Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
As the Mets began the last of three lengthy cross-country road trips, they were 3.5 games behind the Braves. It was no small feat to be so close to Atlanta so late in the season. The Braves hadn’t had a serious rival for a division title since 1993, when they edged out San Francisco to take the NL West crown on the last day of the season. Ever since their transfer to the NL East, they strolled into the postseason every year; their closest shave came in 1996, when Montreal finished a mere eight games behind.
If there was any year to catch the Braves, 1999 should have been it. Andres Galarraga, Odalis Perez, Javy Lopez, and closer Kerry Ligtenberg were all lost for the year with injuries. John Smoltz spent time on the DL, and Tom Glavine pitched surprisingly mediocre. Rumblings began early that their dynasty was over.
And yet, between July 25 (when Lopez was sidelined indefinitely) and September 11, the Braves had a mind-boggling 30-11 record. For the season, they had an astounding 27 come-from-behind victories. Chipper Jones said, “No matter what happens this year, it’s going to be my most satisfying season. This is a team that really has overachieved.”
The Braves even said they welcomed the Mets nipping at their heels. Quoth Chipper again:
In years past, September was a month when we kind of took it easy and took some days off here and there to get ourselves prepared for the postseason. That may have an impact on what happens in the postseason, in that guys have trouble just flipping the switch on and off. I don’t foresee us having any problems flipping the switch this year.
As the Mets would soon find out.
Although the Mets had more than Atlanta to contend with. They began this trip 3.5 games ahead of Cincinnati for the wild card berth. The Reds were not picked by many baseball minds to seriously contend in 1999, but manager Jack McKeon had gotten the most out of them (as he would for a young Marlins club a few years later).
Plus, they would have the advantage of a softer schedule than the Mets down the stretch. While New York had six games left with the Braves, The Reds had only one series left against a team with a winning record (Houston), and would only play two games against them. During the series in LA, Darryl Hamilton admitted, “I think [now is] the first time I’ve actually looked to see what the Reds were doing. We’re not looking back, but we’d like to know who’s trying to get up on us.”
This marked the Mets’ only appearance of the season at Chavez Ravine, a four-game set against the Dodgers. Los Angeles spent some dough in the off season and had high hopes for 1999, but began this series next to last in the NL West, 10 games under .500.
In the first contest, ex-Dodgers were responsible for much of the damage, in all aspects of the game. Mike Piazza cracked a two-run homer off of Kevin Brown in the top of the sixth to put the Mets on top. In the bottom of the seventh, Garry Sheffield made a bid to tie the game with a long fly to right field, but Roger Cedeno tracked the ball down and snagged it just before it went over the fence.
The most impressive/unlikely contribution came from Orel Hershiser, who threw eight excellent innings and gave up just two hits. The only blemish on his record was a Sheffield solo shot in the first inning to account for the lone LA run. His performance was a big shot in the arm for the team, and provided some welcome rest for most of the bullpen, which was “worn out” by its own admission.
September call-up Jay Payton contributed a pinch hit RBI single in the top of the ninth to pad the Mets’ lead. Armando Benitez worked around two walks in the bottom half to record his 19th save of the year. The win pulled them within three games of first behind the Braves, who had the day off.
In game two, the Mets found themselves on the wrong side of a 3-1 contest and eight great innings from a starter. Darren Dreifort limited them to four hits and one run, while Al Leiter allowed two RBI sac flies for all the offense the Dodgers would need. The heart of the Mets’ batting order–Edgardo Alfonzo, Piazza, John Olerud, and Robin Ventura–went 0 for 15 with one walk. Billy Taylor’s struggles continued, as he allowed a homer to Raul Mondesi in the seventh to extend LA’s lead.
After the game, Bobby Valentine chose not to damn his hitters and praised the opposing pitcher. “That guy has as good stuff as anyone, maybe the best in the league. He was able to move it in and out. I don’t why he doesn’t win every time out. I don’t know what he does that gets him in trouble, but he sure doesn’t do it against us.”
The loss was double damaging because both the Braves and Reds had won, thus putting the Mets four games behind Atlanta in the NL East and just 2.5 games up in the wild card race. Any disappointing loss so late in the year brought to mind their struggles the previous September. To Hamilton, an ex-Ranger, it reminded him of the “collapse” Texas suffered in the summer heat of 1995.
It kind of puts an added strain on you because although you’re not that club that lost those leads, you’re still compared to it. It can be a little aggravating, especially when you get to the last couple of weeks and you’re leading and everyone’s saying, ‘Well this team is going to fold like the team of ’78 or something.’ That kind of drives you crazy. You have to not even think about it, just play and not worry about it, because once you worry about not losing that lead, that’s when you lose it.
Before the game, Piazza was irked by a report that the Dodgers tried to reacquire him twice since his trade to the Mets. The catcher had no comment for the press, and Steve Phillips denied the story. (“No player is untouchable but some are a lot less touchable than others.”)
Piazza certainly played mad, belting his second homer of the series (a two-run shot off of Ismael Valdez) and going 4 for 4. His homer put the Mets up 2-0, but the Dodgers responded with an RBI sac fly from Eric Young and a solo homer from ex-Met Todd Hundley to tie the game. Cedeno untied it with a two-RBI single in the sixth, and Masato Yoshii held the Dodgers there. His seven good innings continued a string of great starting pitching for the team, which seemed to coincide with Valentine’s switch to a six-man rotation.
The win brought the Mets back within three games of the Braves, who lost to the Giants. The Reds beat the Marlins to keep pace in the wild card hunt. On the negative side, Hamilton had to leave the game after crashing into the center field wall and was listed as day to day.
Alfonzo hit a two-run homer in the first to give the Mets an early lead. That gave Alfonzo 25 dingers and 100 RBIs on the year, making this the first time the Mets had a trio of triple-digit run producers (Piazza and Ventura being the other two). Kenny Rogers, battling a “hamstring twinge” he felt while shagging fly balls a few days earlier, allowed the Dodgers to tie it up in the third (aided partially by a Ventura error), then take a slim lead on a Mark Grudzielanek RBI double in the fifth.
But the Mets responded with three runs in the sixth off of LA starter Eric Gagne (raise your hand if you have no memory of Gagne being a starter). The first two runs scored on a Shawon Dunston double; Piazza trotted in from third, then the slow-footed Ventura came in all the way from first when future Met Paul LoDuca couldn’t handle a throw at the plate. (“I’m slow enough to know there’s going to be a play at the plate,” Ventura said later. “I’m deceptively slow.”)
Rogers was able to hold this lead, and the Mets tacked on to it with a four-run rally in the seventh and one more run in the ninth. Thanks to Atlanta’s loss to San Francisco, the Mets found themselves only two games out of first as they headed to Colorado.
Rick Reed allowed four runs in six innings in the series opener at Coors Field, not too bad considering the setting. But he also squandered a 3-0 Mets lead, then allowed the Rockies to go ahead 4-3 in the sixth on a Ben Petrick RBI single. After the game, Reed was not pleased with his line, perhaps because he feared being left out when Valentine reverted to a five-man rotation.
The Mets retook the lead in the top of the seventh on a two-run home run by Rickey Henderson, but Pat Mahomes allowed a leadoff homer to Terry Shumpert to tie the game again. Todd Walker followed with a double, prompting Valentine to turn to Turk Wendell for the first time since the righty injured his knuckle in frustration.
Wendell wriggled out of the jam to keep the score tied. Valentine was sufficiently impressed to let him bat for himself in the top of the eighth. (He walked against Jerry DiPoto and even ran the bases without benefit of a jacket in the chilly Colorado climate.) Turk repaid Valentine’s confidence by working a scoreless bottom half, striking out two.
The Mets offense blew a few chances to hold up their end of the bargain. Cedeno led off the top of the eighth with an infield single, but was picked off of first to squash the rally. In the ninth, Olerud led off with a double, then was replaced by pinch runner Melvin Mora. After a walk to Piazza, Ventura hit a single to Walker in right. Third base coach Cookie Rojas decided to test his arm and send Mora home. A good throw and a good tag by Petrick nailed him. (“With no outs and against Larry Walker, that’s one of those where you make a mistake and you come out OK,” Valentine said later.)
Fortunately for the Mets, Piazza was able to take third on the play, which allowed him to trot home when Rockies reliever Dave Veres uncorked a wild pitch to Hamilton. It was not the prettiest rally in the world, but they’d take it.
Benitez gave up a leadoff single to Walker in the bottom of the ninth, but induced a groundball double play from Dante Bichette and a flyout from Todd Helton to preserve the win. It was the Mets’ 89th victory of the year, their highest win total since 1990. It was also a symbolic milestone, as they had stalled at 88 the previous two seasons.
A more tangible advance came one hour after their win, when the Padres beat the Braves 3-0, putting the Mets only one game out of first place.
Octavio Dotel sounded almost cocky before his first start at Coors Field, refusing to believe the thin Denver air would have much effect on his pitching. He sounded decidedly less so afterwards. The rookie was cuffed for six runs in only three innings of work.
Dotel was in trouble from the very beginning, giving up a leadoff triple to Neifi Perez, and a two-run double to Bichette shortly thereafter. The Rockies added a run in the second, then homered Dotel out of the game in the third. Vinnie Castilla hit a 428-foot, two-run bomb to straight-away center, followed by a solo homer by Edgard Clemente (Roberto’s nephew).
Colorado starter Jamey Wright stymied the Mets for the second time this season, limiting them to five hits and one run. The loss, combined with a Braves win, dropped them back to two games out of first place. But the Reds also lost, maintaining the Mets’ 2.5 game lead in the wild card race.
Rickey Henderson had things other than the pennant races on his mind. He was already making noise about wanting to renegotiate his contract in the offseason.
Hershiser nearly xeroxed Reed’s line from the series opener, giving up four runs in six innings. The thin atmosphere kept Orel from throwing his sinker for strikes, so he counted himself lucky. The last two runs scored on a Walker single up the middle in the bottom of the fourth, giving the Rockies a 4-3 lead.
Ventura led off the top of the sixth with a double and moved to third on a sac bunt, bringing up Benny Agbayani. With the arrival of Darryl Hamilton and the emergence of Roger Cedeno, Agbayani was relegated to fourth outfielder status, getting very few starts. After a torrid stretch earlier in the season, when he hit 10 homers in only 73 at-bats, Agbayani went 160 trips to the plate without a longball. But Denver’s a good place to end such slumps (“To tell you the truth, I was just waiting to come here,” he said later), and Agbayani hit a ball into the left field stands to put the Mets on top, 5-4.
Hershiser pitched a scoreless sixth, but Dennis Cook couldn’t do the same in the seventh. Future Met Kurt Abbott hit a double down the line that Valentine swore was foul. He wasn’t shy about letting third base umpire Tony Randazzo–a strike replacement ump–know his opinion (viewing a replay later, Valentine admitted “Tony made the right call”). Cook retired the next two batters, but allowed a game-tying RBI single to Castilla.
The Mets responded immediately. After Ventura led off the eighth with a walk, ex-Rockie Hamilton drove him home with a triple. Agbayani followed with a sac fly to put the Mets up 7-5. They piled on with three more runs in the ninth, a rally begun when Colorado manager Jim Leyland made the curious decision to walk Olerud and face Piazza instead. (Though Piazza did not have a great series, coming into the game he was a lifetime .436 hitter at Coors Field. And also was Mike Piazza.) The catcher made Leyland pay by hitting an RBI single. Ventura and Hamilton followed with RBI singles of their own.
In San Diego, rookie Matt Clement shut down the Braves, so the Mets would return to New York only one game out of first place. Next up, a weekend series against the Phillies, after a day off. “Those guys deserve a day off,” Valentine told reporters. “This is the end of a long trip, the end of three West Coast trips that people thought would put us on our knees. We’re still standing with our heads held high.”