1999 Project: NLCS Game 4

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

99_nlcsgm4_sweep.pngNBC’s pregame intro praised the “talent and professionalism” of the Braves, and supposed a trip to the World Series would help them rightfully claim the mantle of Team of the Decade. The Mets were only mentioned to note they would likely be “swept away” (as symbolized by this graphic), which is understandable, since they’d barely made a peep during the first three games of the series. Their formerly unimpeachable gloves had failed them. Their big hitters had come up small. Their pitching had been good, holding the Braves to nine runs in the first three games, but Atlanta’s had been better, with a staff ERA of 2.45.

Before the game, as the teams took batting practice, someone asked John Rocker if he could imagine changing his mind about Mets fans. “The only thing I’m changing is my clothes after I get champagne all over them tonight,” he responded.

It looked like the most exciting Mets-related news of the day would come from the Queens DA office, which announced it had arrested an Elmhurst man for attempting to use eBay to sell playoff tickets “at prices exceeding the face value of $50.” Back in 1999, using the internet to charge exorbitant prices for tickets was still called scalping, though nowadays it’s called StubHub.

“Twelve days ago, the Mets played the Cincinnati Reds in a game that they had to win or their season was going come to an end,” Gary Cohen said in his pregame remarks, “and now…they’re faced with the same proposition against the Atlanta Braves here tonight.”

If you wondered why few people gave the Mets a shot to extend the series (other than the way they’d played so far), the answer was John Smoltz. The previous Braves starters at least offered a glimmer of hope, insofar as they either had checkered playoff histories (Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine) or a lack of postseason experience (Kevin Millwood). Smoltz had neither. What he did have: 12 playoff wins, the most of any other pitcher at the time, and a 6-2 record in the LCS.

He also had a new delivery. To relieve shoulder pain, he’d switched to a three-quarters motion. He was almost like a completely different pitcher, and just as good as the old Smoltz. Prior to the switch, the Mets touched him up for seven runs in a game at Shea in July. But after Smoltz’s adjustments, they could only scratch out one run off of him in a late September game in Atlanta (the one in which Chipper Jones singlehandedly beat them with two solo homers).

If the Mets wanted any hope it all, they could look to the calendar. Thirty years ago, on the same date, the Mets beat the Orioles 5-3 in game 5 of the World Series to complete a miraculous season and capture their first championship. For a more tangible sign, they could look to the man on the mound, Rick Reed.

After a disappointing season, Reed turned in some impressive starts down the stretch, including a 12-strikeout, complete game shutout against the Pirates, at a time when one more loss meant the end of the Mets’ season. “He is back to the Rick Reed of 1997 and 1998,” Cohen said in his pregame remarks, “able to throw his fastball anywhere he wants and get his curveball over.” He was also the rare Mets pitcher who had some success against Atlanta (though he knocked on wood when reminded of this fact by a Daily News reporter).

Bobby Cox, of all people, seemed to think his team’s success was more good fortune than anything else. “We’ve won a lot of games against the Mets this year,” he said. “But most of the games could have gone either way…I think we’ve maybe outlucked them in a lot of areas.”

Game 4 marked the first time in the series the Mets would not be outlucked, or outsmarted.

October 16, 1999: Mets 3, Braves 2

Reed pronounced himself ready for this challenge, but he didn’t look ready at game time, at least not initially. As the rest of the team ran onto the field (“going with a change in uniforms, hoping for a change in fortune,” Cohen noted, with the Mets wearing their black unis for first time in the series), Reed strolled leisurely from the bullpen down the dugout, taking his time in getting to the mound. If this was an attempt to calm himself down, the gambit worked. Reed retired the Braves easily in the top of the first, and used only eight pitches to do it. Gerald Williams flew out to center, Bret Boone struck out looking on a great curveball, and Chipper Jones tapped a harmless grounder to Edgardo Alfonzo.

As the Mets came to bat in the bottom of the first, Bob Murphy noted the Mets had second best batting average in the regular season (.279), but were only hitting .181 in the LCS. “It’s legitimate to expect your batting average to drop off in the postseason, when you’re facing the better teams,” Cohen added, “but for it to drop off a hundred points is a bit much.” The futility continued here, as Rickey Henderson flew out to left, John Olerud (in the second spot again) grounded out to shortstop, and Alfonzo flew out to center.

Cohen mildly criticized Valentine’s lineup tinkering, noting the manager “said after the game last night that anyone who thinks Alfonzo didn’t hit because he was moved out of the second spot is ‘dumb’. That may be, but every time Fonzie has been moved out of the second spot, he has not hit.”

“And if the Mets don’t win tonight,” Murphy added, “it’ll be too late to do anything about it.”

The Braves were retired in order again in the top of the second. Brian Jordan hit a hard liner to third, but Robin Ventura was equal to the task. Ryan Klesko fell behind 1-2 and fouled off a few pitches before striking out on a high fastball. Andruw Jones fouled out behind the plate to Mike Piazza to end the inning.

The Mets went just as quietly in their half, as Piazza flew out to left, Ventura popped out to Chipper, and Darryl Hamilton went down swinging. The only lively Mets personnel were Cohen and Muprhy, who had an amusing exchange in the broadcast booth.

“If the Mets don’t win this game tonight,” Cohen said, “Cookie Rojas will miss Opening Day in Tokyo next year.” Rojas had been suspended for five games after bumping umpire Charlie Williams in game 4 of the NLDS. A week earlier, the commissioner’s office officially announced that the Mets would open the 2000 season in Japan with a two-game series against the Cubs.

“Does that carry over?” Murphy wondered.

“I would assume so. [long pause] Opening Day in Tokyo, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t know. That’s a long plane ride, my friend.”

“Each way.”

“I’ll say. You go, you gotta come back.”

“You never know, you could become the voice of the Yomiuri Giants…”

“I’ll leave that to you. I’ll come back, alright? That is, if I’m there.”

“I guess a week of sushi would be enough.”

“Certainly would be for me, I know that.”

Reed made quick work of the Braves again in the top of the third. Eddie Perez (nursing tendonitis in his knees, tweaked when he tried to turn a single into double in game 3) grounded out to shortstop, Walt Weiss struck out on a wicked curveball, and Smoltz also grounded out to short.

The Mets tried to get something going in the bottom half when Roger Cedeno led off with a single to left, the first baserunner for either team. Cohen wondered if Rey Ordonez might bunt him over, or wait for him to steal, then bunt him over to third. But the shortstop did neither, swinging at the first pitch and grounding out at first as Cedeno moved to second. Reed followed with slow grounder near the second base bag. Weiss grabbed it and tried to tag Cedeno, who strayed a bit too far from second, but he managed to dive back in time, and the shortstop contented himself with getting the out at first. Henderson ended the threat with a strikeout, swinging late on a Smoltz fastball.

“If the Braves were to wrap up the series tonight,” Cohen noted, “they would have a long, long layoff before the World Series…Six days off. A baseball team does not like that at all. It messes up your pitching, it messes up your timing…But I think the Braves would take that dilemma in a heartbeat.”

In the top of the fourth, Boone swung at the first pitch and sent it between Reed’s legs and through into center field for a one-out base hit, Atlanta’s first. With Chipper at the plate, Boone tried to test Piazza’s arm (which had failed such a test in a crucial play during the first inning of game 3). The catcher’s throw was high, but Ordonez snared it and came down in time to tag him out. Reed topped that play by snapping off another great curve to strike out Chipper swinging.

Smoltz did Reed one better in the bottom of the fourth, getting Olerud to fly out, then striking out Alfonzo and Piazza back to back. Reed responded by setting down the Braves in order yet again in the top of the fifth, on a fly out by Jordan and grounders from Klesko and Andruw Jones.

Ventura grounded out to start the bottom of the fifth, and Hamilton was called out on strikes on a close pitch he disputed with home plate ump Ed Rapuano (though it was a far closer pitch than some of the called strikes awarded to Glavine and Maddux earlier in the series). Cedeno was up next, and he fouled off a pitch down the third base line that just eluded Chipper’s glove. Chipper tossed the ball into the nearby stands, and the crowd around the unlucky recipient chanted THROW IT BACK! THROW IT BACK!

Perhaps unnerved, Chipper was unable to handle a bad hop off Cedeno’s bat (although he hadn’t looked good in the field all series), and it zipped past him for a single. But after a few pickoff throws, Ordonez swung at the first pitch he saw for the second straight at bat and flew out to right.

Reed set down the Braves in order once more in the top of the sixth, and had barely broken a sweat all night. “He may be good for 12 or 13 innings tonight,” Cohen surmised, “and the way the Mets’ offense is going, he may have to.” But he could not help his own cause in the bottom of the sixth, looping a soft liner to Boone for the first out. Henderson followed with a lazy pop up to Klesko.

Cohen wondered what could possibly break the Mets out of their offensive funk. “They need a home run, or they need a break. They need someone to get on base and have the Braves make a couple of errors, or they need somebody to launch one.”

99_nlcsgm4_olerud.pngOlerud could do nothing about former, so he tried the latter. He turned on a 1-1 offering from Smoltz and lit a laser beam of a home run into the Mets’ bullpen. The Mets had scored their first run in 16 1/3 brutal innings. “Oh, how the Mets have been pining for that longball for the longest time!” Cohen exclaimed. The normally effusive Valentine would only allow himself a small nod of his head at the sight of Olerud’s homer. He’d seen too much already to think this game was over.

Given the first lead any Mets pitcher had since game 2, Reed proceeded in the top of the seventh as he had all game, with two quick groundouts from Williams and Boone. Next was Chipper, serenaded with chants of LAAAAAAAA-REEEEE from the Shea crowd. Reed fell behind him 3-1, which marked the first time he’d gone to a three-ball count to any batter. “He does not want to throw him a fat pitch,” Cohen cautioned, and Reed didn’t, denting the low outside corner. On 3-2, Reed blew a fastball right by Chipper to retire the side and excite the crowd even further, if that was possible.

99_nlcsgm4_larry.pngNBC zeroed in on a row of four Larry Fine signs hanging from the stands, signifying how many times Chipper had struck out in the series (this last K brought the total to five). Costas quipped, “Down goes Larry, and the Mets have the mo’.”

The crowd was so pumped, it barely seemed to notice when Smoltz retired the Mets 1-2-3 in the bottom of the seventh, and took only seven pitches to do so. Not even an ugly strikeout by Piazza could dampen the enthusiasm. “Right now those good hard fastballs are going by Mike Piazza,” Cohen lamented, reminding everyone just how much pain the catcher was in at the moment.

The top of the eighth inning began with an odd scene when Melvin Mora ran out to replace Henderson in left field. The future Hall of Famer pointed to himself, as if to say, “Who, me?”, incredulous that Valentine would let him run onto the field and then swap him out. After the game, Valentine admitted he “screwed up” in doing so, knowing it was embarrassing for a veteran like Rickey to be removed in such a fashion (especially in favor of a rookie). But he also said leaving Rickey in would have only compounded the error.

“Rick Reed, who we thought had pitched the game of his life against the Pittsburgh Pirates in the final week of the season, is outdoing himself tonight,” Cohen gushed. As the eighth inning began, Reed had faced the minimum number of batters. He’d thrown only 70 pitches (“Greg Maddux-like,” in Cohen’s description). He’d allowed only one baserunner. He’d thrown three balls to a batter only once all night. Another complete game gem looked not only likely, but inevitable.

And in the span of three pitches, it all vanished.

99_nlcsgm4_jordanklesko.jpgLeading off, Jordan turned on the first pitch he saw and launched it off the facing of the bleachers in left field. Both Costas on TV and Murphy on the radio mistook it for an extra bas hit, as the ball bounced back onto the field. But it had hit above the outfield wall, and would go as a game-tying home run. It was only Jordan’s second hit of the series, but both were home runs that tied up the game (the first coming in Kenny Rogers’ meltdown in game 2).

Murphy was in the midst of relating this factoid when he had to stop midsentence. The Shea crowd gasped. Klesko had just clubbed a 1-0 offering from Reed into the Mets’ bullpen to put Atlanta up, 2-1.

In a literal matter of seconds, Rick Reed went from pitching out-of-his-mind baseball to giving up the lead. No Brave had gotten good wood on his pitches all game, and suddenly Jordan and Klesko hit back-to-back bombs. Both home runs were pure no-doubters. The first homer quieted the crowd, and the second one made Shea almost funereal. The Braves’ high fives and cheers could be heard in the broadcast booth, because no one else made a sound.

Pitching coach Dave Wallace strolled slowly to the mound to take the ball from Reed, as the Shea organist played a melancholy rendition of “Stolen Moments”. Turk Wendell came on and set down three Braves in order, thanks in part to a great barehand play by Ventura on a grounder by Perez. But now the Mets were six outs away from their season coming to an end.

Cedeno led off the bottom of the eighth, and feigned a few running bunts before smacking his third hit of the game up the middle. Matt Franco had been on deck to pinch hit for Ordonez, but Valentine let the shortstop try and lay down a sac bunt, something he’d done 11 times in regular season. Unfortunately, Rey popped up Smoltz’s first pitch right back to Brian Hunter (in for defense at first), and drew boos as he skulked back to the dugout.

Franco was announced as the pinch hitter for Wendell, and Cox immediately went to his bullpen, bringing in lefty Mike Remlinger. Valentine countered by sending up Benny Agbayani in his place. Cohen wondered if Valentine should just let Franco get a few left-handed at bats because otherwise “you’re losing your best pinch hitter every time you face Atlanta.”

“Someone in this inning has to give Cedeno a chance to steal second,” Cohen advised. “The way the Mets’ offense is going, you have to use that weapon.” Cedeno had reached base three times, and each time had no chance to run because of Ordonez’s impatience at the plate. Agbayani could do no better, as he struck out swinging on a changeup in the dirt. Once again, it appeared Cox had out-managed Valentine, causing him to waste Franco and gain nothing from it.

Then Mora came up in his first at-bat of the game. On a 1-0 pitch, Cedeno stole second, beating a late, wide throw from Perez. Suddenly, Remlinger had no interest in facing Mora and fired a few pitches well out of the strike zone, issuing him a walk. Perhaps with a man in scoring position, Remlinger didn’t want to throw a good pitch to one of the few Mets who’d been been able to hit Braves pitching. “Right now, there is nobody on the Mets, with the exception of Cedeno, who has been hitting the ball better than Mora,” Cohen observed, noting he’d even hit a long fly ball agains Rocker, the closest thing to success against the Braves’ closer that any Met had.

Or, perhaps with Olerud on deck and two outs, Atlanta had no qualms about giving a free pass to Mora and bringing in Rocker to face the first baseman. There could have been 12 men on base, and Cox probably would have preferred Rocker vs. Olerud to any other matchup. Olerud had faced the closer nine times and been retired in each instance, with five strikeouts. He’d batted against Rocker in games 1 and 2 in critical late inning spots, and struck out both times, looking completely overmatched while doing so.

Just as he had in game 3, Rocker ran out of the visiting bullpen to a chorus of boos, epithets, and poorly flung projectiles. Weiss, the number eight batter, made the last out in the top of the inning, so Cox made a double switch, bringing in Ozzie Guillen to play shortstop and bat ninth. With the spectacle of Rocker taking the mound, few people made note of Guillen’s entry (except for Joe Morgan, who questioned the wisdom of removing the Braves’ best defensive shortstop). They would soon enough.

Olerud fouled off Rocker’s first pitch, then took an inside pitch for ball one. The next pitch was also inside and low, and with the Mets’ backs against the wall and nothing left to lose, Cedeno and Mora attempted a double steal (later, they’d both claim responsibility for this risky gambit). The Braves were so confident in Rocker’s ability to retire Olerud, Perez didn’t even rise from his crouch to attempt a throw to either base. Two runners were now in scoring position. With the collective speed of Cedeno and Mora, any kind of hit could score them both. But any kind of hit might be impossible, with Rocker on the mound.

Olerud fouled the next pitch the opposite way, making the count 2-2. He was one strike away from letting another opportunity slip through the Mets’ hands.

“I can’t imagine a tougher job in baseball,” Murphy opined, “than going up as a left handed hitter and trying to get a hit off of John Rocker.”

“Maybe Billy Wagner, maybe Randy Johnson, but that’s it,” Cohen agreed. Then, after a beat, he added, “Of course, Olerud hit a home run off of Randy Johnson.”

99_nlcsgm4_guillen.pngOn cue, Olerud managed to get around Rocker’s next pitch and squib a bouncing ball up the middle. Guillen had been playing deep on the grass and toward third, thinking Olerud was unlikely to pull the ball. Now the shortstop had to range far to his left. Guillen ran as far as he could and lunged for it desperately, but the ball hit the tip of his glove and glanced away into center field, as he lost his footing and was almost toppled by his own momentum. Cedeno scored, Mora ran in right behind him, and the two runners met in an ecstatic leap behind home plate (thus producing one of my favorite Met photos as ever, which you’ll see below). Reed, who was crestfallen after giving up the back-to-back homers that put the Braves ahead, told Ed Coleman “I was the first one out of the dugout to meet ’em.”

“I think that was one of the cheaper hits I’ve ever given up in my entire life,” the gracious closer told the press later. Olerud’s single barely qualified as a hit, but after barely losing three games in a row, and after barely finding every way possible way to finish short of Atlanta, the Mets would take barely for one night.

The crowd was so insane with joy that when Rocker struck out Alfonzo to end the inning, they cheered. “We’re at the end of eight, fasten your seatbelts!” Murphy warned, as he often did late in tense games such as this one. Rocker was serenaded with all manner of curses on his way back to the dugout. His response: he flashed three fingers, then made an “O”, reminding the Mets fans that their team was still in a deep, deep hole. “They got to beat us three more times, they’ve only beaten us four times all year,” he said after the game.

As dominant as Rocker had been against the Mets, Armando Benitez was even more so against the Braves. He had yet to allow an Atlanta batter to reach base in 1999. The first man he faced, Guillen, clearly wanted to redeem himself for missing the ball that put the Mets on top again. (“I’m sure Bobby Cox is wondering, ‘Would Walt Weiss have gotten to that ball?'” Cohen surmised.) Benitez fell behind Guillen 2-1, then hit up a long, high fly ball down the left field line that went foul at the last possible second. “Oh, what a scare he threw into this crowd!” Murphy gasped. The count went full, then Guillen put a jolt into another pitch, a liner to right field, but Cedeno ranged back and reached over his head to make the catch for the first out.

99_nlcsgm4_lastout.pngThe next batter, Williams, was much more cooperative, swinging at the first pitch and sending a lazy fly ball to Cedeno in right. Atlanta’s last hope was Keith Lockhart, pinch hitting for Boone to get a left-handed bat against the Mets’ closer. Benitez had to throw strikes, or risk putting the tying run on base and bringing Chipper to the plate. On a 2-2 pitch, Benitez got a called third strike on the outside corner to keep Chipper in the on-deck circle and preserve the victory.

“Survive and advance, that has been the theme for the Mets the past few weeks,” Cohen said.

“We’re not rolling over and dying,” Piazza warned reporters after the game. “We’re going to battle until the last man
is standing.”

Bobby Valentine wouldn’t go so far as to say his team could come all the way back from an 0-3 deficit. All he said was, “Someday, someone’s going to do this.”

“This is as thrilling a ballgame as I’ve ever seen the New York Mets play,” Murphy proclaimed, which was saying a lot, considering he’d witnessed every single Mets game played so far, and promised “the happiest recap of the year”.

Game 4 is one of my favorite Mets games ever, truly a forgotten classic in their history. It’s like a great album overshadowed by a greater/more popular collection the artist put out later.

But if game 4 gets overlooked, there’s a very big reason. As exciting as it was, game 4 couldn’t compare to what was in store for game 5. Few ever games ever had, and few games ever will.