1999 Project: NLDS Game 4

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

99_nldsgm4_bobbyv.pngBefore, during, and after game 3, everyone connected with the Mets held out hope that Mike Piazza’s thumb would miraculously heal somehow and allow him to return in game 4. That proved to be a pipe dream, and for the second straight game, Todd Pratt would catch in his place. During his pregame remarks, Gary Cohen said Bobby Valentine told him “Mike might, might be able to pinch hit, but it seems unlikely we will see him again in this series”.

Piazza said later the team told him to rest up, and get ready for the NLCS (not that they had much choice, since he couldnt bend his thumb). They needed one more win to get there, of course, and the man charged with getting them there was Al Leiter. Despite having a so-so season, the lefty had won some of the season’s most important games. He ended an eight-game losing streak with eight great innings at Yankee Stadium, he ended a seven-game slide at the end of September by beating the Braves, and he went the distance in game 163 to launch the Mets into the playoffs.

Leiter pronounced himself ready for another challenge. The Jersey native, who grew up a Mets fan, relished the thought of finishing up this series in front of the home town crowd. He also had no issue throwing to Pratt instead of Piazza. His best start of the season–with 15 Ks against the Cubs–came with Pratt behind the plate.

He even threw some backhanded compliments to the backup backstop. “This is not a knock,” he told the Daily News, “but obviously [Pratt] doesn’t have the same career numbers as Mike, so he really takes that much more pride in catching a good ballgame. He really wants to catch a good game, and if Todd ends up getting some knocks, great.”

For his part, Pratt didn’t need to be told he wasn’t in Piazza’s offensive league. Like many backup catchers, his career had been one of ups and downs–mostly downs. After bouncing around several organizations, he wound up on the Phillies, and even made it on the postseason roster for the 1993 team that went to the World Series, though he would only get one at-bat in the playoffs.

After being released by the Mariners in 1996, he worked at Bucky Dent’s Baseball Academy for a while, then managed a Domino’s franchise . “If I had to go back to it, I could,” he told reporters who asked him about it. “There’s nothing wrong with managing a pizza parlor.”

The Mets rescued him from such a fate, and sent him to the minors. He hit his way out of triple-A Norfolk in 1997, though found himself back in the minors in 1998 when the Mets acquired catcher Jorge Fabregas. But Pratt was back in the bigs before the season was out, and spent all of 1999 as Piazza’s backup, a position akin to that of the Maytag repairman.

He knew his role and had no complaints about it. How could he? He was just grateful to be along for the ride. “I’m not Mike,” Pratt said after game 3, in case anyone was confused. “Nobody is in that league. He generates a lot of power and intimidation in the middle of the order.”

But for one at-bat on October 9, 1999, being Todd Pratt was more than enough. Much like the lyrics of the David Bowie song that played in ESPN’s division series bumpers (well, a very bad cover of a Bowie song, anyway): he’d be a hero, just for one day.
October 9, 1999: Mets 4, Diamondbacks 3 (10)

Even with an ecstatic Shea crowd behind him (“getting itself into a frenzy”, in Cohen’s words), and a perfect afternoon for baseball, Leiter was not the dominator seen in Cincinnati. All day, the Diamondbacks managed to get the bat on the ball and hit it hard. But like many Met pitchers in 1999, he could rely on the defense behind him, though in this game it would be the much less vaunted outfield defense.

In the top of the first, Leiter gave up a long fly ball to Womack, but Hamilton flagged it down in center for the first out. He issued a walk to Jay Bell, but Pratt threw him out trying to steal. Luis Gonzalez flew out to Rickey Henderson to end the inning.

On the mound for the Diamondbacks: lefty Brian Anderson, who’s switched between starting and relieving during the season. Not an overpowering or flashy pitcher, but he had “notoriously good control,” according to Cohen, and was often among the league leaders in fewest walks allowed. With this in mind, Henderson swung at Anderson’s initial offering and flew out to right. Edgardo Alfonzo, who’d been relatively quiet since his outburst in game 1, struck out on three pitches. John Olerud managed a single, but Benny Agbayani followed with a flyout to left.

As the second inning began, Bob Murphy reported the Braves had taken an early 1-0 lead in Houston. They too were looking to end their series. “There’s a chance there could be no baseball tomorrow,” Cohen noted. “Four teams have a chance to wrap it up today.” As it turned out, only three of them would. The Yankees completed their sweep of the Rangers without breaking a sweat, but the Red Sox got a decent enough outing from Ramon Martinez (Pedro’s brother) to stave off elimination, en route to a stunning upset of the Indians.

Leiter continued to lean on his defense in the top of the second. Matt Williams led off with a bad hop grounder that Robin Ventura handled, then fired to first. Greg Colbrunn turned in an 11-pitch at bat that resulted in a walk, but Steve Finley hit a sharp grounder to Alfonzo that he turned into a 4-6-3 double play.

In the bottom half, Ventura and Pratt flew out to left field, and Darryl Hamilton (with two career homers off of Anderson) flew out to right for a very quick 1-2-3 inning. “Anderson looks like he’s going to be tough today,” Murphy worried.

Cohen countered that Leiter might be settling in. “With Al, if he can get through the first two innings unscathed, he generally gets stronger as the game goes on.” He retired the side in order in the top of the third and fourth innings, but not without some scares. The third ended on a sharp liner to Olerud, while Hamilton and Agbayani had to run down hard hit flies to keep Arizona off the basepaths in the top of the fourth. He had yet to allow a hit, but it hadn’t exactly been easy.

99_nldsgm4_fonzie.pngAfter going down in order in the bottom of the third, the Mets broke through in the fourth thanks to (who else?) Edgardo Alfonzo. Fonzie took a great Anderson changeup, knee-high on the outside corner, went down to get it, and pulled it into the left field bleachers for his third home run of the series. The Mets were on the board, 1-0.

Olerud and Agbayani followed with hard hit balls, but each found Arizona gloves. Ventura managed a two-out double down the first base line, but then Pratt hit a harsh grounder to the right of at Womack at short, who speared it, spun, and threw out the slow-footed catcher.

Loud outs were the order of the day, as Williams led off the top of the fifth with a well-struck fly to left that Henderson ran down for out number one. “The Mets outfielders have been in all the right places so far,” Murphy marveled, but there was nowhere they could go for the next ball. On the ESPN broadcast, as Chris Berman coyly referred to the fact that Leiter had not yet given up a hit, Leiter fell behind Colbrunn 3-1, then left a fastball over the plate that he clubbed into left field. The ball just eluded the Henderson’s glove as he leaped for it, and the game was tied at 1.

Finley followed with a bloop single into left field, but two ex-Mets ended the threat. Bernard Gilkey flew out and Kelly Stinnet struck out on three pitches.

In the top of the sixth, Agbayani gave Leiter some cardiac distress by nearly misplaying a fly ball off the bat of Anderson, but recovered for the first out. A replay showed an anguished Leiter, hands clasped on top of his head, hoping Benny wouldn’t blow it. On cue, ESPN played a prerecorded interview in which Leiter explained his emotional antics on the mound: “What looks like I’m out of control, internally I’m very much in control. If I look at a lot of my games, my better games are when I’m acting like that. Bobby Valentine said, ‘When I’m watching you and you look all serious and quiet, that’s when I get worried’.”

Leiter worked around a hit batsman to retire the side, and hoped his offense could get something going. “It seems that Brian Anderson has been able to throw a first pitch strike to every batter he’s faced,” Cohen lamented. He’d also limited scoring opportunities as much as possible; Fonzie’s homer represented the only leadoff baserunner he’d allowed. The solution, obviously, was to try and get a man on base to start an inning. And what better man to do it than Henderson, who led off the bottom of the sixth.

Rickey fell behind 1-2, took a close pitch for ball two, and began fouling. And fouling. And fouling. In total, Henderson fouled off nine pitches in a row, the crowd getting crazier and crazier with each one. It was a testament to Anderson’s control, and Henderson’s resilience, that neither would give in. He had to dive out over the plate to connect with a few pitches, and he had a scare when he popped a ball into foul territory that just made it into the seats, but he was equal to everything Anderson threw. The pitcher even dropped sidearm to try and fool him, something he seldom did to righty batters.

Finally, on the fourteenth pitch of the at bat, Henderson dunked a single into shallow right field. Anderson turned around to watch it, hands on his hips. “He can not believe what just transpired here!” Cohen said. The crowd was ecstatic, and though Fonzie followed with a weak popup to third base, Olerud (7 for 17 lifetime against Anderson) laced a single into left-center to put Henderson at third; Finley did a good job tracking it down to keep him from scoring, for the time being.

Agbayani followed, and with the Shea crowd going completely bananas, Anderson seemed to lose himself. He fell behind Benny 3-1 (only the second three-ball count he’d run all day), then gave up a double in the right field gap. Henderson scored, Olerud moved to third, and the Mets were on top again, 2-1. They looked poised to add more, but Ventura hit a comebacker right to the mound that forced the runners to hold, and Pratt ground out to end the inning.

“The Mets may rue not getting any more runs home,” Cohen prophesied. With a new lead, Leiter worked another 1-2-3 inning in the top of the seventh, but once again it was more due to his teammates’ gloves than his own arm. Williams hit a ball hard to center field, but Hamilton flagged it down for the first out. Colbrunn followed by driving Henderson all the way to the fence in left, barely missing his second game-tying homer of the day. Finley grounded out to end the inning.

With an update from Houston, Cohen reported, “the Braves are starting to put it away.” Atlanta put up a five-spot in the sixth inning and now led the Astros 7-0. They seemed almost assured of a trip to the NLCS for the eighth straight year (discounting the playoff-free season of 1994).

The Mets tried to get some insurance for Leiter in the bottom of the seventh, but failed, due in part to the pitcher’s negiligible batting skills. Rey Ordonez hit a one-out single up the middle just out of the reach of Bell. Charged with laying down a sac bunt, Leiter fouled the first two pitches he saw, then bunted straight up into the air, right back to Anderson. Henderson flew out to right to end the inning.

As Leiter started the top of the eighth, John Franco and Armando Benitez warmed up in the bullpen, though the lefty looked like he might be able to go the distance. He got another hard out from Gilkey, who deep fly ball to Melvin Mora (just in the game for Henderson) in left. Stinnett followed with a more leisurely out, a grounder to third. The Mets were now a mere four outs from a trip to the league championship series.

Then Turner Ward came up to pinch hit for Anderson. Dave Wallace trotted to the mound to give Leiter a quick scouting report, as he’d never faced Ward before. It didn’t seem to help, as he walked Ward on four pitches. Womack was next, and the Mets had handled him so far in the series. The fact that they’d held Womack to one lone hit so far was a major factor in being up two games to one in the series.

But they couldn’t handle him here, or rather, Alfonzo couldn’t. Womack hit a hard, bad-hop grounder Fonzie’s way, forcing him to knock it down with the heel of his glove. He grabbed the ball, bobbled it a bit, and fired a throw to first. Against many runners, he still would have had time to record an out. But against the league’s leading base stealer, it went for an infield hit.

Womack’s “hit” was only the third one Leiter had given up, but that was more a function of luck than skill. And with his luck clearly running out and a tough righty coming up (Bell, the Diamondback’s home run leader), Valentine opted to bring in his closer, Benitez, for a four-out save.

Valentine had reason to doubt Benitez had his head in the game. He arrived late to the ballpark that afternoon and was later fined for the infraction. But he could also throw a ball through a barn door, and had saved 20 games since taking over the closer’s role from Franco. So the manager let his ability trump any off-the-field issues.

Benitez repaid that trust by falling behind Bell 2-1, then giving up a booming double over Mora’s head in left. It missed going over the fence by inches, then bounced off the wall at an odd angle, forcing Mora to chase after it. Ward and Womack raced home, Bell stood on second, and the Diamondbacks were up 3-2.

The only sounds to be heard were cheering from the Diamondbacks bench and the team’s owner, Jerry Colangelo, standing and applauding from a front row seat. The Shea crowd was stunned, because they knew what Murphy said in the broadcast booth. “Now, the Mets may have to fly to Arizona.” Referring to his playoff struggles with the Orioles, Cohen added, “That big posteason base hit bites Benitez again.” Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time.

99_nldsgm4_bell.pngWith first open, Valentine opted to walk the dangerous lefty Gonzalez and face Williams (a dangerous righty) instead. Benitez got ahead of him 1-2, then gave up a line drive single to left. Bell rounded third and tried to score, but Mora came up with the ball quickly and fired a bullet to Pratt to nail Bell at the plate, end the inning, and keep the Mets’ deficit at one run.

Working with a lead, the Diamondbacks made a few defensive changes, bringing in Hanley Frias to play shortstop and moving Womack out to right field, a move that would prove critical immediately. Gregg Olsen, who closed for Arizona before they acquired Matt Mantei, took the mound, worked a full count to Alfonzo, then walked him. With Olerud up next, Showalter yanked Olsen in favor of lefty Greg Swindell.

99_nldsgm4_womack.pngOlerud turned in a tough at-bat, fouling off a number of two-strike pitches and working the count full. It appeared he might be turned aside when he hit a deep fly ball to right. Womack ranged back to get it, but looked confused the entire way, as if he only had a vague idea of where the ball was. In all likelihood, he lost it in the low Ocotber sun. Whatever the reason, the ball clanked off his glove, Alfonzo raced to third, and Olerud went to second. Womack’s blunder gave the Mets a gift: the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position.

Roger Cedeno (who replaced Agbayani for defense in the seventh) was up next. The Diamondbacks played the infield back, willing to concede the tying run on a grounder in order to escape a big inning. Cedeno responded with a deep fly to center that not only scored Alfonzo from third, but allowed Olerud to tag up and move to third. Now the go-ahead run was on third with only one out. Arizona walked Ventura intentionally to get to the weaker-hitting Pratt. Mantei was up in the bullpen, but Showalter was slow to relieve Swindell. “Would he not go to Mantei again?!” Cohen asked, incredulously, referring to his reticence to call on Mantei in game 1.

Showalter did bring in Mantei, but he did so in a double switch that removed his slugging third baseman from the game, replacing him with ex- and future Met Lenny Harris. “How can you take out Matt Williams, your top RBI man, in a tie game?” Cohen wondered. “That’s amazing!” Regardless, Mantei induced a comebacker from Pratt. Olerud broke for the plate to avoid the double play, and was tagged out at Pratt reached first and Ventura moved to second.

That left it up to Darryl Hamilton, and after working a full count, it looked like he might come through with a hit down the left field line. But left field ump Charlie Williams ruled it a foul ball. Third base coach Cookie Rojas, not known as a hothead, got into a screaming match with Williams over the call. Williams pushed Rojas, Rojas pushed back, and the two had to be separated by Valentine and Ventura. With the crowd egging him on, Rojas was furious and refused to leave the field for the longest time. The manager took over third base coach duties in his absence, as the Shea stands rained down chants of “bullshit!” over Williams’ call (even though replays showed he was correct, by the slimmest of margins). Rusty from the long delay, Mantei walked Hamilton, but then struck out Ordonez to finally end the inning and keep the game tied.

Valentine later said he was reticent to bring Benitez back for another inning, but did anyway, and Armando made short work of the Diamondbacks, setting them down in order with two strikeouts and a groundout.

Down in Houston, the Astros decided to make a game of it with a run in the seventh and four in the eighth. John Rocker came on to get the final out of the inning (a strikeout of Craig Biggio), but the Braves’ lead was down to 7-5.

The Mets threatened in the bottom of the ninth, when pinch hitter Matt Franco walked (he’d walked 19 times as a pinch hitter during the regular season to lead the league), and Mora moved him into scoring position with a sac bunt. “Mantei’s struggling with his control today,” Cohen noted. “Missing high with his fastball,” Murphy agreed. But he had enough control to induce a pop-up from Alfonzo and, after an intentional walk to Olerud, get Cedeno to ground into a force at second.

As the game went into extra innings, John Franco took the mound in his first home playoff appearance after 878 regular season games. He pitched a 1-2-3 inning as only he could, first working a full count to the weak hitting Stinnett before fanning him on a high fastball. Harris, batting for the first time, hit a slow ball just past the mound, but Franco ran deep on the infield grass to grab it and fire a throw across his body for out number two. He was a bit winded as he walked back to the pitching rubber, but got Womack to hit a grounder to third to end the inning. Franco pumped his fist as he returned to the dugout, unaware he’d just earned his first postseason victory.

Mantei began his third inning of work in the bottom of the tenth, but rather than test his wildness and stamina, Ventura swung at the first pitch he saw and flew out to right. “Ventura hoping to end the game with one swing,” Cohen surmised.

99_nldsgm4_pratt2.pngPratt followed, and it was doubtful he had similar thoughts. But after taking the first pitch for a ball, he put a jolt into Mantei’s second offering, a high fastball over the heart of the plate, and drove it to straight-away center. He knew he hit it deep as soon as he made contact, but he hadn’t the slightest idea how deep.

Steve Finley manned center field for the Diamondbacks, a Gold Glover with dozens of highlight reel catches in his career. The center fielder ran back as deep as he could go, and tried to leap for it. But he got a bad jump, and with an awkward hop, he was barely able to extend his glove above the outfield wall.

Still, Pratt couldn’t bring himself to believe he actually did what he just did. “I saw Steve Finley run back and get in his set to jump,” he said in the Mets’ 1999 highlights video, “and I’ve seen it a million times on ESPN by himself, making great grabs.” As he ran to first, he slowed up, exhaled deeply, clearly thinking he’d just made an out.

The ball grazed Finley’s glove, but that’s as close as he came to catching it. He would be the first person to know what had happened. The second was Charlie Rappa, the man in charge of the fireworks display planned for a Mets victory. He was standing behind the center field fence, making preparations for a potential celebration, when the ball got past Finley and bounced his way.

99_nldsgm4_finley.pngStill convinced Finley had grabbed the ball, Pratt stopped halfway around first, just waiting for a sign that he could trot back to the dugout and put his gear back on. But then he saw Finley come back to the earth, check his glove one last time, and confirm what he already knew: the game, and the series, was over.

Pratt leaped in the air and pumped his fists the entire way home. His teammates mobbed him at the plate. The Shea crowd went completely ballistic. No one dared leave, afraid the magic would end if they left their seats.

On TV, Chris Berman did his patented “back-back-back” schtick, but even he couldn’t tell if Finley had made the catch. Once he saw the center fielder look desperately at his glove, he simply screamed, “IT’S OVER!!”

Meanwhile, on WFAN, Gary Cohen’s call was pure poetry, evoking the thoughts of Pratt, his teammates, and the Shea crowd all at once, repeating the particulars (“painting the word picture”, and Murphy often said) several times, because it was all just so unbelievable:

The outfield a couple of strides to right against Pratt. Mantei’s 1-0…And a high fly ball, deep to center field! Back goes Finley, going back, warning track, at the wall, jumping, annnnd…IT’S OUTTA HERE! IT’S OUTTA HERE! Pratt hit it over the fence! Finley jumped and he missed it! The Mets have won the ballgame! The Mets win the ballgame on a home run over the centerfield fence by Todd Pratt! The Mets have won the series, three games to one! Todd Pratt hit it over the centerfield fence! Finley made a leap, Pratt didn’t know! Pratt was standing between first and second, then he saw Finley downcast, and he knew the ball was over the fence! The Mets win it, and they’re mobbing Todd Pratt at home plate! An amazing finish here at Shea! Todd Pratt, subbing for the injured Mike Piazza, homers over the centerfield fence in the bottom of the tenth inning, and Mets have one the game, 4-3! They’ve won the series three games to one! And it’s bedlam here at Shea as the fireworks fly!

“Oh, I wish you were here to see this!” gushed Bob Murphy, a man who had seen quite a lot in his 38 years calling games for the Mets. He’d seen Ron Swoboda’s catch in the 1969 World Series, Buddy Harrelson fight Pete Rose in 1973, and a slow roller go through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986. This was right up there with all of those moments.

“I wanted to cry,” Pratt said later.

As the Mets sprayed champagne in the clubhouse, the Braves were doing the same down in Houston. They held on to beat the Astros 7-5 in the last game ever at the Astrodome. That meant that the Mets’ next game would be in that house of horrors, Turner Field, where they’d won only one game all year, against a team that seemed to have their number.

They tried not to think about that, at least for one day. After being on the brink of disaster one week ago, the Mets had won every game they needed to. They defeated Randy Johnson. They played two games without Mike Piazza, and won both of them against a team that had logged 100 victories during the regular season. And they closed it out when Todd Pratt, the man who once jokingly called himself “the Mike Piazza of triple-A”, ended the series with one amazing, unlikely swing of the bat.

Some fans in the stands chanted, “We want the Braves!” Why not? This was a day to think anybody could do anything.