates would say they were surprised it took so long for someone to deck the abrasive Ordonez.
However, there were definitely hard feelings involved with a disappointing extra-inning loss to the Rockies. The Mets managed a mere two runs two runs against Colorado starter Jamey Wright, wasting two separate scoring opportunities with a man on third and only one out. Orel Hershiser pitched well enough to keep them in the game, and Pat Mahomes, Dennis Cook, and Armando Benitez combined to throw three scoreless innings.
Turk Wendell came on for the tenth and did not fare well, giving up a one-out walk to Todd Walker and a single to Dante Bichette. The righty had suffered a bit of a rough patch recently; ironically, it came after Bobby Valentine tried to give him a few days’ rest in the hopes of keeping his arm fresh down the stretch. (“The more I pitch, the better I get,” Wendell told reporters later. “Those six days off killed me”)
Valentine called on ex-Rockie Chuck McElroy to clean up Wendell’s mess. He struck out Todd Helton, but walked Vinny Castilla (who’d been 0 for 7 against McElroy previously) to load the bases. That brought up Met-for-a-minute Jeff Barry, who made his first, brief major league appearance for the team in 1995, then languished in the minors for the next four seasons.
“I felt real good for some reason before the game,” Barry said afterward. “I had a real good feeling about today.” He had reason to, since he went 3-for-3. His third hit was a bases-clearing double off of McElroy that put Colorado on top to stay. The loss dropped the Mets 4.5 games out of first in the NL East, their largest deficit since July, though a loss by the Reds maintained their four-game lead in the wild card standings.
After a few disappointing performances, Al Leiter rebounded with a great one. He gave up 11 hits to the Rockies, but managed to dance out of danger when he had to, and came just an out shy of pitching a complete game. Leiter was aided by the defense of his teammates, and one slow-developing play that must have been hilarious/horrifying to watch in person:
[Rockies pitcher Brian] Bohanon pushed Leiter into another corner when he blasted a double to right-center leading off the third. With two outs, [Kurt] Abbott singled to center, beginning a slow-motion sequence that seemed certain to end in a virtual train wreck, which it did. Bohanon, who weighs considerably more than the 240 pounds at which he is listed, chugged toward third as Shawon Dunston charged the slow-rolling ball in shallow center. Dunston’s throw reached the plate on one bounce, where Mike Piazza grabbed it, blocked the plate and tagged out Bohanon, whose left foot hit Piazza’s shin guard, then skimmed over the plate without ever touching it.
Still, the Mets were down 2-1 when they came to bat in the bottom of the fifth, and Colorado starter/ex-Met Bohanon had given up little to that point. But with one out, Rickey Henderson worked a walk. Then Edgardo Alfonzo got a chance to play hero yet again, fresh off his historic power display in Houston. Fonzie belted a 1-1 pitch into the left field bleachers to put the Mets on top, 3-2.
Robin Ventura hit a solo homer in bottom of the eighth to pad the lead. Leiter tried to finish what he started, but after getting the first two outs, he gave up back-to-back singles to Walker and Neifi Perez. Benitez struck out Terry Shumpert to preserve the victory and, thanks to a Braves loss to the Diamondbacks, pull the Mets back to 3.5 games out of first place.
After two months on the shelf, John Franco finally came off the DL, even if he had to threaten the front office with a broken bat to reactivate him. Threat induced or not, his return was most welcome. The bullpen had been a strength for the Mets for most of Franco’s absence, but had also seen some regression from key members like Cook and Wendell. “Just as Franco stands on the verge of rejoining the Mets, Thomas Hill wrote in the Daily News, “it has become clear that they need him back, too.”
Franco was greeted more warmly than Bobby Bonilla, who made his first appearance since July as a pinch hitter in the series opener and struck out. Valentine was far from impressed and said it “would be a stretch” to put Bonilla on the postseason roster (provided the Mets made it that far).
In the series finale, the Mets did all their damage in the bottom of the fifth. Amazingly, they did it against Darryl Kile, who’d given the Mets fits every time he faced them (including no-hitting them in 1993). With one out, Henderson singled. Walks to Alfonzo and John Olerud loaded the bases, and led to RBI singles from Piazza and Robin Ventura.
Lately, the third baseman’s at-bats had inspired chants of “MVP!” from the Shea crowd, but it was the centerfielder who got the biggest cheers. Ex-Rockie Darryl Hamilton turned on a 1-0 fastball and launched it for a grand slam. That inspired some “Darryl” chants from the fans, the good kind. (“They put a different emphasis on different syllables,” Piazza clarified for reporters. “‘Daaar-ryl’ is like a taunt. ‘Dar-ryl, Dar-ryl’ is an affirmation.”)
The crowd–the small but raucous kind that comes out on rainy days like this one–got even more to cheer about, thanks to the scoreboard. The Diamondbacks capitalized on an Eddie Perez error with two out in the top of the ninth to score three unearned runs and stun the Braves. So a Mets victory meant they’d be back to 2.5 games out of first.
That victory was ensured by solid pitching from starter Masato Yoshii and the bullpen. Yoshii went the first six and gave up just two runs, while Wendell, Franco, and Pat Mahomes combined to keep the Rockies off the board for the last three innings. It wasn’t always pretty; both Wendell and Franco allowed a pair of two-out base runners to make things interesting, but each wriggled out of their respective jams.
Kenny Rogers improved to 4-0 as a Met with a complete game shutout, giving up just four hits and one walk while striking out nine–including three separate Ks of Barry Bonds–in the series opener against the Giants. And he did it against a San Francisco team that had won 16 of its last 21 games (though even with their hot streak, they trailed Arizona by 6.5 games in the NL West).
His teammates could only scratch out three runs against the San Francisco bullpen, but Rogers’ performance made sure it stood up. He retired the Giants 1-2-3 in six innings, and only allowed two baserunners once. He even finished with a flourish, fanning Bonds and Jeff Kent to start the top of the ninth, then getting Ellis Burks to line out to third for the final out.
Mike Lupica went so far as to compare Rogers’ return to New York to Roger Clemens’ first year in the Big Apple, with all the kudos going to the Mets lefty.
They have been the best baseball show in town for more than two months, much better than the Yankees. They make plays, they make runs and big innings when they have to. They are trying to beat a great team in the Braves. So they have to be great every day. The first time Rogers pitched as a Met at Shea, he only gave up one hit. He was a better pitcher yesterday. The only real trouble was the seventh. Aurilia got a big swing on him, tagged the ball. Ventura put the ball in his pocket. Rogers found out the first day he has stars in the infield no matter which way he turns.
Ten years layer, such praise for Rogers seems ironic, for several thousand reasons. But the backhanded dismissal of the Yankees might seem just as odd to people with short memories.
Keep in mind that, after laying waste to the majors in 1998, the Yankees had a difficult 1999. Joe Torre was diagnosed with cancer, several team members had deaths in their respective families, and Clemens looked as if he might be as completely unsuited for New York as Rogers did in his Yankees stint.
Though they’d go on to win 98 games, there was a general feeling amongst sportswriters and fans that the Yankees of 1999 were not quite the all-time world-beaters of 1998–an unfair comparison at best (even for the Yankees).
Before the game, Robin Ventura received a visit from Jim Morrison’s widow, Patricia Morrison. Ventura had adopted The Doors’ “L.A. Woman” as the team’s anthem–or at least the ‘mojo risin’ refrain that closes out the song. When Patricia heard about this, she got in touch with the third baseman to present him with a signed copy of her Doors-related memoirs.
Unfortunately, the Mets had little mojo in this game. They fell behind early, when the Giants scored three runs in the top of the third off of Rick Reed, making his first start after a lengthy stay on the DL. His woes started when he gave up a leadoff double to his opposite number, Joe Nathan. (On a personal note, even though Nathan went to a high school near where I grew up, I have no memory of him either being a starter or a Giant.) Reed proceeded to load the bases, then Kent unloaded them with three-run double.
Despite this less-than-impressive performance, Valentine indicated he might keep Reed as a starter and go with a six-man rotation, at least for the time being. Meanwhile, the nigh-forgotten Bobby Jones pitched a rehab start for Binghamton, in an effort to make Valentine ponder a seven-man rotation.
The Mets got a run back in the fifth on a Todd Pratt RBI single, and took the lead with three runs in the sixth, thanks to some wildness from Nathan and reliever Jerry Spradlin (two walks and a hit batsman).
Reed could only manage four innings of work, so the bullpen took over for him and performed well–at first. Mahomes and Billy Taylor set down the Giants in order in the fifth and sixth innings, then Cook and Wendell squeaked out of a jam in the seventh.
Unfortunately, the struggling Wendell came back to start the eighth and gave up back-to-back one-out doubles to Rich Aurilia and pinch hitter Brett Mayne, tying the game. Franco relieved him and got the second out, but gave up a grounder to Charlie Hayes that glanced off of Ordonez’s usually flawless glove. Mayne came in to score, and Giants retook the lead.
The procession of relievers continued in the ninth. Franco gave up a leadoff single to Bonds, then gave way to Jeff Tam, who walked Kent. Out came McElroy, who hit pinch hitter F.P. Santangelo on an 0-2 pitch, then argued with home plate umpire Paul Schreiber over the call. Surprisingly, McElroy was not thrown out of the game, but may have wished he’d been tossed after he gave up a two-out two-RBI single to Aurilia. The Mets used eight pitchers in all, a franchise record for a nine-inning game.
Piazza (pinch hitting after a day off) made a bid to make things interesting in the ninth when he hit a long ball to straight-away center with one out and one man on. But Marvin Benard snared it just in front of the wall, then Henderson struck out to end the game.
The loss went against Wendell’s ledger, his second on the homestand, and the third loss hung on the Mets bullpen in a week. More importantly, it dropped the Mets back to 3.5 games out of first, thanks to a walkoff Braves win against the Cardinals.
After the game, Wendell took the blame but was optimistic about his future.
When you stink, you stink, and there’s not much you can do about it. Hopefully, I’ll get all this out of my system before the end of the season and be ready for the playoff hunt. It’s sad because I’ve had a pretty good year and now these last four games are ruining it. But it’s not over. If we make it to the playoffs, make it to the World Series and hopefully win it, this will all be a funny memory.
True to form, Octavio Dotel followed an okay outing with a great one, limiting the Giants to four hits and one run and striking out nine in his seven innings of work. He was so impressive that he was selected as the inaugural guest on a relaunched version of Kiner’s Korner, no small honor for a Met.
The Mets took the lead on a two-out two-run single from Shawon Dunston in the bottom of the third, and Benny Agbayani followed with an RBI single to expand their lead to 3-0. The Giants responded with a run in the top of the fifth, but the Mets answered back in the bottom of the sixth with an RBI single from Olerud and a Piazza three-run homer.
For the second time in his last three starts, Dotel was yanked after seven innings because he enjoyed a comfortable lead, and because of concerns over his workload. And just like the first time, the Mets nearly paid for their cautiousness. They were already a man down in their bullpen; Wendell would be out for up to a week with a sprained knuckle (which he’d probably sprained after slamming his glove in frustration over yet another poor performance).
So naturally, another reliever had to come up small, and this time it was Pat Mahomes. He walked Bill Mueller and Bonds to start the top of the eighth, then gave up an RBI single to Kent and was yanked without retiring a batter. (“I guess it was just my turn to have a bad day,” he said later.) Cook relieved him and got the first out of the inning, but gave up a three-run homer to Burks that shaved the Mets’ lead down to two runs.
After a strikeout and a walk, Valentine had finally seen enough and turned to Benitez, who finally recorded the last out of the inning. He stayed on in the ninth, and worked around a leadoff single to get Bonds to fly out, then strike out Kent and J.T. Snow to end the game.
The victory helped the Mets keep pace in both the NL East and wild card races. Both the Braves and Reds had won, so they remained 3.5 games behind Atlanta and 3.5 games up on Cincinnati. Next up: the last of three late season west coast trips.