1999 Project: NLCS Game 2

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

October 13, 1999: Braves 4, Mets 3

If game 1 was doomed by miscues on the field, then the outcome of game 2 was sealed by mistakes in the dugout. Bobby Valentine made decisions (and one glaring lack of decision) that cost the game for the Mets. And when he didn’t err, he was simply outsmarted by Bobby Cox.

Game 2 had a 4 pm start, to accommodate the first game of the ALCS (which, hard as it is to believe now, would also be the first ever playoff meeting between the Red Sox and Yankees). It was another dreary, cloudy day, as if to mirror the Mets’ mood and chances. Rain hit Atlanta for much of the day, but cleared up sufficiently to allow the game to start in time. The Mets would have been happier if it hadn’t.

99_nlcsgm2_millwood.jpgThe starter for Atlanta: Kevin Millwood, their best and most consistent starter in 1999. Millwood posted a record of 18-7, 205 strikeouts, a 2.87 ERA, and an opposing batting average of .202, best in the majors. In his last 10 regular season starts, Millwood went 6-0 with an ERA of 1.29. He engaged Masato Yoshii in a pitchers’ duel in the last regular season game between the Mets and the Braves, a loss that nearly doomed their season.

Oh, and he’d just pitched a complete game one-hitter against the Astros in the NLDS, the first since Bob Gibson in 1967.

In other words, things wouldn’t get easier for the Mets any time soon. Edgardo Alfonzo continued his hot hitting with a one-out single in the top of the first, but Millwood dispatched of John Olerud and Mike Piazza with two fly balls to center.

99_nlcsgm2_williams.jpgOpposing Millwood: Kenny Rogers, whose previous playoff performances did not insire much hope for this game. Bob Costas summed it up well and succinctly: “His postseason history is horrid,” and proceeded to enumerate the stats to back it up.

Things started badly when Gerald Williams lined his second pitch of the game just over Rey Ordonez’s glove for a single. But then Rogers caught him flat footed on a pickoff throw, and Olerud tagged him out as he knelt frozen a few feet from first. (He protested to the first base ump that Rogers had balked, to no avail.) Bret Boone was retired on a great backhand stab by Ordonez, and Chipper flew out to center to end the inning.

Robin Ventura had done virtually nothing against Braves pitching all year, with just six hits in 43 at-bats and 15 strikeouts. But he worked a leadoff walk in the top of the second. Then Darryl Hamilton singled to center, and Roger Cedeno followed with a single of his own. Ventura scored, and Hamilton went all the way to third. But the Mets never lost an opportunity to lose an opportunity. Ordonez tried to bunt, but sent a liner straight to Brian Hunter at first, and Cedeno just managed to scramble back in time. Rogers also tried to bunt, presumably for a safety squeeze, but as he sent a grounder toward first, Hamilton stayed anchored to third.

Rickey Henderson followed with a grounder stabbed deep on the outfield grass by Boone. If Henderson ran hard, he might have beaten Boone’s throw, allowing a run to score. But Henderson was battling flu-like symptoms, and could only manage a weak trot to first. As he took the field in bottom of the second, he stood with his hands on his thighs, as if he could barely muster the strength to stand up. “Right now, he’s not having any fun out there,” Joe Morgan observed.

To start the bottom of the second, Brian Jordan swung at the first pitch he saw, sending a sharp grounder to the hole in short. But in what was almost a routine play for Ordonez, the shortstop slid to his knees, snagged it, popped back up, and fired a throw to first for the out. Andruw Jones also swung at the first pitch, and his effort was more successful, dropping a single in left. But for the second straight inning, Rogers was able to pick off a runner at first. After arguing Rogers’ first pickoff throw was a balk, Jones got caught off first by his next throw over and was tagged out in a rundown (“a simple 1-3-6-3-4 play,” Costas noted dryly). On the Braves bench, Williams and Jones griped together, arguing the legality of Rogers’ move to first.

Eddie Perez dunked a single into left, a ball that a healthy Henderson might have been able to catch. After a walk to Hunter, Valentine ran out onto the field to check on him, then brought in Mora to take his place. It was a needed move, but one that depleted an already thin Mets bench. Rogers induced a comeback from Weiss to end a long, weird inning.

The Mets went down in order in the top of the third, and Rogers looked ill equipped to start the bottom half. He walked the weak hitting Millwood on four pitches, then fell behind Williams 3-0. For the second straight day, Orel Hershiser warmed up in the bullpen, preparing to relieve a starter in trouble. But Rogers managed to get the count full on two called strikes, then induced a sharp grounder to shortstop that Ordonez turned into a 6-4-3 double play. Boone followed with a hit in the left field corner, but the strong arm of Mora held him to a single, and Rogers struck out Chipper looking to end the inning.

“Kenny Rogers has one very ugly shutout going,” Costas opined. Though the lefty could fool runners with his pickoff move, he wasn’t fooling any batters with his pitches. According to Craig Sager, Dave Wallace tried to figure out Rogers’ trouble in between innings. (“You’re aiming your pitches,” his diagnosis).

99_nlcsgm2_andruw.jpgMillwood needed no such intervention, setting down the Mets 1-2-3 yet again in the top of the fourth, while striking out Ventura and Ordonez. The closest they came to denting Millwood was a long fly ball off the bat of Cedeno that just went foul; NBC showed a replay of Valentine in the Mets’ dugout, lying prone on the bench, as if he could will the ball fair (“stoic would not be the word to describe his demeanor,” Costas observed).

In the bottom of the fourth, Andruw Jones hit a one-out single up the middle, his second of the game. Completely baffled by Rogers’ pickoff move, Jones took no chances this time. He literally stood on the first base bag with both feet, only daring to take a lead once the ball was out of Rogers’ hand, heading for the plate (“a stance more suited to Jesse Owens,” Costas observed). Rogers threw over anyway, prompting boos from the crowd. Perez put another jolt into the ball, but it went as a flyout to right, and Fonzie made a good play on a ball hit in the hole by Hunter to end the inning (while also teasing Jones about his baserunning tactic on his way back to the dugout).

99_nlcsgm2_mora.jpgOnce again, Millwood cruised through the first two batters in the top of the fifth, with a soft fly out by Ordonez and a strikeout of Rogers. But in his first at bat of the game, Mora turned on a high fastball and clubbed it into the left field seats for his first home run in the majors, putting the Mets up, 2-0. A fan threw the ball back onto the field, and the ball boy who retrieved it tossed it back into the stands. Valentine sought out the fan who received the regifted home run ball, and made a barter to get the souvenir for Mora. Meanwhile, Fonzie grounded out to end the inning.

Weiss led off the bottom half with a single, bringing up Millwood in a sac bunt situation. But Millwood did not have a single successful sac bunt all season, and he showed why here, bunting the ball straight into Olerud’s glove for the first out. Williams followed with a hard grounder up the middle, just off of Rogers’ glove, but right to Ordonez, who turned it into another double play. “Some people say this is the best infield ever, ” Morgan said, “and I can’t argue that.”

99_nlcsgm2_jordan.jpgOlerud, Piazza, and Ventura were dispatched with little trouble in the top of the sixth, and that brought on the game-changing bottom half. After a groundout from Boone, Rogers went full to Chipper, then walked him. He tried a few pickoff throws, but should have paid more attention to the next batter. Jordan turned on a 1-0 pitch and smashed a line drive off the right field foul pole for a game-tying home run.

If Rogers had limited the damage there, the game might have gone in a different direction. But of course, he didn’t. He got ahead of Andruw Jones 1-2, but gave up a liner just over Ventura’s glove. Mora’s arm held him to a single, but clearly Rogers was tiring. And yet, despite the fact that Rogers was a lefty and the next batter (Perez) was a righty, and despite the fact that Perez had been tearing the cover off the ball lately, and despite the fact that Rogers hadn’t been on his game all day and his luck was catching up with him, and despite Rogers’ poor playoff history, and despite the fact that the pitchers’ spot was not due up the next inning, and despite the fact that Turk Wendell was ready to go in the Mets’ bullpen, Valentine left Rogers on the mound to face Perez.

It should have surprised no one that Perez launched the first pitch he saw into left field for another two-run homer. Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated called it “the worst bit of managerial ineptitude in baseball history.” That assessment was a tad hyperbolic, but there was no question that it was not a smart move, to say the least. While there were a multitude of reasons to take Rogers out (see above), but virtually no way to justify leaving him in, unless Valentine wanted to make the Braves’ jobs easier.

99_nlcsgm2_perez.jpgIn the Mets dugout, Valentine tore the hat off his head and thrashed it at anything within arm’s reach, furious at himself for not bringing in Wendell. Within the span of seven pitches, the Mets’ two-run lead turned into a two-run deficit. Wendell came in and worked around a rare Fonzie error to finally end the inning, but the game had already gotten away from them. For anyone still unaware of his poor playoff history, Costas updated Rogers’ postseason stats with his line from this game: 16 2/3 innings, 19 runs allowed, 10.25 ERA.

Given a lead, Millwood proceeded as he had the whole game, setting the Mets down in order once again in the top of the seventh. Wendell issued a two-out walk to Chipper in the bottom half, but got Jordan to line out to Ventura to escape danger. And then the chess game began anew.

With one out in the top of the eighth, Mora hit a grounder just under Chipper’s glove. (The third baseman hadn’t looked good in the field lately. This was his second error in as many games, and that didn’t count a number of bobbled balls and near misses.) Next, Fonzie fell behind 1-2, but belted a double in the left center gap, already his third of the series. The ball rolled to the wall, Mora scored all the way to first, and the Mets had the tying run on second with one out.

99_nlcsgm2_olerud.jpgWith Olerud due up, Cox opted to bring in John Rocker, who had completely dominated the first baseman (including game 1, 0-8 against him with four strikeouts). Olerud remained baffled by the hard throwing lefty, fanning on a breaking pitch away and losing control of his bat in the process. After an intentional walk of Piazza, Rocker went after Ventura. He got a two called strikes that prompted some eye rolling from Ventura, then struck him out on a slider in the dirt. Rocker pumped his fist as he stalked off the mound, to the delight of the fans (once again, about 6,000 fewer than capacity). The heart of the Mets lineup (Olerud, Piazza, and Ventura) was 1 for 20 so far in this series.

Armando Benitez made his first appearance in the series in the bottom of the eighth, hoping to keep the game close. He’d faced 15 Braves batters during the regular sesason and retired them all, striking out nine. His streak continued here. After a hard hit fly ball by Andruw Jones, he struck out Perez and Hunter on seven pitches.

In the top of the ninth, for the second time in as many games, Cox outfoxed Valentine in the Mets’ last at bat. Valentine expected Rocker to return to close out the game. So he sent up right-handed batter Shawon Dunston to pinch hit for Hamilton. Cox countered by bringing in a surprise righty reliever: John Smoltz. There was no hint at all that Smoltz would enter the game, at least not according to the NBC feed. And Valentine had little reason to suspect he’d see Smoltz. Though he’d become the Braves’ closer years later, this marked Smoltz’s first relief appearance anywhere in the majors.

But he certainly didn’t look like an amateur reliever. Dunston hit a high foul ball that Weiss tracked down near the third base stands. Cedeno followed with a broken bat grounder, which he inexplicably tried to beat out by sliding into first. He didn’t reach first in time, and was lucky he didn’t hurt himself in such a futile effort. “You never see a sprinter dive across the finish line,” Costas tsked.

99_nlcsgm2_bonilla.jpgIn game 1, Valentine was reluctant to pinch hit for Ordonez, even though he represented the Mets’ last out. But faced with the same proposition in game 2, and about to fall behind two games to one, he did so here with Bobby Bonilla. In his career, Bonilla hit .294 against Smoltz with one home run. He was obviously thinking homer on his first big cut, which he missed. He then took an extremely borderline fastball on the outside corner for strike two. Bonilla stepped out of the batter’s box, rolled his eyes at the call, then stepped back in, only to watch an even wider pitch get called for a game-ending strike three. Later, Bonilla would allude to the expanding strike zone but be uncharacteristically cautious in his words, lest he be suspended: “The last thing I need to do is miss some days because I was angry.”

“Technically, I got credit for the save,” Smoltz observed later, “but the save really happened in the eighth.”

After the game, Valentine had no excuse for the brain lock he’d suddenly contracted from his players. “I had no reason to keep [Rogers] in,” Valentine said. ”I left him in and it was absolutely the wrong move.” Rogers concurred: “I’m sure he wishes he had pulled me. Me, too.”

What was most troubling was, as Murray Chass pointed out in the Times, “the failure to remove Rogers at what turned out to be a critical juncture of the game was unprovoked by anything Cox did or did not do.” It was an inexplicable failure to act by a manager who, for whatever other faults he might have, rarely beat himself. Then again, the Mets rarely beat themselves, either. Something about facing the Braves brought out their inner stupid.

Perhaps returning to Shea would bring a return of their mojo as well, cheered on by a friendly crowd ready to treat the Braves in an extremely unfriendly manner. Especially since Rocker, who apparently did not get the memo issued to his teammates about keeping quiet, decided to stir the pot yet again after game 2. “To hell with the New York fans,” he blurted. “They’re a bunch of stupid asses [or maybe 'assholes'; the prudish Daily News is unclear with their euphemisms] anyway. They keep saying we suck. If we suck so much, how come they can’t beat us? They’re a tired act.”

For a breath of morbid optimism, there was Ventura. “We’ve had our backs against the wall,” he said. “We’ve been there for two weeks. It feels normal to us. You learn until you’re
dead, you’re still alive.”