1999 Project: NLDS Game 1

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

99_olerud_espnpromo.pngNow that the Mets actually made the postseason, Bobby Valentine could finalize his postseason roster. There were two surprising inclusions: Bobby Bonilla, who’d been as ineffective as he’d been unpopular all year, and Melvin Mora, a September callup with only 31 major league at bats (even though one of those at bats was pretty significant). Not chosen: backup shortstop Luis Lopez and Bobby Jones, who’d been a fixture in the Mets’ starting rotation for years but was injured much of the season.

The Mets were late to qualify for the playoffs, and now they would be late to start them. Game one of their division series against the Diamondbacks was scheduled for 11 pm New York time, preventing the younger fans from watching and irking the older ones. With all the drama and locations they’d been through in the last few days, Chris Berman (given play-by-play duties for the ESPN broadcast, and only slightly more tolerable 10 years ago than he is now) wondered, “Do the Mets know what time zone they’re in, and more importantly, do they care?” (Answer, according to sideline reporter Buck Martinez: No, and no.)

The late start accommodated the local time, the whims of the networks, and the full schedule of playoff games. Earlier in the day, the Astros stunned the Braves by beating Greg Maddux in Atlanta to take game one of their series. Then, the Yankees started their postseason the same way they did in 1998: by pasting the Rangers in the Bronx yet again.

This marked the first playoff game for the Mets since the seventh game of the disappointing NLCS in 1988. They were shut out 6-0 by current Met Orel Hershiser in the series clincher, then spent 11 years in the wilderness.

This also marked the first playoff game ever for the Diamondbacks, a team who spent big in their sophomore season and got immediate returns. The team was not just led by manager Buck Showalter, but crafted by it as well. Showalter had been with the team since its prenatal stages, and there was not a single move the team made without his knowledge (and at least tacit approval). He availed himself of this privilege quite often; in the team’s second year, only nine members from the freshman squad remained on the roster.

Showalter was pitted as the anti-Bobby Valentine. Most newspapers covering the series used words like businesslike to describe him. Other frequently used adjectives included gritty, methodical, workaholic, blue collar. They noted how Showalter had been ejected only once all year, much fewer times than his hotheaded couterpart on the Mets. However, Buck was quick to point out that he admired Valentine, calling him “a great baseball mind”. An opposing manager complimenting Valentine, even begrudgingly, was rare.

Arizona’s free spending ways required a rather large infusion of capital from their investors, prompting immediate comparisons to the 1997 Marlins, who won a championship on the backs of free agents, then immediately sold them all off. Owner Jerry Colangelo assured the public that would not be the case, insisting the additional funds “will put our house in order for the next two years. With the contracts we’ve signed, we are set to compete for four years, and nothing has changed our attitude about that.”

Not everyone was convinced. Despite the acquisition of some big time players, the Diamondbacks saw season ticket sales fall from their inaugural season. The New York Times noted that Arizona had “the distinction of being the only team in any sport to draw fewer spectators finishing first than it did the previous year finishing last.” Even third baseman Matt Williams was forced to admit, “They’re not rabid fans.” The Diamondbacks’ rise to the top was so meteoric that local newspapers had to instruct fans what to do at a playoff game, prompting much ridicule from grizzled New York scribes.

Whether or not the locals noticed, Arizona had quite a year. They did not coast to the end, either, winning 21 of their last 27 games and finishing with 100 victories. Williams had an MVP-caliber season, driving in 142 runs. Luis Gonzalez emerged from nowhere to become a monstrous slugger. Jay Bell rebounded from a lackluster 1998 to lead the team with 38 homers. Tony Womack led the league with 72 steals. Closer Matt Mantei was acquired from the Marlins midseason and shored up the team’s one weakness, its bullpen.

randyjohnson.jpgBut the biggest acquisition of all–in more ways than one–was Randy Johnson, the 6’10” southpaw ace. Ten years later, it can be hard to remember just how dominant he was. His mediocre stint with the Yankees, combined with his twilight years back in Arizona and San Francisco, is fresher in most people’s minds than the prime of his career. But in 1999, Randy Johnson was at the height of his powers.

He led the league in ERA, innings pitched, and strikeouts, with the fourth highest single-season K total of all time (364). He averaged 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings, and had conquered the wildness of his early years to limit himself to 2.1 walks per nine innings. He pitched 12 complete games. He held opposing hitters to a .208 batting average. For lefties, it was even worse: he allowed a grand total of nine hits to left-handed batters all season. Much like Pedro Martinez, Johnson’s stats were even more impressive considering the offensive explosion taking place in baseball at the time.

Only his win-loss record was less than stellar (17-9), but as is often the case with aces, that was more of a reflection on his offense. In one five-start midsummer stretch, Johnson pitched to a 1.18 ERA and wound up losing four games because the Diamondbacks were held to just two runs.

But his magic seemed to run out in the postseason. After winning game five of the 1995 ALDS against the Yankees, he lost five playoff games in a row. However, that too was often due to lack of support. In his brief stint with the Astros in 1998, he pitched two games in the division series against the Padres, gave up three earned runs total, and lost both of them.

Still, if given a choice, few teams would want to oppose Johnson in the playoffs, particularly in a best-of-five series, where you might have to face him twice. As Gary Cohen noted in his pregame remarks on WFAN, “There are no Mets who have had any degree of success against Randy Johnson.” Only Rickey Henderson had much of a history against him at all, good or bad. The rest of the team had either spent most of their careers in the NL while Johnson pitched for Seattle, or were lefty batters who sat down when he pitched (such as Robin Ventura and John Olerud).

The Mets had seen Johnson only once in 1999 and were shellacked 10-1. The Mets’ starter that day: Masato Yoshii, who would start this game as well. After an up and down year, Yoshii was excellent down the stretch, going 5-1 in his last eight starts with a miniscule 1.61 ERA. Still, it would be a tall order to subdue the potent Arizona offense. And it would be just as difficult for his own offense to get to Randy Johnson.

Bobby Valentine did not seem worried, telling Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated, “I don’t think our guys are intimidated by anything.”
October 5, 1999: Mets 8, Diamondbacks 4

Valentine didn’t sit Olerud or Ventura against Johnson, but he did make some concessions to his mastery of lefties. Darryl Hamilton and Roger Cedeno did not start, while righty-batting Benny Agbayani batted fifth and Ventura dropped down to sixth.

The game started on a high note for Arizona. Rickey Henderson (44 playoff games under his belt) led off with a fly ball to shallow center, and Gold Glover Steve Finley made a great sliding catch to snare it (“picking up divots as he went along,” in Cohen’s description). The home crowd was pumped up, and got even louder as Johnson went ahead of Edgardo Alfonzo, 0-2.

99_nldsgm1_fonzie1.pngBut then Johnson left a fastball right over the heart of the plate, and Fonzie belted it deep into left-center, off the facade of a bunting-laced promenade. Due to Bank One Ballpark’s odd dimensions, if the ball had been hit a few feet to the right, it would have been in play. But it wasn’t. Just as he did in Cincinnati, Alfonzo stunned the stands with a first inning home run to put the home team in an immediate hole.

More surprises followed, with singles by Olerud and Mike Piazza. Johnson rebounded by striking out Agbayani and Ventura, but he’d already shown himself to be a bit too human. “The Mets did not seem to care that this was Randy Johnson,” Pearlman wrote later, “Cy Young-in-waiting, no more than they cared about the $4-an-hour buffoon paid by the D-Backs to prance down the first base line and catch rings with his bat hat. (You had to see it. Actually, be glad you didn’t.)”

As Arizona prepared to take their first ever postseason at-bats, Cohen advised, “If you want to beat the Diamondbacks, you absolutely have to keep Tony Womack off the bases.” It was advice the Mets would heed well.

In the bottom of the first, Yoshii induced a foul out from Womack and got a very loud out from Bell before giving up gave a two-out Gonzalez double that popped out of Shawon Dunston’s glove as he hit the ground. But Williams popped up to Alfonzo to end the threat.

The Mets went down in order in the top of the second, the last out coming on a three-pitch strikeout of Yoshii, who had joked about looking forward to facing Johnson in the batter’s box earlier in the season.

Bob Murphy said, “Pitchers should not have to go up and face Randy Johnson. It just doesn’t seem right.”

Cohen responded, “I don’t think it seems right for anybody.”

In the bottom of the second, Yoshii worked around a one-out single and his own near-error. With Finley on first, he handled a comebacker from Hanley Frias, but rushed the throw to second to try and get the double play. A great diving grab by Rey Ordonez not only kept the ball from flying into the outfield, but recorded a force out as well. (“You have to see the Mets infield to believe how good it is,” Murphy marveled.) Catcher/ex-Met Kelly Stinnett made the third out on a pop-up to Ordonez.

Stinnett usually did not catch Johnson, but his usual caddy, Damien Miller, was nursing an injury. (Miller was also caught in a tiff with the players’ union, who shut him out of playoff merchandise for being a replacement player during the strike of 1994-95. Which is odd, because I don’t recall Rick Reed, another replacement player, being similarly sanctioned.) Though Johnson would not blame Stinnett, perhaps an unfamiliar battery mate led to his early struggles in this game.

Or perhaps it was an open roof at Bank One Ballpark, which helped the ball travel. In later years, Johnson would always insist on the roof being closed during his starts, regardless of the weather.

Or maybe, the Mets were on one of those rolls that defies explanation. What happened next certainly did.

99_nldsgm1_olerud.pngIn the top of the third, Henderson worked a leadoff walk. Johnson got Alfonzo to a 2-2 count, and the second baseman fouled off several tough pitches before Johnson finally fanned him on a high, 98 mph fastball. (“That pitch was in another gear,” Cohen remarked.) Either that battle took too much out of Johnson, or he overlooked Olerud, because the first baseman turned on a pitch and pulled it into the right field stands, 10 rows deep. It was the first home run off of Johnson by a lefty batter in over two years, and because of it, the Mets were up 3-0.

The Diamondbacks got a run back in the bottom of the third, when Womack led off with a ball that just eluded Henderson’s glove in left. He hustled into third with a triple, and scored on a Bell sac fly. But the Mets responded in the top of the fourth when another left hander hit the ball hard off of Johnson, as Ventura laced a leadoff double down the first base line.

The men in the radio booth could not believe what they were witnessing. “Left handed batters are not supposed to do that to Randy Johnson!” Murphy exclaimed. “This is stunning!” said Cohen.

Dunston followed Ventura’s double with a perfect bunt to third and beat it out for a single. Cohen noted that “you’re gonna have to hit it fairly deep to get Ventura home, the way he’s running right now.” With that in mind, Valentine opted for the squeeze play. Ordonez bounced a bunt high in front of the plate as Ventura broke on contact. By the time Johnson fielded the ball, he had no play at the plate. The Mets were up, 4-1.

But they were prevented from getting more when Williams made a great diving stop on a Yoshii grounder, and Womack tracked down a Henderson fly ball at the warning track to end the inning. The Mets would not threaten again for a while, and the Diamondbacks began to mount a comeback.

In the bottom of the fourth, rookie Erubiel Durazo led off with a home run to cut the Mets’ lead to 4-2. Yoshii escaped the inning without further damage,  and he retired the Diamondbacks in order in the fifth, but a few more loud outs along the way made it clear that he was not going to fool the Arizona hitters for too much longer. As he began the sixth, Dennis Cook and Turk Wendell were warming up in the bullpen.

99_nldsgm1_gonzo.pngValentine did not go to them soon enough. Bell started the inning by dunking a single into center. Gonzalez followed with his own, slightly more impressive hit into center: a 452-foot bomb of a home run to tie the game. After a strikeout of Williams, Yoshii was yanked in favor of Cook, who struck out two of his own to end the inning.

It looked like the Mets had already wasted a huge opportunity. Somehow, they’d gotten ahead of Randy Johnson, but that lead was gone, and whatever mojo they had working against him early deserted them late. In the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, Johnson allowed just one baserunner, while upping his strikeout total to 11. “Not surprisingly,” Cohen said, “Randy Johnson is getting tougher and tougher as this game goes along.” Murphy predicted, “He’ll be very tough to beat now, I’m afraid.”

But the Diamondbacks were bypassing chances of their own. With one out in the bottom of the seventh, Johnson–not known for being much of a hitter–smacked a double into the right field corner, putting the go ahead run on second and energizing the crowd. But when Womack flew into left, he kept right on running to third for some reason. Henderson threw in to Alfonzo to double him up and end the threat.

In the bottom of the eighth, with Wendell now on the mound, Gonzalez worked a one-out walk. That brought up Williams, the Diamondbacks’ best RBI man. He was also 1 for 7 with four strikeouts lifetime against Wendell, and probably wish he’d struck out here, as Wendell got him to bounce into a 6-4-3 double play.

Entering the ninth, Johnson had thrown over 120 pitches, and yet, according to Cohen, “there is not a hint of warmup action in the Arizona bullpen.” There would be soon.

Ventura led off with a single, his second hit of the night and the Mets’ first hit since the fourth inning. Roger Cedeno (who entered on a double switch in the top half) got ahead 2-0, but popped up a bunt right back to Johnson. Ventura managed to scramble back to first in time.

Ordonez made up for that mistake by bouncing a single between shortstop and third. Johnson was clearly tiring, but he stayed in to face rookie Melvin Mora (who’d come in to play center when Cook entered the game), and proceeded to walk him on four pitches to load the bases. The lead run was now on third with one out.

Johnson, 138 pitches to his credit, would finally exit the game. Showalter had two relievers throwing in his bullpen, but rather than go to Mantei, he opted for the relatively inexperienced righty Bobby Chouinard. (Showalter would later say he didn’t like to use Mantei with men on base.)

Chouinard fell behind 2-0 to Henderson, when Rickey smashed a ball toward third. Williams, one of the best defensive third basemen in the game, was playing in on the grass, hopeing for a play at the plate. He made a diving stop to snare the ball, then leaped to his feet in time to get a force out at home. The ecstatic crowd chanted “MVP! MVP!” Close ups of Henderson at first showed him shaking his head in disbelief and disappointment.

It was an amazing play, one that saved the game for the Diamondbacks–for exactly five pitches.

99_nldsgm1_fonzie4.jpgAlfonzo was up next, and Chouinard fell behind him as well, 3-1, throwing a few pitches nowhere near the plate. The last one found far too much of the plate, a totally straight fastball that Fonzie was ready for. “You get behind in the count, he just started throwing fastballs,” Alfonzo said. “He didn’t want to walk me. He was just throwing me fastball to see what happens.”

What happened was a moonshot down the left field line. The only question was if it would stay fair. Alfonzo took a few steps up the line, bat still in hand, hoping he hadn’t pulled it too much. He hadn’t, and as the ball landed in the second deck, he tossed the bat toward the Mets dugout and began a swift trot around the bases. His home run trot was as modest as his grand slam wasn’t. “He hit it long enough for two home runs!” yelled a delighted Murphy.

The second the ball came off Alfonzo’s bat, the Arizona crowd went silent. As he touched home plate, the only sounds you could hear were the claps and cheers from the Mets dugout. With the Mets now on top, 8-4, Cohen noted that many fans began heading for the exits. The local papers’ playoff primers had apparently not included the directive “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”.

But it was, for all intents and purposes, over. Armando Benitez set down the Diamondbacks in order in the bottom of the ninth. It turned out that, after staving off elimination for four straight days, beating Randy Johnson was child’s play.