1999 Project: NLCS Game 6

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

99_nlcsgm5_ventura.pngVegas had the Mets at 5-1 odds to win games 6 and 7 in Atlanta. No other team who opened a playoff series with three straight losses had ever forced a seventh game. Only one other team that fell behind 0-3 had gotten as far as game 6 (ironically, it was the Braves, who lost the first three games of the 1998 NLCS, then won games 4 and 5).

Long odds, but not nearly as hopeless as things looked at the end of game 3, and playing from behind seemed to suit this team well. Fans sounded hopeful that they could actually pull off such a comeback, while noting it was not the Mets’ lot to make things easy on themselves. “[T]he Mets always give you ulcers, they never go about things the easy way,” said Mike Kramer of Brooklyn. “They don’t breeze through like the Yankees.”

By the day of game 6, the team from the Bronx had already dispatched of the Red Sox in a five-game ALCS. They eagerly awaited the winner of this series, and vice versa.

Ed Westfall, captain of the 1975 Islanders team that rallied from a 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series (one of only two pro sports teams who’d ever pulled off such a feat), threw in his own two cents. He praised Bobby Valentine for not cracking under pressure, and celebrated in his Long Island home when the Mets won game 5, despite recovering from bypass surgery. When he saw the team ecstatic over Robin Ventura’s grand slam single, he said, “I’ve seen that before. I’ve felt that before.”

The team definitely believed in itself. Bobby Valentine went so far as to say, “I think there’s good forces working on our behalf.” The Braves often referred to themselves as America’s team, but Orel Hershiser felt the country was rooting for the Mets. “I think America has a love affair with underdogs,” he said. “I’m an NFL fan and I root for the team that’s down at halftime. I think people in America want to see the Mets win because nobody’s ever come back from 3-0. They can even overcome disliking New York.”

“Just because no team has lost a 3-0 lead doesn’t mean a team can’t be beaten four in a row,” Marc Kriegel wrote in the Daily News. “That has been done. Despite Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and John Smoltz, the Braves dropped four straight to the Yankees in the ’96 Series. Maybe you forgot that. But you can bet the Braves did not.”

There were signs that the Braves had begun to feel some pressure. After game 5, Atlanta pondered what could have been. In game 4, they were four outs away from finishing the Mets, and were beaten by a double steal and a slow chopper. The next night, they were three outs away from a trip to World Series, and once again the Mets rallied to defeat them. More galling than a blown one-run lead in the fifteenth inning were the 19 men the Braves left on base. “It doesn’t matter unless you end up with a hit,” Greg Maddux sighed. “We’re not up there to get ‘Atta boys’ and ‘Way to gos'”

Back in Atlanta, game 6 starter Kevin Millwood fielded questions from reporters. One began by noting that the righty hadn’t lost a game since August, but he didn’t get a chance to finish the query. “Shh, don’t say it,” Millwood warned, half-jokingly.

Millwood did proclaim himself confident, however, because he had beaten the Mets in game 2 even though “I didn’t have my best stuff…They probably saw a lot of pitches last time they won’t see this time.”

Al Leiter would take the mound on three days’ rest for the first time since 1994 for “one more last start”, as the Daily News put it. He’d given nothing but stellar performances in must-win games for the Mets all year, and particularly in the last month, even if it didn’t always show up in the win column for himself or his team. He stopped a seven-game slide with a win over Atlanta at Shea in the last week of the regular season, threw a complete game shutout against the Reds in the play-in game, and pitched 7 2/3 great innings against the Diamondbacks in game 4 of the NLDS before Armando Benitez and Todd Pratt rendered his performance an afterthought.

He also gave up only one unearned run to the Braves in game 3 of the NLCS, and somehow wound up with a loss. But he’d pitched to a 1.47 ERA in his last four starts, and Bobby Valentine felt confident about turning to him because he’d only thrown 103 pitches in that game, a relatively low count for the lefty. Leiter hoped he could ride the near-death-experience vibe the rest of his team did. “Let’s face it, we’ve been playing like it’s been our last game for a while now,” he said. “Not that we thrive on it, but we are doing OK with it.”

If Leiter faltered, Rick Reed proclaimed himself available to pick up the slack. Despite pitching 7 innings in game 4, he’d only thrown 73 pitches in the effort. He also warmed up during the marathon game 5, and would have pitched the 16th inning if the score had remained tied. Reed said he’d take that warmup as his between-starts workout, and be ready in case the Mets needed help in game 6. Once again, it was all hands on deck.

99_nlcsgm6_piazzaint.pngThat included Mike Piazza, who would play game 6 despite suffering a lifetime of bangs and bruises in the past month. He still looked dazed and distant while fielding Craig Sager’s pregame questions. Even ignoring the mild concussion he suffered in game 3 (which most newspapers and broadcasters seemed to do), both of his arms and hands were beaten up, which had led to a pronounced lack of power in the series. “When I took the last swing on Rocker [in game 5], I felt a tingling in my fingers and a
real hot sensation in my forearm…” he told The New York Times. “The
bat feels a lot heavier than it did a month ago….My left arm — I’m
looking for a donor”

“If the Mets make the World Series,” Bob Costas opined, “Mike Piazza should get a ring and a Purple Heart.”

Two other Mets would also be back in action. Roger Cedeno returned to the outfield after missing most of game 5 with back spasms. Third base coach Cookie Rojas had served his five-game suspension for bumping an umpire in the last game of the NLDS and would once again work the lines.

October 19, 1999: Braves 10, Mets 9 (11)

For once, Braves fans were in full throat at game time. The day before, there were still 3,000 seats available at Turner Field, but those were all snatched up by game time, according to NBC. John Rocker was also excited, as usual, although for a different reason. He crashed his Corvette into a truck after getting cut off by another car, totalling his vehicle. The closer sustained no injuries, though, and told sideline reporter Jim Gray he’d be ready to go if called upon.

Rickey Henderson was also ready to go. He’d been quiet most of the series, but poked an 0-2 pitch into right for a single, only the second time in the series he led off a game with a hit. Costas wondered if he might finally get his first stolen base of the series. But Edgardo Alfonzo flew out softly to right, John Olerud flew out to center, and Piazza, who grimaced in pain as he fouled off a pitch, struck out swinging on a pitch in the dirt.

Joe Morgan insisted that, for the Mets to have a shot, Leiter needed to get off to a good start. A fairly obvious point, like most Morganisms, which I only record to underscore just how bad of a start Leiter turned in. The leadoff hitter, Gerald Williams, took Leiter’s first two pitches (a rarity for him), then got hit in the top of his right foot with an errant slider. While the Braves dugout yelled “balk!” over Leiter’s pickoff moves (more of an attempt at distraction than an accusation), he missed badly with most of his offerings to Bret Boone, eventually walking him. It was clear that the Braves–usually impatient at the plate–were waiting for Leiter to prove that he could throw strikes, and he was failing that test.

On Leiter’s first pitch to Chipper Jones (another one that missed the zone by a wide margin), Williams and Boone attempted a double steal. Piazza threw to third, but his throw skipped past Ventura’s glove. Williams scampered home, and the Braves had a 1-0 lead without benefit of a hit. Similar circumstances put Atlanta up 1-0 in the first inning of game 3, but Leiter had been able to hold them there. He would not be so lucky now.

Obviously rattled, Leiter’s next pitch caromed off of Chipper’s leg, the second hit batsman of the game. The Braves hadn’t swung at a single Leiter pitch yet, and yet they had a lead, with men on first and second and nobody out. Pitching coach Dave Wallace ran to the mound for an emergency meeting, while Pat Mahomes warmed up in the bullpen.

Whatever wisdom Wallace imparted could not stop the bleeding, as Brian Jordan finally put an Atlanta bat to a ball, rifling a single just out of the reach of a diving Ventura. Boone rounded third and came home to score. 2-0 Braves, nobody out yet.

Andruw Jones was up next, and he actually swung and missed at a pitch. But then he tapped the ball back to Leiter. Rather than go to first and get a sure out, the pitcher heaved a weak throw to second. Even a good toss might might have been too late to force out Jordan, but Leiter’s bad throw pulled Alfonzo off the bag. It was not officially scored an error, but that was the only good thing that could be said about it. Everyone was safe, the bases were loaded, and still nobody out.

99_nlcsgm6_leiter.pngEddie Perez, who’d terrorized Met pitching all series, fell behind 0-2, fouled off a few tough pitches, then lined a single right over Alfonzo’s glove. Chipper scored, Jordan scored right behind him, and Andruw Jones went to third. 4-0 Braves.

Leiter had not recorded an out, and he would not get a chance to do so. By the time NBC cut back from their replay of Perez’s big hit, Leiter was stalking back to the dugout, serenaded by tomahawk chop chants. “Pitching on three days rest, he may now have all winter to rest,” Costas said.

Mahomes took Leiter’s place, and the first pitch he threw was served into left center for an RBI sac fly, scoring Andruw from third. Walt Weiss followed by bouncing into a double play, thus finally ending the inning and closing the book on Leiter. It was one of the worst pitching lines of his career: five runs surrendered and not a single out recorded. He’d come up big when the Mets needed it many times during the season, but not here, to say the least. Craig Sager reported that Leiter had a good bullpen session prior to the game, but “lost his control on the way to the mound.”

Leiter remained in the dugout to cheer on his teammates. Postgame treatment would be pointless unless they could rally.

Now the Mets were five runs in arrears to a Brave pitcher that had dominated in the postseason so far. Millwood did not look as overpowering as he had earlier in the playoffs, but he also had a large lead to play with. “What a difference between Robin Ventura’s last at bat and this one,” noted Costas as the second inning began. Not just in the score, but in the result, as he popped up weakly in front of the plate. Darryl Hamilton singled to right, almost in the same spot as Henderson, but Cedeno and Ordonez followed with weak grounders.

Mahomes made quick work of the Braves in the bottom of the second with a fly out by Millwood, a foul out by Williams, and a strike out of Boone. Masato Yoshii warmed up in the bullpen, and Shawon Dunston prepared to bat for Mahomes, due to lead off the top of the third. At the last moment, Valentine opted to let him bat for himself. It didn’t help offensively, as Mahomes went down swinging, and the next two Mets went quietly.

But the gambit did pay off when Mahomes managed to keep the Braves off the board in the third and fourth innings, somehow. In the bottom of the third, Chipper swung at the first pitch he saw and lined a single to center. After a tough at bat by Jordan, he tapped a ball up the middle as Chipper broke for second, but somehow Ordonez cut it off and threw the runner out at first. Then Chipper stole third, forcing the Mets to bring the infield in. Andruw followed with a chopper that Alfonzo ran in on; he checked Chipper before getting the out at first. Perez hit a weak grounder to short to end the inning.

In the bottom of the fourth, Mahomes issued a full-count leadoff walk to Hunter, who then stole second despite a pitchout. Weiss hit a ball up the middle that Ordonez managed to snag, but Hunter advanced to third as he threw to first. With Millwood up next, Wallace ran to the mound, presumably to discuss the possibility of a squeeze play. The squeeze hadn’t worked well for either team in this series, though, so Millwood went up swinging. He fell behind 1-2, then lined a pitch right back to Mahomes. Hunter broke on contact, and was easily doubled off third to end the inning.

Mahomes had done yeomanlike work for the Mets, much as he had all season, and kept the Braves off the board. For Mets fans looking for hope, Costas shared some trivia. The biggest deficit the Mets had overcome all year was six runs, which came back in May in a game started by Leiter. The biggest lead the Braves had blown all year was five runs, which came in a game started by Millwood.

But in order to have a comeback, you have to score some runs, and that looked unlikely so far. In the top of the fourth, Millwood struck out Olerud on three pitches, induced a broken-bat grounder from Piazza, and got a gift when Ventura swing at the first pitch and lofted a lazy fly ball to right. Hamilton opened the top of the fifth with a parachute single to shallow center, but Cedeno followed with a fly out to left-center, and Ordonez, looking completely overmatched at the plate yet again, struck out on a fastball well out of the strike zone. Bobby Bonilla batted for Mahomes and shot a single to right, but Rickey Henderson was frozen by a two-strike curve and went down looking.

Turk Wendell relieved Mahomes in the bottom of the fifth and set down the top of the Braves’ order 1-2-3. Since touching up Leiter, the Braves’ bats had all but fallen asleep. But the first real sign that this game wouldn’t just be an Atlanta coronation ceremony came in the top of the sixth. As NBC showed Greg Maddux and John Smoltz laughing in the bullpen, Alfonzo fought off a few tough offerings from Millwood, then ripped a double into the left-center gap. Olerud followed by fouling off a few more pitches, then smacking a single up the middle. Fonzie moved to third, then scored on a sac fly by Piazza (though back in the dugout, he slammed his helmet in frustration, having swung late on a few pitches he could’ve belted out out of the ballpark when healthy).

99_nlcsgm6_hamilton.pngVentura followed with a double down the right field line, moving Olerud to third. Then Hamilton swung at the first pitch he saw and laced it up the middle. The ball clanked off of Boone’s glove as he dove to stop it, which allowed both Olerud and Ventura to score. Suddenly, it was 5-3, and Millwood exited the game in favor of lefty Terry Mulholland as drizzling rain began to fall in Atlanta, bringing back memories of the damp game 5.

Benny Agbayani pinch hit for Cedeno, and he walked, bringing Ordonez to the plate. Costas and Morgan wondered if he might bunt to move Hamilton and Agbayani into scoring position. The shortstop did not, perhaps because of his many bunting failures earlier in the series. But Ordonez was not having any luck, regardless of tactic. He hit the ball hard, but right at Weiss, who then scampered to second to double up Hamilton and end the inning.

As NBC cut back from commercial, Wendell had just hit Jordan in the hand with his first pitch of the bottom of the sixth. Jordan scowled at Turk as he walked to first, though it was extremely doubtful the pitcher wanted to hit the leadoff man after the Mets had finally crawled back into the game. Andruw Jones feigned a few bunts, then tapped a ball toward third. Only Wendell had a play on it, and he flung a throw toward first, to no avail. Perez laid down a sac bunt to move both runners into scoring position, so the Mets opted to walk Hunter intentionally and load the bases.

The move looked wise when Weiss hit a bouncer to first, which Olerud threw home to force out Jordan, who came in hard and knocked Piazza’s legs out from under him, adding another ache to the catcher’s list of woes. The two players glowered at each other as Jordan went back to the dugout. Keith Lockhart was announced as a pinch hitter for Mulholland, so Valentine took out Wendell in favor of Dennis Cook. Cox countered by batting for Lockhart with righty Jose Hernandez, who smacked a single into left, driving in both Andruw and Hunter. Cook got Williams to pop out to end the inning, but once again, the Mets found themselves in a deep hole.

“Now Cox wants to bring the hammer down,” said Costas as the top of the seventh began. The Atlanta skipper had many well-rested relief options in his bullpen, but he went with John Smoltz, who’d quieted the Mets for seven-plus innings in game 4, to keep the score at 7-3 Braves.

Costas and Morgan debated the wisdom of not bunting with Ordonez in the top of the sixth. They also made sure to praise Valentine’s moves in the marathon game 5, but in the manner of a requiem. They clearly thought the Mets’ season was now all but over. I also recall hearing the Braves call of this game once upon a time, and the Atlanta radio announcers were unusually gracious about the Mets and their ability to come back as this inning began. But again, it was said in a way that one praises a vanquished foe. This game was already over, or so it seemed.

As these eulogies were delivered, Matt Franco, pinch hitting for Cook, smacked a double over Andruw Jones’ head. Then Smoltz fell behind Henderson 3-1 and gave up a double down the left field line. Franco raced around third to score to shave the Braves’ lead to 7-4. “In truth, the Mets have hit far more hard balls in this game than the Braves,” Costas noted, though it had yet to make much difference in the scoreboard.

Fonzie smacked another ball hard, one that sent Jordan all the way to the wall in right field. As he caught it, Henderson tagged up and moved to third. With Olerud up next, the Braves played the infield back, conceding a run on an out, but the first baseman smacked a single to right, driving in Henderson. 7-5 Braves. “I don’t think we’re going out on a limb to say that John Smoltz doesn’t have it tonight,” Costas said.

99_nlcsgm6_piazza.pngPiazza limped to the plate, looking completely and utterly exhausted in each close up. Piazza had shown no ability to catch up with fastballs, but Smoltz showed no ability to throw them for strikes either, falling behind 2-1 to the catcher. Then he threw a pitch on the outside corner, and for one moment of this series, Piazza looked like the Piazza who’d terrified NL pitchers throughout the season. With a classic Piazza swing, he crushed the ball hard to the opposite field, sending it just beyond the 390 marker in right-center. “Tied at seven, hoping for game seven!” Costas screamed.

The home crowd, and the home team, was completely stunned. Piazza looked just as drained as he had before the homer when he crossed the plate, as if it took his last ounce of strength to hit the ball. Leiter, whose awful first inning seemed to doom the Mets, was the first man out of the dugout to greet him.

Smoltz gave way to Mike Remlinger, who gave up a long fly out to Ventura that came within a few feet of another homer. He also retired Hamilton for the first time in the game to end the inning. But the Braves’ once sizeable lead was gone, and when Orel Hershiser set down Boone, Chipper, and Jordan quickly in order in the bottom of the seventh, Atlanta had to be feeling very nervous.

99_nlcsgm6_mora.pngThey had to be feeling even more nervous when Agabayni led off the top of the eighth by dunking a single into shallow right field. Ordonez followed by finally laying down a successful sac bunt, moving Agbayni to second. Then Melvin Mora pinch hit for Hershiser. The rookie had already a number of huge hits and plays in this series, and he added to the list here by smacking a hard single into center. Agbayani scored easily, and now, against all conceivable odds, the Mets were on top, 8-7. “It really does make almost no sense,” Costas said with a laugh. It was all that ridiculous.

The team that had batted .188 in the first 5 games of the series had already collected 14 hits in this contest. In the dugout, Valentine–who refused to display any emotion even when they tied the game–was suddenly all smiles.

They had a chance to score more and put some distance between themselves and the Braves. Henderson hit a grounder in the hole at short that forced Mora, who’d been heading back to first as the pitch went to the plate. Rickey tried to atone for this by stealing second, and Alfonzo followed with a walk, but Olerud flew out to end the inning and strand two.

Still, the Mets were six outs away from forcing a game 7. NBC showed a simple, hand-written sign that read WHY NOT? Craig Sager reported that Hershiser had requested to look at his scorebook. “I didn’t know how we scored!” he said.

Valentine turned to John Franco in the bottom of the eighth. The veteran lefty had performed well since returning from the DL late in the year, and had only given up two hits in 4 1/3 playoff innings so far (the first of his long career). If Franco could negotiate this inning unscathed, he could hand the ball over to Armando Benitez, who’d given up a grand total of one base hit to Braves hitters in 1999.

99_nlcsgm6_hunter.pngAndruw Jones led off with an easy grounder to short. But Perez, who’d been in the middle of everything for the Braves all series, hit a hard shot to left for a single. Cox pinch ran for him with Otis Nixon, and after Hunter fouled off a few, he attempted to steal second. Piazza’s throw was short and skipped into centerfield, allowing Nixon to scamper to third. On Franco’s very next pitch, Hunter reached for a breaking ball on the outside corner and poked a single into center. Nixon ran in to score, and the game was tied yet again. The Atlanta crowd. which had been quieted by the Mets’ Lazarus act, resumed the Tomahawk chop in earnest.

Weiss bunted the go-ahead run into scoring position. Cox batted for Remlinger with Howard Battle, career minor leaguer, who struck out swinging to end the inning. But the lead was still gone, and now the Mets had to face John Rocker, who emerged from the Braves’ bullpen in the top of the ninth to a much friendlier reception than the ones he received at Shea.

Despite scoring off of him in their game 4 win, the Mets still had very little success against Rocker, and that trend continued here. Piazza swung at the first pitch and popped up to Chipper. Ventura hit another high pop up, this one just behind second base. Hamilton hit a hard liner to left, but right at Williams to end the inning.

Even without a lead, Valentine turned to Benitez to keep the Braves off the board in the bottom of the ninth. He was also forced to finally take Piazza out of the game and put Pratt behind the plate. Benitez fell behind Williams 3-0, but fought back to get the count full, and got him to ground out to third. He then struck out Boone on a pitch in the dirt. Chipper followed by walking on four straight pitches, and stole second to put the winning run in scoring position for the second straight inning. And for the second straight inning, it was stranded there by a strikeout. Once again, the Mets and Braves would go to extra innings.

Rocker returned for the top of the tenth and went full to Agbayani (not the most patient hitter in the world), then walked him. Unfortunately, Ordonzez to form, lining out to first as he tried to lay down a sac bunt. The Mets’ luck looked even more dim when Agbayani was caught stealing by Rocker. But after the pitcher threw to first, Hunter’s throw to second nailed Agbayani in the back. Mora followed with a sharp single to center, hit too hard for Benny to try and score.

99_nlcsgm6_benny.pngWith Pratt up next, the Braves played the infield back, hoping for a double play. But Pratt hit a ball to shallow center. Andruw Jones ran in to catch it and was in a perfect position to make a throw to the plate. Agbayani tagged up as Jones fired a throw home, but it was up the line, and Greg Myers (now catching in place of Perez) could not handle it. Benny slid behind him to score. As the clock struck midnight, the Mets were back on top, 9-8. For the second time that night, the Mets were just a few outs away from forcing a game 7.

But Benitez’s power over the Braves failed him in the bottom of the tenth. He went full to Andruw Jones, then gave up a single to lead off the inning. Cox, who’d used relatively few pinch hitters so far, emptied his bench to try to even the score. After a fly out by Myers, Ryan Klesko came up to pinch hit for Hunter. Klesko could end the series with one swing of the bat, which was clearly on Benitez’s mind, because he threw very few hittable pitches, then walked him.

99_nlcsgm6_ozzie.pngNext up, Ozzie Guillen to bat for Walt Weiss. Guillen had come within inches of hitting a game-tying home run off of Benitez in game 4. He didn’t come that close to going deep this time, but he did lace a singe into right field. Jones scored from second, and the game was knotted up once more. On the play, Mora fielded the ball and decided not to attempt to throw out Jones at the plate, which he had little chance of doing, but rather cut down Klesko, who tried to go from first to third. Otherwise, the winning run might have been at third with only one out.

The last Braves bench player, Jorge Fabregas, batted for Rocker and flew out to left. The game would go to eleventh, and it started to feel that, for all the heroics and improbable comebacks the Mets had pulled off so far, their magic had finally run out. Especially when the they went down in order in the top of eleventh to new Braves reliever Russ Springer. Olerud flew out harmlessly to center. Shawon Dunston, pinch hitting in his first plate appearance since his epic at bat in game 5, showed a lot less patience this time and fouled out on the first pitch. Ventura grounded out to second, and that brought on the fateful bottom of the eleventh.

“After Sunday, a reasonable person could have asked, ‘What do you do for an encore?'” Costas said. “Well, how about this?”

Kenny Rogers took the mound in his second relief appearance of the series. He’d pitched two scoreless innings in game 5, and he got two quick strikes on Williams to start the inning. But Rogers hung his third pitch, and Williams laced it just fair down the left field line for a double. Boone laid a sac bunt down towards first. Williams crossed over to third, and the series-winning run was 90 feet away.

With first and second base open, Valentine told Rogers to intentionally walk Chipper. With that move completed, Valentine made a rare trip to the mound to discuss strategy. Rogers threw two wide pitches to the next batter, Jordan, perhaps hoping for a botched squeeze or a steal attempt. But Jordan didn’t bite, and he too was walked intentionally to put a force at any base.

Octavio Dotel warmed up in the Mets’ bullpen, but Valentine stayed with the lefty Rogers against righty Andruw Jones. Perhaps he was more comfortable with the more experienced pitcher. Perhaps he thought Jones, a free swinger, might be more likely to chase Rogers’ slow breaking pitches, or tap into a double play. Or perhaps he thought Dotel’s heat might be just what Jones wanted. Whatever the reasoning, this was Rogers’ mess, and Valentine left him in to clean it up.

The infield played back, hoping for a conventional double play rather than a play at the plate. Rogers’ first pitch to Andruw was low and away for ball one. After a brief mound conference, he threw one in almost the exact same spot. Ball two.

Andruw sung at the third pitch and tapped it slowly up the third base line. As Williams broke for home, it rolled foul to give the Mets a brief reprieve. Had it stayed fair, there would have been no play, and the game would have ended.

The fourth pitch was high and outside. Pratt dived to his right to snare it. The count was 3-1.

The fifth pitch was just as high, but slightly less outside, and home plate umpire Jerry Crawford gave Rogers the benefit of the call. Full count.

“It’s been a 173 game wild ride for Valentine and the Mets,” Costas noted.

“Bob, you’d hate for it to end on a walk,” Morgan said. “This game has
been such a good ballgame that you want it to end with another hero,
and not a goat.”

99_nlcsgm6_andruw.pngBut that’s exactly how it did end. Rogers’ sixth pitch sailed high and outside, nowhere near the plate. Ball four. Williams ran home to score, and the Braves stormed the field, while Rogers, Pratt, and the rest of the Mets slowly stalked off the diamond.

In the dugout, Valentine slammed the railing in disgust, incredulous that it could end like this, looking more sad than angry.

On WFAN, Bob Murphy was clearly heartbroken. “He walked him,” Murph said, incredulous that the game could end like this. “What a horrible loss for the New York Mets.”

As NBC interviewed various Braves players, the cameras lingered on shots of the stunned, disheartened Mets in the dugout. Even for the impartial viewer, it seemed, something special had ended.

“Seldom has a losing team in a playoff series emerged with such enhanced regard as have the Mets,” Costas said. “They have made fans not just in New York, but all around the country with the wild ride they took us through in late September and early October.” Costas already said “this would rank with some of the greatest National League championship series ever played.” Morgan went so far as to call it “the most exciting one” he’d ever seen.

After NBC had interviewed Chipper, Cox, Williams, and other champagne-soaked Braves, they cut to Craig Sager interviewing a stunned, exhausted Valentine outside the visiting clubhouse (a pretty remarkable move for any sports coverage, to interview the losing manager right after the game). When asked what he told his team, he said, “I told them played like champions and they should feel like champions.”

99_nlcsgm6_bobbyv.pngIn the locker room, Rogers sounded less sad than angry and bitter, aware that he’d already become a legendary goat. “Everything you’ve done in the past, they’ll forget about and remember this,” he said. “God thinks I can handle a lot. He can lay off me now.”

But Dunston, whose epic at bat in game 5 made game 6 possible, told his teammates that joining the Mets was the best move he ever made. When traded to New York, he contemplated retirement, as he felt no more passion for the game. “You guys made me believe again,” said the Brooklyn native, who grew up rooting for the Mets “You made baseball fun for me. I will never, ever forget what this team did.”

Dunston gave an epic speech, recounting all the ups and downs the Mets went through, and all the aches and pains they suffered–not just Piazza’s well documented bruises, but the injuries sustained by Rogers and Franco and Benitez, few of which made the papers until now. Whatever facade the players were able to maintain fell away, as grown men wept, knowing they’d given their all, and confronted with the horrible truth that it just wasn’t good enough.

In the Daily News, Lisa Olsen captured the scene:

The pitchers sat in a circle, festering in their dirty uniforms, not ready to let winter begin. Soon they were joined by other players, and some family members, and beers were popped open and there was laughing and joy. The conversation turned to the World Series, to what might have been.

Hamilton said he won’t watch the Series–he’s 34, and it hurts too much to be that old and get that close–but he’ll be pulling for the other New York team. John Franco said he won’t go to the Stadium–too painful–but he’ll root hard for the Yankees.

Piazza, eyes still downcast, said quietly, “It’s irrelevant to me who wins. It’s agonizing to even think about it.”

Dunston, this close to retiring, said: “All the way back to high school, I always miss the championship game.” But he was smiling now. “I’m not going to quit, not when you play on a team this classy.”

And there was Leiter, eyes glassy, saying, “I could go tomorrow.” Oh, if only that were true.

Legendary baseball scribe Roger Angell, writing in The New Yorker, told the tale of several agonized Mets fans who felt traumatized by the loss, unable to go to work or eat or even leave their beds in the aftermath of game 6. Angell felt their pain but did not feel sorry for them:

[O]ne really should be sorry for everyone else, all the rest of us, who can’t think of anything to care about on anything like this scale, and might not have the nerve to hang in there, against such odds, even if we did.

The Mets’ 1999 season had gone on longer, and had more magical moments, than any of them had any right to expect. But now, it was over.