1999 Project: NLCS Game 5

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

Given a stay of execution, the Mets looked like they were back in midseason form. That included some needless clubhouse squabbling.

Rickey Henderson was upset when Bobby Valentine replaced him in the middle of game 4 for defense and waited until he took the field to do so. The manager apologized for waiting so long to remove him (if not for removing him in the first place) as he came back to the dugout, but Henderson brushed passed him, went straight to the clubhouse, and was not seen in the Mets locker room after the game.

In a postgame interview, Turk Wendell praised his teammates–23 of them, anyway. “This is a real team effort except for one guy who quit,” he said. When asked to clarify, he gestured toward Henderson’s empty locker. “Look around the room.”

99_nlcsgm5_wendell.pngBefore game 5, Rickey responded in typical Rickey fashion. “If he doesn’t respect me, then tough luck,” he said. “He should be happy he’s in this position. He wouldn’t be here if not for me.” Henderson also suggested that Turk could “kiss my black ass”.

Wendell tried to apologize to Henderson later, but Rickey refused to accept his apology. In one of those awesome “oops!” episodes of live TV, as Craig Sager related this saga, NBC cut to a shot of Wendell idling in the bullpen, just in time to catch him strenuously picking his nose.

The renewed turmoil also brought with it more anonymous grousing about Valentine. One unnamed “prominent Met” told Bill Madden of the Daily News, “It looks like he wants to get fired and go get a job in Japan.” Madden also reported that some players were upset about Valentine pinch hitting for Robin Ventura in game 3 against John Rocker, even though Ventura was 0 for 5 with five strikeouts against him. It was perceived as a slight against the third baseman, who’d been playing through serious knee pain for quite some time.

Valentine could try to soothe some bruised egos and hurt feelings once the piddling matter of another elimination game was resolved. If the manager had any ideas about sitting Henderson–either for insubordination or ineffectiveness (he had only one hit so far in the series)–he scrapped them when Roger Cedeno could not start due to back spasms (he later said it felt like he had “a knife in my back”, a feeling Valentine could certainly relate to). Bob Costas guessed Cedeno suffered the injury after twisting to catch a hard hit ball by Ozzie Guillen in the top of the ninth of game 4. Either that, or jumping into Mora’s arms after they scored the tying and go-ahead runs.

For Atlanta, John Rocker did not look worse for wear after his blown save the night before. He celebrated his 25th birthday by continuing to spar verbally with Mets fans, calling them “subhuman” and “the worst fans in baseball”. He also shagged flies in the outfield and pretended to throw them to awaiting fans in the left field stands.

Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone was given the unenviable task of keeping Rocker out of trouble, shadowing the closer during pregame warmups. “Is this part of coaching or what?” he grumbled.

October 17, 1999: Mets 4, Braves 3 (15)

Valentine considered starting Orel Hershiser in game 5, but Masato Yoshii had tested out the ankle he rolled in game 1, and pronounced himself good enough to pitch again. But in a must win game such as this, all hands were on deck. Gary Cohen reported that Mets pitching coach Dave Wallace was asked which pitchers were available. His response: “Everybody but Rick Reed.” Upon hearing that, Reed interjected and said, “You can use me if you need to.”

The game began at 4 pm on a brisk, overcast day. Within the first few innings, the lights would be on at Shea. The remnants of Hurricane Irene were heading up the East Coast, and rain was forecast for later in the evening. If the game proceeded relatively quickly, it was hoped, they would miss the rain entirely.

Yoshii would not reveal his plans for stifling the Braves. “It’s more of an industrial secret, so I can’t really comment on that,” he said, curiously. Whatever the secret was, it was working early, as he struck out Gerald Williams and Bret Boone swinging on high hard fastballs in the top of the first. Chipper Jones hit a sharp ground ball up the middle, probably his hardest hit of the series so far, but Edgardo Alfonzo dove to his right to
stab it, then fired a throw to first to nail him and retire the side.

Yoshii was opposed by his game 1 counterpart, Greg Maddux, who was anxious to pitch again. But as Cohen noted, “The numbers will tell you that over the years, when Greg Maddux pitches in the postseason, he’s usually pretty dominant his first appearance in a series. But when he has to go up against a team a second time in that same series, he generally gets hit pretty hard.

99_nlcsgm5_olerud.pngCohen’s words proved true in the bottom of the first. Henderson chopped a slow ball to Walt Weiss, who ran in to grab it but threw too late to first. After a hard line drive out off of Alfonzo’s bat, Maddux threw several pickoff throws to first, trying to keep Henderson close. He did not pay as close attention to the batter, because he left a 2-1 fastball over the heart of the plate, and Olerud connected for a two-run homer just below the scoreboard in right. While crowd was still roaring over a rare early lead for the Mets, Piazza followed with a hard single to left. Four batters into the game, the home team had a 2-0 lead, and already three hits off of Maddux. For a moment, it looked like this game might shape up like Maddux’s last appearance at Shea, when he gave up eight straight hits and seven runs, capped by an Olerud grand slam. But Maddux recovered, as he often did, inducing a weak foul out from Robin Ventura (still looking for his first hit in the series) and fly ball to right field from Melvin Mora.

In the bottom of the second, Darryl Hamilton clubbed a ball to left-center just out of the reach of Williams that bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double, then moved to third on a Rey Ordonez groundout. But Yoshii could not help out his own cause, striking out when just putting the ball in play could have scored a run, and Henderson grounded out to end the inning. Then, Alfonzo, Piazza, and Ventura went down quietly in order in the third inning. The vulnerable Maddux of the first inning was nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Yoshii cruised through three more Braves batters in top of the second, expending only seven pitches to put down Brian Jordan, Ryan Klesko, and Andruw Jones. In the top of the third, Eddie Perez led off with a double in the right field corner. But Yoshii induced a soft flyout to shallow center from Walt Weiss, struck out Maddux, and got a grounder from Williams to end the inning.

Yoshii looked like he was in command of this game early on, keeping the Braves hitters off balance with his splitter. But like every other Mets starter in this series, he fell victim to one bad inning, and his came in the top of the fourth.

Boone led off the inning with a double over Henderson’s head in left. Next, Yoshii got ahead of Chipper 1-2 with splitters, but then inexplicably went to his fastball, and Chipper lined a double of his own just past the third base bag, bringing Boone around to score in the process. It was only Chipper’s fifth hit of the series, and his first extra base hit. Even more baffling, Yoshii made the same exact mistake to Jordan, getting ahead of him with splitters, then throwing a fastball he lined to left for a base hit to drive in Chipper. It was only Jordan’s third hit of the series, but all three of them had tied the score in their respective games.

Yoshii went full to Klesko, then walked him, and Valentine could wait no longer. Orel Hershiser had been warming up in the bullpen, as he had when Yoshii struggled in game 1 and Kenny Rogers did the same in game 2. He hadn’t fared well against the Braves in the regular season, and he hadn’t pitched at all since closing out a blowout win in game 3 of the NLDS. But he had plenty of postseason experience (some at the expense of the Mets), and knew about how to handle a pressure-packed situation.

99_nlcsgm5_orel.pngHershiser was not the flamethrower he used to be, he could still use speed (or lack thereof) as a weapon. Costas quoted Jon Heyman on “The Bulldog”: “He used to be able to do it with smoke. Now he does it with smoke and mirrors.” Between every pitch, Hershiser stepped off the rubber, grabbed his cap, stared in at Piazza, fired pickoff throws, and employed every other delaying tactic possible. The infuriated Braves bench screamed at him to throw a pitch. The hitters he faced were just as impatient. He got ahead of Andruw Jones, then struck him out swinging on an outside breaking pitch. Perez fell behind 1-2, then swung and missed weakly on a changeup in the dirt. Weiss swung at the first pitch he saw and bounced a ball right at Olerud. Few of his pitches were in the strike zone, yet Hershiser was able to get swings and misses seemingly at will.

In between innings, Braves hitting coach Don Baylor implored the batters to only swing at strikes. Few of his charges could obey this directive; the Braves were toward the bottom of the league when it came to drawing walks. (According to Craig Sager, Al Leiter characterized the entire Atlanta lineup as “a bunch of hackers”.) In the top of the fifth, Williams hacked at a high fastball and lined a one-out double to right-center. But Hershiser induced a grounder to third from Boone. With first open, he opted to walk Chipper intentionally and face Jordan, who chased an outside pitch for strike three.

Hershiser kept it close, but so did his teammates by refusing to score. Hamilton managed a two-out single under Klesko’s glove in the bottom of the fourth, but Ordonez flew out softly to right. In the bottom of the fifth, Alfonzo hit his own two-out single to center field, but Olerud swung at the first pitch he saw and was dispatched easily with a grounder to second.

The first real sign that this game might go on for a while came in the sixth, when both the Mets and the Braves did everything they could to give the opposition a lead, in almost identical fashion. Neither team could capitalize.

In the top half, Costas reported, “We’ve received word that it’s at least sprinkling in Manhattan. We haven’t experienced a drop yet in Queens, but it could be on its way.” By the time the inning was over, light rain started to fall on the field. But before that, the Mets fans’ spirits were dampened when Klesko hit a bad hop grounder off of Olerud’s chest. Alfonzo covered for him, but his throw to first pulled Hershiser off the bag, and Klesko was safe. After Andruw Jones sac bunted him into scoring position, Hershiser issued an intentional walk to the hot-hitting Perez. But the next batter, Weiss, took a few close pitches and walked on four straight.

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The bases were loaded with one out, and that brought up Maddux, far from an automatic out. He was certainly capable of lifting a sac fly, even getting a hit to score a few. Maddux fell behind 1-2 and fouled off several outside offerings, then tried to bunt for a suicide squeeze. He missed for strike three (“It would have been a good play if I had got it down,” Maddux said later, in a ‘duh’ moment), and Klesko was a dead duck as he broke for the plate. It was almost a mirror image of the blown squeeze play that killed a Mets rally in game 1. Improbably, the Mets had escaped danger.

Then the Mets got a few breaks of their own in the bottom half. Piazza led off with an easy grounder to third, but Chipper threw low to Klesko. The first baseman could not glove the ball, and Piazza reached on the error. After Ventura was called out on strikes (continuing his hitless streak in the series), Mora singled to right, and Hamilton laced a hard grounder to Klesko. Thinking double play, he fired a high, wide throw to Weiss, who dove wildly to keep the throw from sailing into the outfield.

Just like Atlanta did in the top half, the Mets had loaded the bases with one out. And just like Atlanta, they would not score. Ordonez swung at the first pitch he saw and bounced the ball right to Weiss, who stepped on second base and fired to first for an inning-ending double play.

Cohen noted the “bizarre symmetry” of both halves of the sixth inning, but more bizarre doings were in store in the top of the seventh. With one out, Hershiser threw an inside pitch to Boone, who immediately backed away from the plate and took off for first as if he’d been hit. Valentine argued he wasn’t actually hit by the pitch (the replay on NBC certainly made it look like Boone gave a convincing performance), but the manager’s protests went unheeded, and he was awarded first base (soon replaced by pinch runner Otis Nixon). With Chipper due up next, pitching coach Dave Wallace came out of the dugout to take the ball and give it to Turk Wendell. Hershiser received a standing ovation for his yeomanlike three-plus innings of work as he stalked off the mound.

Wendell struck out Chipper looking, but as he took his called third strike, Nixon stole second. Wendell threw two wide pitches to Jordan, then called Piazza to the mound to discuss strategy. Pitching coach Dave Wallace joined them, and, to everyone’s surprise, made a call to the bullpen for Dennis Cook in mid-at bat. The lefty came in and threw two intentional balls to complete the walk to Jordan. With Klesko up next, and with his first baseman suffering a few aches and pains, Cox opted to pinch hit with right handed batter Brian Hunter. As soon as Hunter was announced, Valentine emerged from the dugout and asked home plate ump Jerry Layne if he was allowed to make another pitching change. The walk to Jordan was charged to Wendell, meaning thus far, Cook had officially faced no one. But Layne said the move was kosher, so Valentine called on long man Pat Mahomes. (As he walked to the dugout, Dennis Cook did not look pleased about being used so briefly.)

All of this finagling and back and forth was Valentine’s convoluted method of getting Klesko, one of the Braves’ few power threats, out of the game. It cost him the use of one of this best relievers, but he had accomplished his goal. Even so, Mahomes made the move appear futile, if not insane, when he walked Hunter on four pitches to load the baseas. But he got Andruw Jones to hit a deep fly out to Henderson to end the threat.

As the rain continued to fall, the two teams settled into their respective roles. The Braves used up their bench to try to score. The Mets used up their bullpen to prevent them from doing so. The Braves hitters put men on base, and the Mets pitchers stranded them. Atlanta’s pitchers did not have to defuse any threats because the Mets batters couldn’t mount any.

Once again, Maddux set down the Mets in order in the bottom of the seventh. Mahomes (who’d had some big hits during the regular season) worked a full count, but struck out on a high fastball. Henderson bounced a ball to second for a ground out. Alfonzo swung at the first pitch and grounded out to the shortstop. Upon recording the third out, Maddux took his glove and jacket and headed for the clubhouse, nary a word to his teammates. His day’s work was done.

Valentine hoped he could use Mahomes for a lengthy outing if necessary, but with one out in the top of the eighth, Weiss hit a soft looper into the left-center gap that went for a double. Mahomes struck out Jose Hernandez (pinch hitting for Maddux), intentionally walked Williams, and gave way to John Franco, who took the mound to the tune of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Franco got Keith Lockhart (now playing second) to swing at the first pitch and ground out to first to end the inning.

Terry Mulholland–the Braves’ fifth starter and an occasional reliever in the regular season–took Maddux’s place in the bottom of the eighth. Olerud led off with an opposite single, the kind of hit that might have gone as a double for a faster runner. But after Piazza struck out, Ventura grounded into an inning-ending double play, drawing some boos from the Shea crowd. It was the closest thing to a rally the Mets would have for a long, long time.

In the top of the ninth, after Franco notched another crowd pleasing strikeout of Chipper, Jordan tapped a grounder to third that Ventura couldn’t handle, and it went as an infield single. Joe Morgan noted the Braves were able to get men on base all game, but couldn’t come up with the big hit, and this inning was no exception. Hunter popped out in back of third base, and Franco got Jordan to flail away at an outside slider.

“A lot of wet uniforms out there,” Costas said, “but also a lot of dry throats.”

Mulholland had an easy second inning of work in the bottom of the ninth. He got ahead of Mora 1-2, and after five tough fouls, struck him out on a high inside fastball. Benny Agbayani came up to bat for Hamilton–amazingly, the first Mets pinch hitter of the game–and ground out to first. Unsurprisingly, Ordonez swung at the first pitch he saw and grounded out to shortstop.

“And we are going to extra innings,” Cohen announced. Boy, were we ever.

Armando Benitez relieved Franco in the top of the tenth, while Mora moved to center field and Agbayani took over in right. The pitcher’s spot was due up in the bottom half, and no double switch was used to bring in Benitez, so Valentine obviously planned to use him for only one inning. Benitez looked human for the first time in a long time, giving up a soft single to Perez to lead off the inning (it fell a few feet in front of Henderson, and some boos from the stands indictated they felt he should have tried harder to catch it). That ended a streak of 14 batters retired in row by Benitez in the playoffs, and the first Atlanta baserunner he’d allowed all year.

Howard Battle pinch ran for the slow-footed, ailing catcher, and Weiss attempted to bunt him into scoring position, but did not look comfortable in his attempts (“Benitez, a high fastball pitcher, probably the hardest in the world to bunt against,” Cohen noted). Weiss bunted foul with two strikes for a weak K, then pinch hitter Ozzie Guillen hit a foul ball straight up behind home plate (“That could’ve been hit in a silo,” Murphy said) that Piazza caught for out number two. Battle stole second successfully, but Williams grounded out to Fonzie to end the inning. The Braves had already stranded 14 runners, and they were not through wasting opportunities yet.

The Braves brought in a new reliever, Mike Remlinger, but the results for the Mets were the same. Both Shawon Dunston (pinch hitting for the pitcher) and Henderson went down on strikes, while Fonzie flew out to complete another quiet Mets inning.

The outfield shuffled again in the top of the eleventh: Mora moved to right, Dunston to center, and Agbayani to left. Kenny Rogers, who had not had any relief work since his stint with the Yankees, came on to start the inning, thus negating any hope he could pitch a possible game 6. He looked good facing his first batter, striking out Lockhart on one of his signature curveballs. Chipper followed by swinging at the first pitch he saw and lining it to center for a single, but Jordan bounced into a force at second, and Hunter flew out to strand him at first.

99_nlcsgm5_dugout1.pngIn the bottom of the eleventh, Olerud hit the hardest ball any Met had since his home run in the first inning. His teammates ran out of the dugout, hoping it would end the game, but it settled in Jordan’s glove short of the warning track. Piazza followed by hitting another ball hard, but Williams snared the line drive. The Mets got a somewhat encouraging sign when Robin Ventura finally got his first hit of the series, a two-out single laced to right field. Mora swung at the first pitch and belted it to third, but Chipper ran toward the line to stop it, pop up, and fire a throw to first. Every batter in the inning had hit the ball hard, but all it added up to was another zero on the scoreboard.

The twelfth inning presented more wasted chances for both sides. Greg Myers (now catching) worked a one-out walk in the top half, but Weiss bounced a ball down to third, where Ventura turned it into an around-the-horn inning-ending double play. The Braves were getting so desperate for bats that John Smoltz had come out on deck to bat for Remlinger. They were down to their last position player, backup-backup catcher/ex-Met Jorge Fabregas.”You get the feeling that for either of these offenses to score, they’re gonna have to get some help,” Morgan said.

The Mets got a little help in the bottom half, when Agbayani led off with a walk against new Braves pitcher Russ Springer–the first time since the first inning the Mets got the leadoff man on base. But Ordonez–who led the team in sac bunts during the regular season–continued his baffling incompetence at the plate, bunting yet another ball straight in the air. It was picked off by Myers behind home plate, and Ordonez drew more boos as he slumped back to the dugout. Dunston swung at the first pitch and popped out to Chipper. Valentine turned to Bobby Bonilla to pinch hit, hoping for a longball to end this stalemate, but after valiantly fouling off a few tough 2-2 pitches, he struck out on a foul tip. Twelve innings in the books, and nothing decided yet.

99_nlcsgm5_dugout2.png“It has not rained hard, but it has rained steadily,” Cohen observed as the thirteenth inning began. The infield dirt and had turned a slick, dark brown color, while pools of water collected around the warning tracks. The grounds crew periodically spread Diamond Dry around the bases and the mound, but nothing could stay dry for too long in this persistent downpour.

As day turned into night, game 4 of the ALCS in Boston had already begun. Cohen and Murphy began giving periodic updates on that contest. “They may be finished before we are,” Cohen worried. Costas had similar thoughts: “If you called Vegas right now, what odds could you get on the Yankees-Red Sox game ending before this one?”

Octavio Dotel took the mound, making his first playoff appearance since a shaky 1/3 of an inning in game 2 of the NLDS. He was the ninth Mets pitcher in the game, setting an all-time record for both the LCS and the team. That meant the only pitchers left for the Mets were Rick Reed (game 4 starter) and Al Leiter (game 3 starter and potential game 6 starter). Cox had little choice but to send up Fabregas, the last position player on his bench, to bat for Springer. He fouled off a few, then struck out swinging on a good, hard fastball. Williams (the 100th man to bat in the game so far) fell behind 1-2, then grounded out to short. It looked like another easy inning for another Mets reliever, especially when Dotel got ahead of Lockhart 1-2.

But Lockhart dunked a single in front of Dunston, who’d been playing deep, to bring up Chipper. As Lockhart ran on the 0-1 pitch, Chipper hit a liner into the right field corner. Mora had to tiptoe in the grass to keep from slipping as he chased after it. Braves third base coach Ned Yost decided to test Mora’s arm and send Lockhart home. But despite the wet field, Mora got to the ball in time and fired a throw to Fonzie, who fired his own throw to Piazza.

99_nlcsgm5_mora.pngThe ball got to the plate well ahead of Lockhart. All he could do was try to jolt Piazza on his way to the plate, but the catcher–who’d sustained a much harder collision in game 3–was equal to the task. Lockhart bounced off of him harmlessly for out number three. The Shea crowd, which had run low on energy for the past few excruciating, rain-filled innings, went ballistic. “Ned Yost figured..I’m going to make them make the play,” Costas said, “and the Mets did.” Mora high fived fans in the first base seats as he jogged back to the dugout.

“The crowd, which has been in such an emotional frenzy all game, is now tuned to a fever pitch,” Cohen said as the bottom of the thirteenth inning began. They were galvanized by the inning-ending play at the plate, and the emergence of John Rocker from the Braves bullpen.

“If the Mets win, they will travel to Atlanta tomorrow,” Murphy said.

“This game might not be over until tomorrow,” Cohen feared.

This was already the longest LCS game ever, in terms of time, and it was not ready to end yet. Alfonzo struck out on three pitches and Olerud reverted to form against Rocker by flying out to left. Before stepping up to the plate, Piazza told the Mets’ trainer he wanted “to end the game here”, but he was not equal to the task. He appeared to be in pain just walking to the plate. Rocker threw two hard fastballs Piazza could not catch up with, a breaking pitch for a ball, then another fastball right by him.

These were the kind of pitches he usually clobbered, but this battered man was not the usual Piazza. The thumb that blew up during the NLDS was still in a great deal of pain and he was still suffering the effects of the concussion he sustained in game 3, not to mention all the other backswings, fouls balls, and various dings absorbed in the last month or so. The pain in his hands “felt like a blowtorch” during his last at bat. “Maybe I’m doing something wrong,” Piazza said later. “Maybe I should go do a good deed, help an old lady cross the street or something. Maybe something is getting back to me.”

As the fourteenth inning began, Todd Pratt took over catching duties. “You know if Piazza is coming out of the game at this point, with the season in the balance, he’s got to be really hurting,” Cohen guessed. It was soon announced that Piazza had suffered a bruised left forearm, presumably sustained during Lockhart’s jolt at the plate.

Dotel started his second inning of work with a bang, striking out Jordan on a hard fastball, then getting Hunter to fly out softly to right.

“Dotel could stay in for another three, four innings if necessary,” Murphy guessed.

“I don’t think the Mets have much of choice,” Cohen responded.

But the rookie suddenly became unable to throw strikes, walking Andruw Jones on four pitches (none of them close), then falling behind Myers 2-0. The rain, coming down quite hard now, might have contributed to his control problems. Dave Wallace made an emergency trip to the mound for a pep talk, which seemed to do the trick. Myers took a called strike, fouled off a pitch, then tried to check his swing but went too far on a high pitch way out of the strike zone to end the inning.

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“You don’t see it too often,” Cohen said, “but here in the rain, five hours into the game, we have the fourteenth inning stretch.” The crowd–thinned out a bit still remarkably large–was treated to a playing of “Y.M.C.A.”

“I don’t really want to see it too often,” Murphy insisted.

“Let’s just hope we don’t see the twenty-first inning stretch before we’re done.”

Murphy sounded aghast at the very idea. “I’ll go home and listen to you on the radio if that happens.”

“Meanwhile, same score at Fenway Park as here at Shea Stadium,” Costas said by way of update, as the Yankees-Red Sox game was also tied 2-2, “But it’s only taken them three innings to get there.”

Ventura led off the bottom of the fourteenth with a hard-hit fly out to center field off of Rocker, which was a small bit of progress; it was the first ever fair ball Ventura had hit off of him. With the third baseman gone, Rocker gave way to rookie reliever Kevin McGlinchy (sarcastically booing the Shea crowd right back as he left the field). That meant the only pitchers the Braves had left were all starters: Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Kevin Millwood. McGlinchy picked up where Rocker left off, striking out Mora for the 30th K of the night (17 for Mets pitchers, 13 for the Braves).

Meanwhile, the Mets’ pitching situation was just as desperate. Only Reed and Leiter remained, and it seemed as if one of them might just wind up pitching in this game after all. Cohen noted that Leiter “has to pitch with his left knee heavily taped,” and wondered if he might be in the clubhouse, getting taped up, as he spoke.

Just as Dotel did in the top half, McGlinchy tightened up with two outs, issuing a four-pitch walk to Agbayani. He even fell behind 2-0 on Ordonez–not easy to do, since he’d seen a total of six pitches in his first five at bats. The next offering was too high as Agbayani stole second, giving Ordonez a chance to atone for all of his failed bunts earlier.

Stirring in the bullpen signaled the Mets were preparing in case Dotel’s spot came up in this inning. “The knee must be taped,” Cohen noted, “because Al Leiter is up in the bullpen.”

“What do you do about a starter in game 6?” Murphy wondered.

“You worry about that when you get there,” Cohen answered.

But after a called strike, Ordonez grounded out to second. No Grover Cleveland Alexander heroics for Leiter, not just yet. The game would go to the fifteenth.

Weiss led off the inning by dunking a single to shallow left. McGlinchy was up next, and with no position players or relievers left, everyone in the world expected a bunt. He did not look good trying to lay one down, but Dotel didn’t look good throwing pitches to him, either, working a full count. Dotel finally succeeded in striking out McGlinchy, but Weiss stole second on called strike three, so his at bat wound up functioning as a sacrifice anyway.

As Williams stepped to the plate, a trainer trotted out to the mound with a wire brush and helped Dotel scrape the mud from his cleats. This drew a curious standing ovation as the trainer ran back to the dugout (“the first of his career”, Cohen guessed). With this impediment gone, Dotel went ahead of Williams 1-2, and after a few fouls, got him to fly out softly to Agbanyani in left.

Wallace made a brief visit to the mound to discuss strategy, with Lockhart due up and Chipper on deck. But whatever they decided on did not work. Lockhart swung at the first pitch he saw and lined it into the right-center gap. The exhausted crowd found enough energy to gasp as one. Dunston ran over to try and cut the ball off, to no avail. As Dunston ran toward right field, the ball plopped down and scooted past him. Weiss ran home, and Lockhart slid into third with a triple. Weiss was the first runner to cross the plate for either team since the fourth inning.

Chipper was walked intentionally, and Dotel worked out of a 2-0 count to strike out Jordan on a high fastball. The K only brought a smattering of applause. The Braves had left 19 men on base, but they’d still gotten one more man in than the Mets. Cohen summed up the situation: “The Mets, who have had their backs firmly against the wall so many times these past few weeks, now down to their final three outs of the season.”

The first batter in the bottom of the fifteenth: Brooklyn native Shawon Dunston, graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York. This was a situation that called for either a patient hitter or a slugger, and Dunston was neither. He hit only five home runs all season, and had walked only twice (none since becoming a Met). He expected to be booed by the crowd, after missing Lockhart’s triple in the top half, but instead received encouragement from fans who need him to come through. “It could have been a down moment, but they were so up,” Dunston said. “I came in and the fans said, ‘Shawon, you can do it.’…They kept saying positive things.”

But fan encouragement can only go so far. Dunston feigned a few bunts and fell into 1-2 hole. “What’s he thinking about?” Costas asked incredulously.

Then, Dunston laid off two outside pitches to bring the count full. He fouled off a hard fastball. Then another, and another. Four fouls, five fouls, six fouls. McGlinchy kept firing fastballs in the same spot, outside low, and Dunston sent all of them harmlessly into the first base stands.

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The crowd rose to its feet, starting to believe that maybe Dunston could pull this off. Finally, on the twelfth pitch and the ninth minute of the at bat, Dunston rifled a single up the middle. One of the least patient hitters on the team turned in an epic at bat, not only getting on base, but tiring out a rookie reliever trying to close out a series-clinching game on the road, in the rain. McGlinchy had lost his grip on this inning, and he would not get it back.

This unlikely at bat seemed to confuse Valentine. Matt Franco (who, amazingly, had been unused so far) had been on deck to bat for Dotel, and he was actually announced over the PA system. With Dunston on first, Valentine initially sent up Dotel to bunt. But after a McGlinchy pickoff throw, Valentine changed his mind again and sent up Franco to pinch hit. Costas wondered how Valentine could look so confused at such a moment, although he also noted that this was now the longest playoff game (in time) in baseball history.

“Here’s the difference between baseball and any other sport,” Costas opined. “You come down to the crunch in football, you’re gonna try and throw it to your best receiver, give it to your best back. In basketball, you’re gonna try to get the ball in your best scorer’s hands. But sometimes in baseball, it’s a journeyman like Franco and a rookie like McGlinchy on the mound, with the whole season on the line. Baseball history is dotted with the names of people like Al Weis, Brian Doyle, people who come out of the shadows and into prominence because it’s just their time.”

This did not appear to be McGlinchy’s time. He fell behind Franco 2-1, got him to foul off the next pitch, then threw one wide as Dunston stole second easily. With the count full, McGlinchy missed way inside, putting the go-ahead run on base.

Edgardo Alfonzo was next. After a scorching series against Arizona, and some great hitting in losing causes in the first two games of the LCS, Fonzie’s bat had gone cold. So despite having over 100 RBIs on the season, he laid down a bunt to try and move the tying and winning runs into scoring position. It was a perfect sacrifice, deadened by the wet grass as it rolled toward the mound, and McGlinchy’s only play was to the first. The elusive third run was 90 feet away.

John Olerud, responsible for driving the last five Mets runs, stepped in. But first base was open, and on deck was not Mike Piazza, but Todd Pratt. So the Braves walked the first baseman to face the backup catcher. As Olerud took his base, Roger Cedeno came out of the dugout to pinch run for Franco. Cedeno had been unavailable with back spasms, but in a game like this, no one was unavailable. A quick view of the bullpen proved that. Warming up for a potential sixteenth inning: Rick Reed, fresh off pitching seven innings the night before.

“To call him a journeyman would be kind,” Costas said of Pratt. He was already something of a folk hero for his series-clinching home run in the NLDS, and now he was in a position to do it again. With his speed (or lack thereof), he was also in a position to hit into a game-ending double play. But in order to do that, he’d have to swing at a pitch, and McGlinchy had lost the strike zone altogether, firing three wide pitches in a row.

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On 3-0, Pratt almost jokingly feigned a bunt, maybe trying to distract the pitcher, and took a strike. Costas and Morgan discussed whether he should take another pitch, or go to hitting if he got something good. The debate was academic. The fifth pitch of the at bat was high and outside, nowhere close to the plate. Pratt took his base, Dunston trotted home to score, the game was tied yet again, and now the winning run was on third with only one out. Years before it became an ironic stadium rock staple, the Shea PA system blasted Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”.

“The Mets refuse to die,” said Morgan simply, almost in amazement.

Next up, Robin Ventura. He’d had a rough series, to say the least. It took until the eleventh inning of this game for him to get his first hit off Atlanta pitching. But throughout his career, he’d enjoyed batting with the bases loaded. By the time he retired, he hit 18 grand slams, fourth all time. In 1999 alone, he hit three–two in one doubleheader. Of course, he didn’t need to hit a grand slam. He didn’t need a hit at all. Any ordinary fly ball to the outfield could allow the speedy Cedeno to tag up and score from third.

The Braves infield played in, looking for a play at the plate rather than a double play. The outfielders stood only as deep as they could throw. Anything hit farther meant the game was over.

First pitch: low and inside, ball one.

Second pitch: high fastball, fouled off.

Third pitch: way outside. Greg Myers had to stretch far to his left to keep the ball from flying to the backstop. Morgan blamed the poor aim on Cedeno, who dashed down the line to try and distract him.

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McGlinchy’s fourth pitch did not miss anything, including Ventura’s bat. It was right down the heart of the plate, and Ventura clubbed it toward right-center. Everyone in the ballpark knew the game was over. Ventura certainly knew it, allowing himself a pained smile as he ran to first. It almost didn’t matter where the ball wound up. The Braves outfielders didn’t seem to think so. As the NBC cameras followed the ball’s flight, Brian Jordan was already trotting toward the visiting dugout as the ball sailed over his head.

“A drive to right! Back to Georgia!” Costas yelled, then, after a pause noticed the ball hit the tarp beneath the scoreboard in right center. “Gone! What a scene at Shea!” In the visiting clubhouse, attendants hastily ripped down the plastic that had been stapled in place in anticipation of a Braves pennant celebration.

Cedeno jumped in the air, back spasms and all, and ran home with the winning run. Olerud began his trot to third, but Pratt had different ideas. As Ventura rounded first, Pratt jumped off of second base and ran back toward him. Ventura waved him away, urging him to keep running around the bases, but Tank would have none of it. He hoisted Ventura in the air midway between first and second, as players streamed out of the dugout to pile on him there. In all the delirium, his teammates either forgot he’d hit a home run or didn’t care. The ‘Mojo Risin’ refrain from “L.A. Woman”–a theme song suggested by Ventura–blasted out of the PA.

“I don’t know if they’ll let Ventura circle the bases,” an ecstatic Cohen shouted, “but it doesn’t matter!”

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The NBC broadcast put up a graphic with a final score of 7-3. But if Ventura and Pratt didn’t touch home plate, the grand slam wouldn’t stand (though the winning run had already scored, regardless). As Morgan and Costas debated the true score of the game, the players continued to celebrate in the middle of the field, then slowly stream back toward the dugout. “I’m looking for the umpires,” Costas said, “and they’ve left the scene!”

Bobby Valentine screamed as he walked off the field, more to himself than anyone else, and pointed his finger at the Shea stands. As if to say You, you did this.

Even the players couldn’t believe what they just endured, and how it ended. “It’s almost that ‘Field of Dreams’ thing, where the ball hits the lights, everything explodes and it starts pouring,” Hershiser said, confusing The Natural with Field of Dreams in all the excitement. Coach Mookie Wilson was reminded of game 6 of the 1986 NLCS, a 16-inning back-and-forth marathon. “They scored, we scored, they scored, we scored, they scored, we scored,” Mookie said. ”This game had more pitching. Different but the same.”

“Bob, I don’t know if we’ll ever see another ballgame like this,” Cohen gasped, almost breathless, as Murphy recounted the highlights on this insane contest, and asked his partner his opinion on the final score. “I think they will not give him credit for the seventh run, since he never touched home plate, but ultimately, who cares?”

The scoring verdict: Because Ventura did not advance beyond first base, none of the other runs would score. Final score: Mets 4, Braves 3. Ventura would be credited with the first ever Grand Slam Single.

“What a happy recap for the New York Mets,” said Muprhy. “Truly one of best victories they’ve ever had in their 38-year history.” He’d said something similar after Pratt’s walkoff homer the previous week. But if anyone knew from the best moments in Mets history, it was Murphy.

If anything, Murphy was underselling it. This was one of the most insane games played by any team, ever. Costas summed it up as “a five-hour forty-seven-minute trip to bedlam.”

“All I know is, we’ve been here for almost six hours, and this is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen,” Cohen said. “Think about all the jams the Mets pitched out of in the middle innings. Think about Orel Hershiser doing what he did. Think about the New York bullpen throwing 11 consecutive innings before they finally scored against Octavio Dotel, and then think about the Mets digging in and not letting their season get away from them in the bottom of the fifteenth, when they had to be absolutely dog tired. And I tell you what, with this win, who knows what might happen in Atlanta on Tuesday night?”

Who knows indeed.

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  • RandomJerk

    I was at this game, in the cold rain, for all 15 innings. The most epic game I’ve ever been to, or ever hope to attend. I wasn’t even a Mets fan, but my neighbor had an extra and I went just because hey – it’s the playoffs, and there’s not many good reasons to turn down a free playoff ticket. Such great memories, thanks for the write up!