Click here for an intro/manifesto on The 1999 Project.
The Mets returned from their last West Coast trip of the year one game out of first, three games ahead in the wild card race, and a showdown in Atlanta looming on the horizon. Bobby Valentine and Steve Phillips got good news when co-owner Fred Wilpon assured them both they’d return in 2000. That prompted some rare praise for Valentine from the GM (and a partially sarcastic reaction by the manager, when told of said praise).
Before the Mets could challenge the Braves head-on, they had a brief series at Shea against the Phillies. This was their first meeting since the Mets completed a thrilling ninth inning comeback against Curt Schilling way back in May. At that time, the Phils still owned a respectable record, but injuries had taken their toll in the ensuing months. Prior to this series, the team shut down Schilling and third baseman Scott Rolen for the year. But the Mets swore they wouldn’t overlook the Phillies. “We know Philadelphia is going to be out for us,” John Franco told the Daily News.
It certainly looked that way in game one, when the Phils touched up Al Leiter for three first inning runs, tacked on two more in the fourth, and cruised the rest of the way. Philly did some inadvertent damage to the Mets’ most dangerous weapon, when Mike Piazza took a blow off his throwing hand from a Ron Gant foul tip and had to leave the game. The injury would plague him, on and off, for the rest of the year.
Todd Pratt took over in his absence and hit a two-run single in the ninth that made this game look closer than it really was. Rookie Randy Wolf baffled the Mets, striking out 11, thus beginning his inexplicable history of success against the team. “The Randy on the hill mowing down batters last night at Shea Stadium was named Wolf, not Johnson,” Frank Isola wrote in the News. “The Mets were never quite able to make that distinction.”
Also among the wounded: Shawon Dunston, who made a great diving catch in the fifth, but came down hard, suffered “mild whiplash”, and left the game once the inning was over.
Down in Atlanta, Chipper Jones hit a walkoff homer in the bottom of the tenth to give the Braves a 6-5 win over the Expos and expand their lead in the NL East to two games. The Reds lost in Pittsburgh to stay three back in the wild card race.
Before the game, Valentine announced he would revert to a five-man rotation. Surprisingly, the odd man out was Octavio Dotel, who’d pitched brilliantly at times. But Valentine seemed wary of pitching him Atlanta, where he’d made his major league debut and was knocked around for six runs in less than five innings. Other than prevent Dotel from exacting revenge on the Braves, which he seemed anxious to do (“Believe it,” he told the Daily News), the move meant the Mets would throw three veterans in Atlanta: Leiter, Rick Reed, and Orel Hershiser.
On the field, Masato Yoshii threw seven great innings, prompting chants of “Yoshii! Yoshii!” from the Shea crowd. The bats lulled to sleep by Randy Wolf came alive against Philly starter Mike Grace and the Philly bullpen, even without Piazza in the lineup.
Rey Ordonez had hit exactly one home run a year since hitting the bigs in 1996, each one coming in September. This game marked his annual long ball for 1999; amazingly, it came with the bases juiced (the picture to your right is provided as evidence that a Rey Ordonez grand slam actually happened). Darryl Hamilton hit a solo homer, scored three runs, and made a great diving catch to keep the Phils off the board.
Meanwhile in Atlanta, Greg Maddux pitched a typical Maddux-esque game against the Expos, going the distance and giving up no earned runs. But thanks to three Braves errors, Montreal scored four unearned runs, making him the hard luck loser. Thus, the Mets were back within a game of first place. The Reds won again to keep pace in the wild card hunt.
The Mets took a 4-0 lead in the third, thanks to a three-run homer by John Olerud (which also allowed Edgardo Alfonzo to score his 117th run of the year, tying a club record set by Lance Johnson in 1996), followed immediately by a solo shot from Piazza. The catcher wasn’t entirely over the thumb injury he sustained in the first game against the Phils, but he wanted to get some at bats before the series in Atlanta.
Things were looking good, especially since Kenny Rogers kept the Phillies out of the hit column for the first four innings. But then he tweaked his troublesome hamstring yet again, and the wheels came off. He opened the fifth by giving up a hit, then a two-run homer to ex-Met Rico Brogna. After loading the bases with two outs, Rogers walked in a run, then gave up a two-RBI single to Bobby Abreu.
Rogers finally got the hook in favor of Dotel, whose first appearance out of the bullpen did not begin well. The rookie tried the fake-to-third-throw-to-first gambit, but only succeeded in getting called for a balk that brought a runner home from third and put Philly up 6-4. Valentine screamed at first base ump Bruce Froemming, but the umpire refused to ask for help from the rest of his crew, even when the manager stalked on the field and appealed to the other umpires in person.
Somehow, Valentine avoided getting thrown out of the game. More importantly, Dotel got the final out and pitched a scoreless sixth, which bought the Mets enough to time to claw back. Roger Cedeno led off the bottom of fifth with an infield single, stole second, and scored on an Olerud double. After a walk to Piazza, Robin Ventura hit his own infield single while Olerud scored the tying run all the way from second. Then with two out, Benny Agbayani reached on an error by Desi Relaford, which also allowed Piazza to score the go-ahead run.
Cedeno added a solo home run in the sixth to pad the Mets’ lead, and the bullpen worked around a few scares to maintain it. Turk Wendell gave up two singles to start the seventh, then was yanked in favor of Dennis Cook (though not before he tossed his glove into the stands in frustration, where a lucky young fan flagged this unusual souvenir).
Cook got the last two outs in the seventh and the first in the eighth, but then gave up a double to Jose Arias. Valentine turned to Armando Benitez for a five-out save, which he achieved while striking out three.
Despite missing slugger Brian Jordan (who was battling wrist injuries, and in danger of missing the postseason altogether), the Braves beat the Expos with little fuss, so the Mets would go to Atlanta one game back in the standings.
The win was also a nice birthday present for original Met broadcaster Bob
Murphy, who received cake and a “Happy Birthday” serenade from the Shea
crowd before the game. “You always have to believe there’ll be another September like this,” he said. “Isn’t that what keeps us all so young?”
Mike Piazza described his feelings at the time, in words that will seem ironic to all Mets fans for a few dozen different reasons:
We have to go down there and enjoy it, No. 1, and not get caught up in the pressure. We have to play relaxed and feel like we’re the team to beat.