1999 Project: NLCS Game 3

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

The Braves appeared pretty loose as they came to Shea for game 3. During a workout the day before the game, Ryan Klesko ran out of the dugout wearing John Rocker’s jersey. “I told him I’d go out there for him to see how it was,” Klesko said. “I’m actually protecting our save guy. We’ve got a couple of first basemen.”

Rocker refused to address questions from the press about his well-documented slagging of Mets fans, but when asked what he would do if called upon to save a game in enemy territory, he responded, “It will be the same situation it was last time when I got booed and then I struck out the side on 14 pitches.”

99_nlcsgm3_cop.jpgRocker’s presence required some extra security; NBC reported 500 additional NYPD officers were on hand to keep the peace. In a pregame interview with Jim Gray, Rocker lamented the the necessity of such protection: “When you come here and this is the only place it happens…they’re throwing batteries at you, throwing change at you, really trying to inflict bodily harm, that kind of stuff just doesn’t need to go on….I just don’t think it’s right, and I think somebody needs to speak out and voice an opinion, that we really don’t appreciate hearing those kind of things and being fearful of our safety at a simple baseball game.”

I don’t think any player should be physically threatened, not even John Rocker, but it was a disingenuous stance to take. He’d thrown verbal jabs at New York fans for weeks, done everything but twirl his mustache and cackle maniacally while tying Mr. Met to a railroad track, and then had the chrome-plated balls to whine about fans behaving rudely toward him. Unless you believe he was too stupid to recognize the hypocrisy of his “who, me?” act, which was certainly a possibility.

Regardless, he certainly relished the villain role, tipping his cap sarcastically as he was introduced during the pregame ceremonies. Gray reported that Rocker professed respect for the Mets as a team, but made clear “his disgust and disdain is purely for the fans here at Shea.” To his credit, Bobby Cox (suddenly very pro-New York) was not pleased with Rocker’s antics. “If I could apologize to their fans, I would,” he told the Daily News. “I’m not supporting that behavior, no.”

As for the other heel in the Mets-Braves wrestling match, Chipper Jones had said virtually nothing since the series began (nor had he done much of anything on the field, amazingly). But the fans were not about to let him forget about his “Yankee gear” comment, and they had a new weapon at their disposal.

After the Mets won the division series against Arizona, Orel Hershiser was interviewed Ed Coleman for Mets Extra. He revealed a tantalizing bit of previously obscure information: Chipper hated to be called “Larry”, his given name. Mike Piazza had taken to greeting him “Hello, Larry,” every time he came to the plate, because “I refuse to call a grown man ‘Chipper’.” Coleman suggested Mets fans keep that in mind once Larry returned to Shea. They would obey this directive with gusto.

As for the techniques of the home team itself, the Mets insisted they’d become used to playing with their backs against the wall (not that they gave themselves much choice). “The last bit of the season will help us because we went through a tough stretch and we were able to turn it around,” John Olerud said. “We know we can persevere even when things don’t look good.”

Bobby Valentine had not acquitted himself well in the series so far. “It’s as if [Cox] has been playing chess, and Valentine has been playing checkers,” Bob Costas remarked. But before game 3, the Mets manager returned to a familiar theme, one he’d preached all season: You can’t lose ’em all.

I think things eventually even out. Balls that hit the foul pole miss the foul pole. Against the Diamondbacks we had the bases loaded and hit it over the fence and it turned. We haven’t had that turn in this series yet. It’s not like there’s a defeatist attitude and we’re up against an immovable object. We’ve been pushing a long time and it’s moving slowly. When it starts moving, then sometimes it’s an unstoppable motion.

Things would get better for the Mets. But they’d get worse first.

October 15, 1999: Braves 1, Mets 0

Once again, Al Leiter (“the closest thing to a stopper that the Mets have,” in Costas’s words) was charged with stopping a potentially disastrous skid. Typically, if Leiter ran into trouble, it usually came in the first inning, and this game was no exception. But this time, the trouble came from his glove rather than his arm.

The lefty went full on the leadoff hitter, Gerald Williams (after a foul off his bat into the Braves dugout received cheers from a crowd hoping it would result in some Atlanta injuries), then issued a walk, a gift Williams did not receive often (in game 1, for instance, he saw a total of three pitches in first three at bats). Leiter then got ahead of Bret Boone 1-2 and induced a chopper right back to the mound. He wheeled around, looked at second, then suddenly decided to try for the sure out at first. But his throw made it anything but a sure out, as it sailed high over Olerud’s head (after the game, Leiter had no explanation for the error, other than “brain cramp”). Olerud jumped to snare it, but couldn’t come down in time to apply a tag on Boone. Another gift to another Braves batter, and runners stood on first and second with nobody out.

99_nlcsgm3_badthrow.jpgChipper followed with a lazy pop up to shallow right, delighting the fans, but the next play was much less crowd pleasing. On the first pitch to Brian Jordan, Williams and Boone attempted a double steal. Piazza jumped up from his crouch but slipped on home plate as he threw. The ball sailed into center field, Williams scored, and Boone went to third. Atlanta was ahead, as they had been nearly all series, rallying without a hit as the defense the Mets relied on all season deserted the team yet again. The team hadn’t committed two errors in one inning since August of 1998, and they picked an extremely bad time to break that streak.

Once the groans and hair pulling of the hometown faithful susbided, Jordan hit a ball into shallow center field. Melvin Mora caught it and was in perfect position to throw home, but Boone tagged up anyway. The throw reached Piazza well in time to nail Boone, so he barreled hard into the catcher, shoulder to chin, and bowled him over. Piazza hung on to the ball to record the out. NBC’s catcher-cam showed the whole sequence in brutal first perspective, punctuated by Piazza looking up at home plate umpire Charlie Reliford as he gave the out signal.

99_nlcsgm3_boone.jpgSlow to get up, Piazza looked groggy as returned to the dugout. Sager reported he suffered a “mild concussion”, and might have left the game had it not been the last out of the inning. If such an injury occurred today, even in a playoff series to a team’s best hitter, I highly doubt any team would allow Piazza to return to the field. More than one reporter commented on the “glassy, dazed look in Mike Piazza’s eyes” a full day later, a tell-tale sign of post-concussion syndrome. But in the less knowledgeable/cautious atmosphere of 1999, Piazza stayed in the game, and none of the NBC announcers expressed any misgivings about it. (I’ve never heard the WFAN call for this game, but during game 4, Gary Cohen said he “found it surprising Mike Piazza was allowed to stay in the game”.)

Tom Glavine took the mound for the Braves. Much like Greg Maddux, Glavine did not have a great season by his own standards. He gave up the most hits of any other starter in the majors (259), pitched to a 4.12 ERA, and compiled a sub-par 14-11 record. Also like Maddux, his LCS history was not stellar: 3-8 record with a 3.93 ERA in 12 starts.

But he resembled Maddux in one other critical respect: whatever struggles he experienced in 1999 did not surface against the Mets. In three regular season starts against them, he’d pitched 21 innings, held them to a .225 batting average, and allowed a grand total of four runs.

To combat the southpaw Glavine, Valentine switched up his lineup, inserting three right-handed batters between his two big lefties. John Olerud swapped places with Edgardo Alfonzo to bat second, and Benny Agbayani took Robin Ventura’s usual fifth spot, with the third baseman moving down to sixth. Few of these batters had hit in such positions all year–Olerud had virtually no at bats anywhere but third in the lineup all year–but desperate times called for desperate measures.

The Mets had done next to nothing offensively, the most glaring failures coming from the men who should have been capable of the most damage. Olerud, Piazza, and Ventura had one hit between them in the first two games. “The middle of the Mets lineup has made about as much noise as Marcel Marceau,” said Costas.

It remained quiet in the first, with Henderson called out on strikes on three pitches. He argued the last call, a pitch on the inside corner, to no avail. Olerud managed a walk, but Alfonzo struck out swinging on a two-seamer, and Piazza flailed at an outside pitch and ground out (ironically, to Boone at second).

The Mets’ bad luck continued in the top of the second, when Leiter got Andruw Jones to strike out on a slider in the dirt, but the ball zipped past the catcher and all the way to the backstop. Jones easily advanced to first as a still-groggy Piazza chased the ball down. Eddie Perez, who’d hit better than any other Brave in the series, smacked a ball in the hole between short and third. Ordonez slid to execute one of his typical diving stabs, but lost the ball on the transfer, negating any possibility of a throw and allowing Perez to reach safely. For any other shortstop, it would have been hailed as a valiant effort, but for Ordonez such a play was practically routine. While not an error, it was a surprising miscue for a player who hadn’t committed an error in 100 regular season games. “What is going on here?!” Costas asked in disbelief. “Strange doings at Shea.”

Things looked really bad when Leiter fell behind Brian Hunter 3-0. But after getting a called strike, Hunter scorched a liner to third. Ventura speared it, then tossed to Alfonzo to double up Jones. Walt Weiss struck out on another slider in the dirt, much like the third strike to Jones that Piazza could not stop. Catcher-cam showed Piazza staring at ball in his hand after the punch out, seemingly unaware the inning was over, clearly confused and not himself.

The Mets attempted a two-out rally in the bottom of the second. Mora singled, then Rey Ordonez swung at a Glavine offering just as Mora broke for second, opening up a hole that allowed the ball to sneak into the outfield. That put runners on first and third, but with the (in)famously bad hitting Leiter up next. Mora tried to help him out by dancing down the line at third, attempting to cause a balk or at least distract Glavine.

This tactic looked like it might work when Leiter got ahead 2-1, but he swung at a high fastball, fouled one off, took one off the plate for ball three, then swung at a very low slider for strike three. The pitcher banged the bat in frustration on his way back to the dugout, knowing he chased ball four.

He was still chastising himself on the bench in the middle of third, even though he’d just set the Braves down in order. Perhaps Leiter knew he’d already allowed one run too many. Glavine was no easier to solve than any other Braves pitcher, and what few windows of opportunity he presented were soon slammed shut.

Rickey Henderson almost got something going in the bottom of the third, when he anticipated a pitch on the outside and rifled a single to left (his first appearance on basepaths in the series). But Olerud followed with a hard hit grounder right up the middle, and even though Henderson ran on the pitch, Weiss turned it into a 6-4-3 double play. Rickey even rolled into second base, trying to break up the DP bid, to no avail. Fonzie struck out swinging on a breaking pitch to end the inning.

Unable to do much at the plate, Henderson turned his attention to the field. Chipper led off the top of the fourth with a shot into left field, just over Ventura’s glove. With an older and occasionally lackadaisical Rickey Henderson playing left, a double seemed easy, but Henderson fired a throw to Fonzie at second and nailed Chipper easily. Stunned, the next two Braves went quietly.

Leading off the bottom of the fourth, Piazza reached down to get a low outside slider and poked it between first and second for his first hit of the series. But Glavine, who appeared to be throwing harder than usual, struck out Agbayani and Ventura. Mora hit a single that moved Piazza to third, but Ordonez smashed a ball right at Hunter for an unassisted putout at first.

In the top of the fifth, for the second straight inning, a Braves batter (Perez this time) hit a ball down the left field line. For the second straight inning, the runner tried for a double. And for the second straight inning, Henderson nailed the runner at second base, by an even larger margin than the first time. Two outfield assists in two innings for a player who had none in the regular season. “What a weird game the Mets have had defensively already,” Costas said, “The ridiculous and the sublime in four innings plus.”

After a walk to Hunter, Weiss rolled the ball up the middle, Fonzie grabbed it by the second base bag and flipped it to Ordonez, who caught it with his bare hand for the force out. A barreling takeout slide from Hunter prevented Ordonez from trying for a double play, but Glavine struck out swinging for out number three.

99_nlcsgm3_hellolarry.jpgOlerud managed a two-out single in the bottom of the fifth, but Fonzie–exhibiting rare impatience–swung at the first pitch and hit a hard fly ball to right field, right at Jordan, to end any hope of a threat. For the moment, the crowd would have to be entertained by Chipper’s inability to make any noise offensively. As nearly 56,000 fans chanted LARRRR-EEEE, and the cameras showed signs in the stands using images of Larry Fine (better known as one of The Three Stooges), Chipper struck out swinging on a low slider to end the top of the sixth and cap a 1-2-3 inning for Leiter. “Nothing, save putting a few runs on the board in the bottom of the inning, could delight this crowd more,” Costas surmised.

There was some hope of that when Piazza turned on an inside offering from Glavine and pulled it into the hole between short and third for his second hit of the game. But the game’s flow was interrupted when, on a 2-0 pitch, Agbayani hit a foul ball down the right field line. Spectators leaned over the wall cordoning off temporary seating to grab a souvenir, and the wall gave way, sending the fans to the ground in succession like dominoes. A very slow emergency repair began, and as the minutes ticked away, Bobby Cox grew testy about the Shea crew’s inability to fix the wall in a timely manner. NBC showed one worker performing some inelegant repair work, whacking at the wall with a hammer, straddling it, then whacking the other side with similar abandon.

Crisis averted, Agbayani put a jolt into one, but it was well short of a homer, and Andruw Jones ran it down easily. Ventura followed with an opposite field liner, but Weiss leaped high to snare it in. Mora hit another ball hard to center, but Jones handled this one just as easily. The rookie slammed his helmet to the ground in frustration as he rounded first.

In between innings, Perez was seen talking to Braves hitting coach Don Baylor in the dugout. Gray reported the Braves were convinced Mora was stealing signs. The Braves coaches asked Perez to question Mora about it before his last at bat, something Mora took exception to. If the accusation was true, it hadn’t done the rest of his team much good.

Jordan led off the top of the sixth with a liner to left, probably the hardest ball any Brave hit off of Leiter all night. The ball almost sailed over Henderson’s head, but he leaped to snare it at the last moment. Leiter lost Andruw Jones on a walk after being ahead 0-2, but struck out Perez on yet another on a slider in the dirt, then got Hunter to hit a low line drive, speared by Ordonez at his shoetops.

As Ordonez led off the bottom half, Leiter practiced bunts in the on-deck circle in case the shortstop could get on base. But he struck out swinging on a high cutter, which meant Leiter’s evening would come to an end. He’d given up just three hits, stifled the Atlanta offense, and allowed only one unearned run. One could argue he pitched better than Glavine in this game. But for one play, he hadn’t fielded better, which is why Glavine had a lead, and he didn’t.

Shawon Dunston pinch hit for Leiter and struck out swinging on a high fastball, but the third strike glanced off of Perez’s glove and rolled away from him. Dunston scrambled for first and made it easily. Costas invoked the memory of Mickey Owen’s dropped third strike in the 1941 World Series, a famous botched play that turned a Dodger win into another Brooklyn defeat.

But Dunston was no Tommy Henrich. After Henderson swung at first pitch and lofted an easy fly ball to right field for the second out, he tried to steal second on a 2-1 pitch to Olerud. Perez’s throw beat him by a large margin. Another potential Mets rally was dead.

John Franco came in to start the top of the eighth inning, his first appearance in the series. He threw a good pitch on the outside corner to Weiss for a called strike one, but kept going back to the same spot unsuccessfully, and issued four straight balls. Howard Battle had come out on deck, but once Weiss walked, Glavine batted for himself and laid down a sac bunt to the right of the mound. Valentine stalled as long as he could, sending Piazza to the mound for a conference, then sending Dave Wallace to the mound to chat with Franco until Reliford stalked to the mound and forced him to make a switch, bringing Armando Benitez out of the bullpen.

Williams was so far behind Armando’s first pitch, an inside fastball in the high 90s, that his backswing came around and hit Piazza on his glove hand. Luckily, it didn’t nick him on his bad thumb, but caught the knuckle on his pinkie instead, adding another item to his growing list of injuries. “He’s in line for combat pay,” Costas quipped, while also marveling at the pop that could be heard around the stadium as Benitez’s fastball hit Piazza’s mitt (which couldn’t have been good for his hand, either). Williams swung at another high fastball, then lifted an easy fly ball to center field. After a few close pitches, Benitez struck out Boone on another high inside fastball to end the inning.

Olerud would not have to face Rocker as he led off the bottom of the eighth. But he would have to face another lefty, ex-Met Mike Remlinger, who’d also stifled the team all year. The first baseman hit a ball hard, but right at Boone for the first out. Two big right-handed batters followed, and righty Russ Springer was warming up in the bullpen, but Bobby Cox stayed with Remlinger. He got to a full count with Alfonzo, then struck him out swinging on a high outside fastball. Piazza (whose backswing-induced bruise had already begun to swell up, according to Craig Sager) gave the ball a ride to right-center, but it was still short of the warning track. The catcher muttered to himself and kicked the first base bag as the ball settled in Jordan’s glove for the third out.

Benitez returned to the mound in the top of the ninth and whipped the crowd into a frenzy by striking out Chipper with a called third strike on a splitter on the outside corner, and doing the same to Jordan with an outside breaking pitch. Andruw Jones avoided their fate by flying out to center field. Thus far, the Mets closer had retired every single Brave he’d faced in 1999.

99_nlcsgm3_rocker2.jpgBut Benitez did not have a lead to protect, and Rocker did as he ran out of the Braves bullpen, showered by boos and the occasional foreign object. The Mets looked like they might actually catch a break when Agbayani hit a ball up the middle. It bounced off the mound, slowing its progress. Weiss tried to one-hand it but it bounced off the heel of his glove. He recovered in time to throw to first, but Benny was safe (as replays showed, by the slimmest of all margins; if it wasn’t a tie, it was damn close).

Ventura was due up next, but he’d faced Rocker five times and went down on strikes every single time. So Valentine sent Todd Pratt in his spot as Ventura cheered from the dugout. Unfortunately, the hero of the NLDS was totally overmatched, and struck out swinging on a letter-high fastball.

With the fleet-footed Roger Cedeno on the bench, Costas questioned why Valentine did not pinch run for Agbayani. Joe Morgan wondered if he was holding Cedeno in reserve in case the pitcher’s spot came up. “He might not get that far,” Costas said.

Mora was up next, and he worked the count to 3-1 when Rocker fired a breaking pitch down at his feet. He even hit the hardest ball of anyone on either team all night, but it got no farther than the warning track in center, run down by Andruw Jones for the second out.

For the third straight game, Ordonez came up as the Mets’ last out. As Morgan suspected, Cedeno appeared in the on deck circle, prepared to bat for Benitez. But as Costas feared, he would not get a chance to do so. Ordonez swung at the first pitch he saw and looped it toward second base. Weiss grabbed it on a hop and stepped on the bag for the final out. Rocker did his usual fist pumps and roared at the Shea crowd, whose collective hate couldn’t diminish his ability to completely shut down the Mets.

Another excruciating game with the Braves had come to an end, and it looked like there’d be only nine more innings of agony before the Mets were put out of their misery. No team had ever rebounded from an 0-3 deficit to win a series. No team had done so much as force a seventh game in such a scenario, and only one team had ever gone as far as game 6.

99_nlcsgm3_rocker1.jpgEven Costas, a supposedly impartial observer, sounded deeply and bitterly disappointed as he wrapped up the broadcast. “Mike Piazza said between games two and three, ‘I’d still take my team over theirs’, but given the results, that’s hard to justify.” Costas said, his voice full of exhaust and defeat, as if he’d just been vanquished. “55,911 file out in disappointment. Not only did they have to swallow a defeat, but they had to watch John Rocker finish it.”

Or, as the first line of a Daily News‘ story put it, “Arggghhh!

The New York Times reported after the game that Valentine was “stunned into near silence, shaking his head at the wonder of a team with a lineup bloated with .300 hitters unable to make up a first-inning run.” “I thought we’d score today,” the manager said. “I felt it in my bones. I’m going to have to get some new bones.

Considering how close the Mets came to elimination at the end of the regular season, it was amazing they’d gotten this far to begin with. But a four-game sweep at the hands of Atlanta would be a tough pill to swallow, and make for a long winter.

Still, some players weren’t ready to give up. “If we can get it back to Atlanta, it would be a tremendous accomplishment for this ballclub,” Piazza said after the game. At the time, it sounded like a pipe dream at best, self-delusion at worst. But if the Mets’ season ended in game 4, it would do so with Piazza in the lineup, despite his myriad of injuries, Mike insisted he “felt good” and would play the next day, even if it proved to be the Mets’ last.