1999 Project: Games 154-156

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

Thumbnail image for vetstadiumseat.jpgSeptember 24, 1999: Phillies 3, Mets 2

After a damaging and occasionally embarrassing sweep in Atlanta, the Mets headed to Philadelphia. The Phillies had a miserable end to their year, going 4-24 in the month prior to this series. Just before the Mets took on the Braves, they’d taken two out of three from the Phillies at Shea. Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen were both shut down for the year, and the team had almost no other stars to speak of.

In other words, the Phillies should have been just what the doctor ordered.The Mets should have been able to right their ship with a series win against a lowly team and stop the whispers that they were doomed to choke away a playoff spot, just like last year’s team.

But that, they say, is why they play the games.

Despite venturing north, the Mets still seemed to have their heads in Atlanta. Several unnamed players suspected that Chipper Jones was tipped off to their pitch selection, thus explaining his four home runs in three games against the Mets. The fact that he was having a monster year, and hitting home runs against everyone, was not mentioned.

Bobby Valentine called Chipper’s ability to hit home runs off of his team “uncanny”, but neither he nor anyone else would go on record with the pitch-tipping accusations. It indicated the disturbing extent to which the Braves in general (and Chipper in particular) were in the Mets’ heads.

Those heads certainly didn’t seem to be in Philadelphia in game one, as the Mets could only get two runs off of journeyman pitcher Joe Grahe. Robin Ventura hit a solo homer in the second, and Mets starter Masato Yoshii reached on an error in the fifth, eventually scoring on a John Olerud single. But it looked like that might be enough, as Yoshii held the Phillies to one run and four hits over seven innings.

Despite Yoshii’s success to that point in the game, Bobby Valentine relieved him in favor of Dennis Cook to start the eighth inning (he later said he thought Yoshii had been worn out by his trip around the bases). Cook responded by walking pinch hitter Kevin Sefcik, so Valentine brought in Turk Wendell; Cook, struggling through a rough September, kicked the mound and yelled at himself as he left the field. Wendell got Doug Glanville to line out and struck out Ron Gant, so it looked like the Mets might escape danger.

Next up was Bobby Abreu, one of the Phillies’ few remaining offensive threats. Both John Franco and Armando Benitez were warming up in the bullpen. But rather than opt for the lefty Franco against the lefty-batting Abreu, Valentine went with Benitez, a move even Benitez said shocked him. It is not a good sign when your closer is shocked, rather than pumped, to enter a tight game.

Benitez had faced Abreu once in his career and struck him out, but he was not as effective here. Abreu worked him to a full count (during which Sefcik stole second), then smacked a double to right that drove in Sefick with the tying run. Mike Lieberthal was up next, and he hit the first pitch he saw into right field, scoring Abreu and putting the Phillies on top, 3-2.

Stunned, the Mets went down in order in the ninth. They did so against Scott Aldred, a pitcher who had a grand total of zero saves in his major league career before notching this one. He’d appear in 23 games in 2000 before leaving baseball. At least that made his career lengthier than Grahe’s, who would not pitch again in the majors after 1999. Sefick, the man whose walk and stolen base started the Phils’ rally, would appear in 100 games over the next two seasons and never be heard from again (in the baseball sense, anyway).

Also-rans and never-wases. And they all combined to push the Mets five games back in the NL East, because up in Montreal, the Braves squeaked past the Expos 4-3. Even worse, the “safety net” of the wild card had evaporated to a single game, following the Reds’ win over the Cardinals.

September 25, 1999: Phillies 4, Mets 2

Despite their struggles in Atlanta and Philly, back in New York the Mets began selling tickets to the NLDS. Hundreds of hopeful fans waited up all night and negotiated a complicated lottery system (part of which involved Mr. Met pulling balls from a bucket) to purchase seats for playoff games that looked less likely with each passing game.

To make matters worse, the Mets sold its first batch of playoff tickets to a Yankees fan from Bethpage, who said he hoped to trade them for tickets to see The Other Team (I’m not sure how he thought this brilliant scheme could succeed). As he mugged for the local news cameras while wearing a Yankees hat, the Mets fans waiting in line behind him “began loudly volunteering their thoughts on his wardrobe,” according to The New York Times.

The Mets looked determined to make this opportunist pay in the worst way possible, by playing yet another listless game. The team held a players-only meeting before the game, but the only result was another lackluster offensive performance. They managed just four hits off of Philly starter Robert Person.

This time, the starting pitching failed as badly as the offense. Kenny Rogers had lobbied for Valentine to shuffle his starting rotation and give him a shot at the Braves when the came to Shea the following week. However, the lefty showed no indication he deserved that shot. Rogers gave up back-to-back solo homers to Lieberthal and ex-Met Rico Brogna to start the second inning. In the third, he loaded the bases with two outs on a walk, and single, and another walk, then walked Brogna to force in a run.

Valentine later admitted he should have yanked Rogers at that point, but he didn’t, and Rogers walked Kevin Jordan to force in another run, putting New York in a 4-0 hole. Rogers was yanked for Octavio Dotel, who finally got the third out. Dotel, Pat Mahomes, Franco, and Wendell combined to keep the Phillies off the board the rest of the way, but it was already too late.

The Mets had a chance in the eighth, when Edgardo Alfonzo walked against reliever Steve Montgomery, and Olerud followed with a two-run homer to cut the deficit in half. After a walk to Piazza, The Immortal Aldred was called in to face Ventura, but he walked, too. That put runners on first and second with nobody out, a rally in the making.

Except that Valentine asked Darryl Hamilton to bunt the runners over, or at least feign doing so (he wanted “to see if the kid could throw a strike,” he said later). Hamilton’s bunt went towards third, Aldred fielded the ball, and forced Piazza at third. One batter later, Benny Agbayani hit a sharp liner into the glove of David Doster (another Phillie who would not wear a major league uniform after the 1999 season) for an inning-ending unassisted double play. The Mets’ last threat was extinguished.

Once again, the Mets had lost ground in both their races. Another Braves win in Montreal put them six games out of first place in the NL East, while another Reds victory over St. Louis brought Cincinnati into a tie for the wild card lead.

After the game, Valentine shocked reporters by saying that, if the Mets missed out on the playoffs again, he should be fired. Players’ reactions ranged from surprise to subdued support, but most seemed annoyed that, in the midst of such a rough stretch, Valentine’s words had set off yet another media feeding frenzy.

But it wasn’t just Valentine feeling the heat from the newspapers. Reporters questioned how, in the midst of a brutal five-game losing streak, the Mets players could blast music in the visiting clubhouse and enjoy a hearty postgame dinner of soft-shell crab (were they supposed to not eat as penance?). The Mets seemed to not be panicking–probably the best response in such a situation, but interpreted by most writers as willful ignorance, devil-may-care foolishness, or outright callousness.

GM Steve Phillips seemed perturbed that Valentine would make such an odd, self-inflicted threat. “I’m glad it’s nothing I’m ever going to have to consider,” he said (“with what could be construed as a tight smile of chagrin,” according to The Times). “We have seven great days left in a great season.”

When asked if a manager should get the blame for losing a playoff spot two years in a row, Phillips responded. “I don’t know. Has any team ever had collapses two years in a row?”

September 26, 1999: Phillies 3, Mets 2

Before the game, Alfonzo sought out Valentine and offered to hit lower in the lineup, in an effort to spark the Mets’ offense. The manager took him up on the offer and batted switch hitter Roger Cedeno in his usual second spot, moving Fonzie down to sixth.

The results were minimal. The Mets got only six hits (two more than the previous game) could still only manage two runs against a Philly starter. This time they were stymied by ex-Met Paul Byrd, who they’d beaten soundly just a week earlier, whose fastball had struggled to break the 80 mph mark lately, and whose ERA in his last five starts was a monstrous 9.39. Despite the lineup shakeup, both Cedeno and Alfonzo went hitless.

Rick Reed only gave up three hits, but one of them was a two-run homer to Brogna in the fourth, another an RBI single by Glanville in the fifth. It was enough to beat him.

The Mets got close on a two-out, two-run double by Rey Ordonez (of all people) in the seventh. Ordonez even moved to third on a wild pitch by Byrd, putting the tying run 90 feet away. But after a walk to pinch hitter Matt Franco, Rickey Henderson struck out to end the inning.

They had another opportunity in the ninth inning. After inducing a groundout from Alfonozo, reliever Wayne Gomes couldn’t find the plate, throwing 11 straight balls and walking Hamilton, Ordonez, and pinch hitter Bobby Bonilla to load the bases and bring up Henderson. Once again, the tying run was on third, and this time, it could score on an out. A flyball, a groundout, even a wild pitch or passed ball could bring Hamilton home. A hit might put the Mets ahead. “I figured we could push at least one across,” said Reed.

But Montgomery came in to relieve the wild Gomes, and he got Henderson to hit a 1-2 pitch for a low hopper to second. On another field, it might have been slow enough to allow Henderson to reach safely, and the tying run to score. But on the Veterans Stadium AstroTurf, it went for a 4-6-3 game-ending double play. Like many of the other Phillies who did in the Mets in this series, Montgomery would not last much longer in the bigs; he appeared in seven games for the Padres in 2000, and that was it for his major league career. But that career lasted just enough to all but doom the Mets.

Yet again, the bad news came in threes. The Braves cruised to a 10-0 win in Montreal. That win, combined with the Mets’ loss, clinched the NL East for Atlanta. After being just a game out of first a week ago, the wild card was now the Mets’ only path to the playoffs.

But the Reds were trying to close off that path. It looked like the Mets might catch a break when the Cardinals rallied from a two-run deficit in the ninth to tie their game in Cincinnati, then went ahead in the twelfth on an Edgar Renteria RBI double. But just as the Mets piled on the bus back to New York, the Reds responded with a walkoff three-run homer from Pokey Reese. Now the Mets were looking up at Cincinnati, one game behind in the wild card race.

The sweep in Atlanta was disappointing, but understandable. To be swept by an injured, go-nowhere Phillies team that had only managed four wins in the last month, and have the major culprits be total nonentities–that was downright baffling. No one could figure it out, which made the slide that much more terrifying.

Another miserable end to their season seemed fated, so much so that their bad luck appeared to infect other teams. Just as the Mets were being swept in Philly, their former stadium mates, the Jets, blew a 14-13 lead to the Redskins, then saw a potential touchdown reversed, en route to a 27-20 loss and an 0-3 start to their season. The Daily News referred to the Jets’ loss, marred by idiotic pass intereference penalties and a myriad of other blunders, as a “Mets-like collapse”.

After the game, oddly enough, it was the man who called for his own firing who had the most outward optimism. “This stuff is going to change,” Valentine insisted, though all evidence seemed to point to the contrary. “It’s going to be our time to play the music loud after the game and have some fun. It always happens and we’re too good for it not to happen. When it comes it’ll come in bunches.”

Ordonez was more fatalistic, citing an old Cuban saying: “So much swimming, only to die on the shore.”