1999 Project: NLCS Game 1

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

Thumbnail image for johnrocker.jpgThe Mets had almost three days off in between game 4 of the NLDS and the start of the championship series in Atlanta. But they began their assault on the Braves almost as soon as Todd Pratt’s home run cleared the center field fence at Shea. Their barrage was of the verbal variety. No Met was shy about expressing their opinion of the division champs.

It was a cavalier attitude, to say the least, considering Atlanta had their way with the Mets at every turn during the regular season. Perhaps their reversal of fortune since the last time they faced Chipper Jones and company caused them to believe they were bulletproof. Perhaps, whipped into a frenzy by a New York press corps with dreams of a Subway Series, they were already looking past the Braves. Whatever the reason, the word hubris had disappeared from their vocabulary.

“I thought I had heard that [the Braves] were shocked and surprised that we weren’t in,” Al Leiter said after the Mets’ series-clinching game 4 victory. “They must be really shocked and surprised now.”

“I think it’ll be even more special once we beat the Braves,” Turk Wendell said. “Just because of everything we’ve gone through this year and last year.” Regarding Chipper’s comments, “All I have to say is he stuck his foot in his mouth. He’s going to have to deal with it every game. He’s going to have to deal with the fans.”

“One thing that we’ve got to remember is the fact that they are supposed to beat us,” Darryl Hamilton said. “And they [the Braves] said that. The last time we played Atlanta they were talking about the ghost [the Mets], playing the Yankees. And all the Mets fans should go get their Yankees stuff.”

Not surprisingly, the most inflammatory words came from Bobby Valentine. He’d already landed in hot water for admitting he voted for Bobby Cox for manager of the year “because he had to manage this year.” (Valentine insisted there was a “really” in the statement that his interviewer missed.)

Now he told The New York Times, “We were supposed to be dead, right? Our fans were supposed to change gear. They’re supposed to be watching football.” Regarding Chipper Jones’ infamous ‘Yankee gear’ comment, “It was a premature statement and an incorrect statement. I think he was very confident he wouldn’t have to deal with the fans again this year. Guess what, he’s going to have to deal with them again this year.” And regarding the Braves’ opinion of the Mets:

We have great respect for them. I think we still have to earn our respect. They’ve shown us very little. There’s been a lot of comments. If the comments and actions they’ve made over the years were in New York, as a New York team, they’d be well-known and documented. A lot has slipped by….I don’t want to get into specifics. We know it and those who have been watching know it. We’ll just go on to earn our respect.

For the most part, the Braves kept quiet, said all the right things, and declined to talk any smack about the Mets. Even John Rocker had compliments for them, backhanded though they were: “I’m really shocked to see how they had to squeak into the playoffs with a one-game playoff. I thought they would beat us out for the division, just looking on paper, at talent, theirs versus ours.”

Perhaps because the head-to-head record spoke for itself (“We’re not at this level for nothing,” Brian Jordan said). Perhaps because they’d been to the playoffs so many times, they found it hard to get excited about the whole affair, even against a supposed hated rival. Perhaps because the press in Atlanta was more provincial and supportive, as opposed to the headline-hungry scribes of New York’s back pages. Or perhaps because the Braves successfully avoided the media altogether; according to the NBC announcing crew, Chipper Jones refused all interview requests in the days prior to game 1.

Regardless of the reason, the Braves refused to be drawn into a war of words. Bobby Cox went so far as to profess ignorance of the Mets’ comments. In a pregame interview with sideline reporter Jim Gray, when asked about his opponents’ comments, Cox said, “I haven’t read any of it, Jim, to be honest.”

Incredulously, Gray pressed him, “But certainly you’ve heard it?”

“Not much of it,” Cox said, with a straight face. He sounded much more excited about a quail hunting trip he’d go on with Ted Turner, contingent on the Braves reaching the World Series.

On the other side, Valentine looked distracted and distant when interviewed by Craig Sager. He didn’t exactly back off his comments, but he didn’t exactly deny them either. He didn’t exactly say much of anything, mouthing the usual “we gotta play hard” platitudes, as if he had a gun to his back and a directive to not say anything remotely interesting, lest he tempt the Baseball Fates even further.

The Mets did an excellent job of portraying themselves as the cocky upstarts, and the Braves played their role as the seasoned professionals. New York as Tanner Boyle, telling Atlanta where they could stick all their division trophies.

The Braves seemed less concerned by the Mets (at least outwardly) and more concerned with the label of Team of the Decade. Or rather, the question of whether or not they deserved such a label. They’d won the division title and gone to the league championship series every year since 1991. Despite all that success, they’d won only one World Series, causing some to consider them really, good and not great. “It’s easy to win when you’re not supposed to,” said John Smoltz in response (it is?). “It’s harder to keep doing it. Nobody can take anything away from us…Who cares if we’re the team of the decade or not? They’re going to forget these 10 years some day. All we care about is that we’ve got a chance to win again.”

In his pregame remarks on NBC, Joe Morgan surmised the Mets’ thoughts thusly: “I think the Mets know they have a good enough ball club to beat the Braves. They just have to play good fundamental baseball and not make mistakes.” He also said it was “important for the Mets to go after Chipper Jones right away”.

I present such obvious statements because, on paper, the former was much more doable than the latter. Chipper hit .400 against the Mets in 1999, with 7 home runs and 16 RBIs, so going after him was easier said than done. Mistakes should have been simple to avoid for a team with an historically low rate of committing errors.

But the opposite would turn out to be true. For the most part, Mets pitchers would limit Chippers’ ability to do damage throughout the series. It was errors, miscues, and all manner of mistakes that would undo them, particularly in the first three games.

October 12, 1999: Braves 4, Mets 2

99_nlcsgm1_maddux1.jpgAndres Galaragga, the All Star sidelined by his battle with cancer, threw out the first pitch, then gave way to future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. He had a somewhat disappointing season, giving up the second most hits (258) of any starter, while pitching to a surprisingly high (for him) 3.57 ERA. He was also outpitched by Houston’s Shane Reynolds in game 1 of the NLDS, and had a checkered history in the playoffs–9-9 lifetime in the postseason, and only 5-8 in the NLCS and World Series.

But he was still the Greg Maddux who’d completely dominated the Mets twice in the regular season (while sustaining one stunning barrage in a late September game at Shea). If anything, beating him would be a more difficult task than the one they faced in game 1 of the NLDS in trying to beat Randy Johnson.

Though the Mets’ starter, Masato Yoshii, had an excellent September, he’d pitched opposite Maddux in the regular season twice and lost both times. On the plus side, he wouldn’t have to contend with a formidable tenth man. Prior to the game, the only remotely controversial thing Chipper Jones said pertained to Atlanta fans and their apparent lack of enthusiasm. “This is an exciting team, a blue-collar team and it deserves to have the backing of fans,” he said. “I know ticket prices are high and prices around the ballpark are high, but if they’re taking it for granted we’ll make the World Series, the Mets will have something to say about that.” Jordan contrasted the blas√© attitude of Braves fans with that of the fans in St. Louis, where he spent the previous six seasons.

Bob Costas reported that, one day before the series began, there were still around 6,000 unsold tickets (and apparently, not many walkups to correct this; official announced attendance was 44,172, roughly 6,000 short of capacity). For game 2, the returns were even worse: 10,000 seats still available. “I’m pretty sure when we get to Shea for games 3, 4, and 5, you won’t find any empty seats,” Costas guessed (earlier that day, Mets fans flocked to Shea to buy NLCS tickets). “There’s no chance of me scalping my tickets, then?” Valentine joked.

Maddux made short work of the Mets in the top of the first, his only scare coming on well-struck one-out liner to left field off the bat of Edgardo Alfonzo. Gerald Williams nearly overran it, but recovered to flag it down. He got ahead of John Olerud 0-2, then induced a comebacker to end the inning.

Offensively, the Braves got things started immediately when Williams swung at the first offering from Yoshii and smacked it up the middle for a single. He then stole second as Yoshii went 3-1 on the next batter, second baseman Bret Boone, and scored on another single up the middle. Two batters into the game, the Mets were in a hole, and Chipper approached with his first chance to hurt the Mets. Yoshii went full to Chipper, then walked him, putting men on first and second with nobody out, and bringing up Jordan, who’d been only slightly less dangerous against the Mets than the man just ahead of him in the lineup (.359, three homers, 13 RBIs in 1999).

Dave Wallace trotted out to the mound, while Orel Hershiser began to get loose in the Mets’ bullpen and the Atlanta crowd (what there was of it) roared and waved their foam tomahawks. But the Braves stalled there, with flyouts from Jordan and Ryan Klesko, then a hard grounder to third handled by Robin Ventura, whose low throw was scooped up by Olerud at first.

“How Ed Montague calls balls and strikes will be critical to this game,” Bob Costas predicted. “Greg Maddux lives on the corners. The question is, where are the corners in this game?” The early returns on that question: the corners were everywhere Maddux felt like throwing.

Watching this game ten years later, it’s amazing to note how much baseball–which usually moves at a glacial pace–has changed in that time. Even the Greg Madduxes of 2009 would not get the strike calls the real Greg Maddux got in the pre-QuesTech days of 1999. Conversely, umps are much harsher on checked swings nowadays. This game featured many half-swings that would definitely be ruled swinging strikes nowadays, and far fewer appeals to the first and third base umpires on such calls.

The Mets batters protested some called strikes, but they seemed to realize that Maddux would get the benefit of anything borderline (or more than borderline). Mike Piazza (starting in this game, despite a still injured thumb), Ventura, and Darryl Hamilton went down in order in the top of the second, with Hamilton struck out looking on three pitches.

In the bottom half, Yoshii fell into trouble again with a leadoff double in the right-center gap by Eddie Perez. After staying away from his splitter early, Yoshii finally went to it here to strike out Walt Weiss swinging, then got Maddux to foul out and Williams to fly out to center.

In the top of the third, the Mets looked like they might be in business when Roger Cedeno swung at the first pitch and smacked a double into left, then advanced to third as the return throw eluded the shortstop Weiss. But then Rey Ordonez tapped a ball just in front of the plate and didn’t bother to run, thinking it was foul. Perez picked the ball up as it sat on the chalk and fired to Klesko for an easy first out.

99_nlcsgm1_cedeno.jpgNext was Yoshii, who got ahead 2-0, then tried to lay down a bunt as part of a suicide squeeze. He missed, and Cedeno was a dead duck as he broke for home. Perez ran him back toward third and tagged him for out number two.

Deflated, Yoshii hit a ball back to Maddux for an easy out number three. He was late to the mound in the bottom half, so upset was he about not getting down his bunt. This prompted a brief pep talk from Valentine in Japanese, and he responded by setting down Boone, Chipper, and Jordan in order.

Maddux started the top of the fourth with a three-pitch strikeout of Henderson, freezing him on a prototypical Maddux fastball that stayed inside forever, only to break over the plate at the last moment. But Alfonzo followed with his second hard hit ball of the game, and this one found the left field gap for a double. One pitch later, Olerud lined a single to right field, hit too hard for Fonzie to think about scoring. That brought up Piazza in his first RBI chance of the series. He battled out of an 0-2 hole to bring the count to 2-2, but all he could manage was a broken bat chopper to third. Chipper bobbled it briefly, but recovered in time to get the out at first against Piazza’s lack of speed. Fonzie came in to tie up the game and Olerud moved to second, but after a walk to Ventura, Hamilton hit a comebacker to end the inning.

Though the Mets managed to run up Maddux’s pitch count–throwing 22 pitches in the inning after throwing only 30 pitches in the first three–they would not make him work so hard for the rest of the game, and their subsequent threats would be few and fleeting.

The Braves went down in order in the bottom of the fourth, but so did the Mets in the top of the fifth, while only making Maddux throw four pitches. Cedeno swung at the first pitch and tapped the ball just to the right of the mound, but the Gold Glover Maddux speared a high hop and threw to first. He then left the field briefly; an “equipment repair” was the stated reason, though Morgan surmised that Maddux’s leap for the ball caused him some jock strap-related distress. Maddux returned quickly (“If your guess is the reason he left the field,” Costas retorted, “he is certainly a quick change artist.”), then set down Ordonez and Yoshii without breaking a sweat.

After a rough start, Yoshii had set down nine batters in a row, but he gave up a leadoff double to Weiss in the bottom of the fifth. Maddux  followed with a sac bunt to the left of the mound. Yoshii fielded it, but spun awkwardly on the throw and rolled his ankle in the process. He was obviously in some pain, but convinced Valentine he should stay in the game. It turned out to be the first in a series of bad moves (and lack of moves) by Valentine.

For the third straight at-bat, Williams swung at the first pitch he saw. Ordonez had been playing back near the infield grass, but ran up just as the pitch was thrown, hoping to keep a run from scoring on a grounder.The ball was hit just to his left as he ran in, and Weiss came in to score anyway. To make matters worse, Henderson bobbled the ball in left, allowing Williams to move to second. He would have scored, were it not for a great diving catch by Cedeno on a liner to right off of Boone’s bat. After an intentional walk to Chipper, Valentine finally relieved Yoshii in favor of long man Pat Mahomes. As Yoshii “threw a tantrum” in the dugout over his performance (according to Sager), Jordan flew out to center to end the inning.

In the top of the sixth, Fonzie clubbed his second double of the game, a one-out shot barely fair down the left field line. But Maddux made short work of Piazza and Ventura, and another scoring chance was quickly bypassed. In the bottom half, Klesko hit a hard chopper to first that clanked off of Olerud’s glove into foul territory. It was the second error of the game, for a team with only eight multi-error games in the regular season. Andruw Jones followed with a sharp grounder up the middle, speared by Fonzie and turned into a 4-6-3 double play.

The Mets had escaped danger, so a correction was clearly in order, and it was provided by a home run off the bat of Perez, a long fly deep into the left field stands. The Braves were up 3-1, and with the way Maddux was pitching, combined with the way the Mets kept shooting themselves in the foot, it might as well have been 31-1.

99_nlcsgm1_maddux2.jpgIn the top of the seventh, Cedeno managed a two-out opposite field single. To emphasize the futlility of trying to threaten Maddux, Ordonez followed with a screaming line drive right back to the pitcher. With a split-second to react and his body instinctively rearing away from the line, Maddux picked it off with a backhanded snare, a move as impressive as it was lucky. He plucked the ball out of his glove as the crowd roared and flicked it back toward the mound, as if removing a fly he’d just swatted.

Dennis Cook took the mound in the bottom half, an odd choice considering there’d be no lefty batters scheduled to bat immediately, not to mention Cook’s recent propensity to issue walks. It looked like a good move initially, when he induced grounders from Williams and Boone. Then he ran a full count to Chipper, and walked him on a very close ball four (the kind of pitch that might have been called a strike if it came from the arm of Maddux). Chipper stole second without a throw, so the Mets walked Jordan intentionally and took their chances with Howard Battle (pinch hitting for Klesko). Cook got ahead 0-2, ran the count full on some more very close pitches, then struck out Battle swinging on a slider in the dirt.

With only 89 pitches thrown so far, Maddux took the mound to start the top of the eighth. But once Matt Franco was announced as a pinch hitter for the pitcher’s spot, Maddux gave way to Mike Remlinger, lefty reliever, while Brian Hunter came in to play first on a double switch. Valentine responded by swapping Franco for Melvin Mora, who tried to run up and bunt and failed, but did manage to work a walk.

Henderson followed with a weak tapper to the left of the mound, which Remlinger handled, but could only throw to first as Mora moved up to second. Fonzie, one of the few Mets who managed to hit the ball well off of Maddux, tried to check a swing but wound up bouncing a ball to second. Mora crossed over to third on the play, but now there were two out, and Cox turned to John Rocker to face Olerud, who he’d completely dominated in the regular season. That trend didn’t end here, as he struck out the first baseman on three pitches.

This marked the first managerial chess game of the series. It was not as epic as the 40 minute, ten substitution insanity seen at Turner Field in the September. But the result was the same: Cox anticipated and successfully countered each one of Valentine’s moves.

Almost needlessly, the Braves tacked on in the bottom of the eighth. Turk Wendell came on to pitch and issued a full count walk to Andruw Jones. Despite having a few big hits already, Perez bunted him to second. Wendell fielded the ball near the first base line and ran him back toward home, which for some reason prompted some grousing and hard stares from Perez as he returned to the dugout (“I turned around and saw him jawing something to me and just said, ‘Get in the dugout’,” Wendell said later). Weiss followed with a single just past Ordonez’s glove, and Jones came around third with the fourth Braves run. Wendell struck out the last two batters to end the inning (two little, two late, one might say).

Rocker returned in the top of the ninth to earn the save, and got the first two outs quickly, a grounder from Piazza (who all night looked like a man still in a lot of pain), and a called strike three to Ventura. Shawon Dunston pinch hit for Hamilton to get a righty bat against Rocker, and he hit a grounder to third that Chipper bobbled. Dunston reached on the error, then moved to second on a wild pitch. Todd Pratt pinch hit for Cedeno, and in his first plate appearance since his series-winning walkoff homer in the NLDS, laced a single to left. Dunston scored from second, and the Mets now had the tying run coming to bat.

Unfortunately, that tying run came in the form of Ordonez. After using pinch hitters for the previous two batters, Valentine had few options on the bench to bat for the light-hitting shortstop. Though both of his available pinch hitters could bat right handed, neither of them (Bobby Bonilla and Benny Agbayani) could play shortstop in his Ordonez’s place. Nor could Dunston, who, despite coming to the majors as a shortstop, hadn’t played there in quite a while. Plus, the switch-hitting Bonilla had virtually no at bats from the right side all year.

So Valentine let Ordonez bat for himself. He fell behind 1-2, fouled off a few Rocker offerings, then hit a hard grounder down to third. Once again, Chipper bobbled it, but he recovered in time to throw Ordonez out at third and secure game one for the Braves.

“The Mets…had provided entertaining theater in getting back to Atlanta,” wrote Judy Battista in The New York Times. “But from the looks of this game, they hadn’t gained much ground on the decade’s premier National League team.”