September 18: In 1999, the Mets traveled to Atlanta in late September, just a game back in the standings. Three days later, they were swept out of Turner Field and plummeted into a death spiral that nearly knocked them out of the playoffs altogether. In 2000, their path to October was less rocky; they went to Atlanta enjoying a five game lead in the wild card standings. Even so, there was a desperate air to this series
Despite some triumphs against the Braves this year, they had yet to prove they could best them, particularly in Atlanta. The Braves, it was said, were firmly in the Mets' heads. As if to illustrate this further, during the first game of this crucial series, the Braves' radio announcers could be clearly heard over the air as Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy tried to call the game for WFAN.
Greg Maddux started for the Braves, and it came as no surprise when he kept the Mets off balance all night. They'd beaten him twice during the season, but trying for three wins against Maddux in one year was asking a bit too much of the Baseball Fates. He scattered five hits over seven innings, while Mike Hampton gave up five runs, and Pat Mahomes another, to put the Mets in a 6-0 hole.
The first run scored when Hampton, normally a good fielder, threw away a squeeze bunt by Walt Weiss in the third inning--typical of the odd mistakes the Mets made when playing at Turner Field. He fared a bit better in a scary moment in the fourth, when Andres Galaragga hit a ball right back to him. It was hit so hard off the heel of Hampton's glove, it knocked the thing right off his hand. Hampton recovered to throw him out at first, though another run scored on the play.
A glimmer of hope emerged when Derek Bell (back in the lineup after resting a sore knee for a few days) homered against Kerry Ligtenberg in the top of the eighth, and Robin Ventura followed soon after with a two-RBI single off of Mike Remlinger to cut the lead in half. But then John Rocker came in and picked right up where he left off the season before. He induced a pop up from Bubba Trammell to end the inning, and set down the Mets with little trouble in the 6-3 loss.September 19: All eyes were on Glendon Rusch in this game. He began his year well, but regressed to the mean as his season progressed, and had never played in a game so pressure-packed before. The last time he faced the Braves, he said, he pitched the plate-crowding hitters inside too much and paid for it. "It taught me a lesson, not to veer away from my game plan. Even if things are going bad and you're giving up a lot of hits, you've got to stick with what you do every time out. You can't change."
But Rusch fared no better in this outing. After a quiet first inning, the second began with three extra-base hits--a double, a triple, and another double in the blink of an eye to plate two runs. After a groundout, pitcher Andy Ashby came up and hit a shot to third that bounced off of Robin Ventura's leg, allowing another run to score. Then Rusch really began to unravel, throwing a wild pitch, walking Andruw Jones, and giving up an RBI single to Chipper Jones. Pat Mahomes came in and fared no better, issuing two walks to load the bases and force in a run, then giving up a two-run single to Javy Lopez. There were three stolen bases in the inning, as the Braves ran at will on a flustered pitching staff and Mike Piazza.
By the time Bobby M. Jones struck out Reggie Sanders to end the inning, seven runs had scored. Ventura's error meant only two of them were earned, if that was any consolation at all. Andy Ashby stifled the Mets' bats, and by the late innings, both teams were fielding garbage-time lineups. The Braves sailed on to a 12-4 win that all but killed the Mets' hopes of taking the NL East.
After the game, Bobby Valentine held a closed-door team meeting in which he screamed a profanity-laced tirade over their sloppy play. "It was a human thing," the manager said later. "I'm being human here. If someone doesn't think I'm allowed to be ticked off, it's their mistake. It's my right and I exerted it." Most players said the speech was more encouraging than insluting. The gist of it, according to John Franco: "We've played too long and too hard to play like this. We're a much better team than we've showed."
In some corners, Valentine was blamed for the team's skid, a charge he both resented and welcomed. "Let's make it about me! I'd rather have it about me. When the team is going good, I know who it's about and when the team is not going good I know who it's about. I think it's absolutely perfect and justified....And if we come out of this, I want to hear the flip side. I've never heard the flip side."
September 20: With the division seemingly out of grasp, the Mets offense seemed to relax and finally get into a groove, and they managed to do it against Tom Glavine. The game remained scoreless until the top of the fifth, when Mike Bordick dunked a two-out single into shallow center field. The anemic bat of Al Leiter came up next, and somehow he worked a walk, which allowed Benny Agbayani to single up the middle, just out of the reach of shortstop Walt Weiss, to drive in the game's first run. They extended their lead on solo homers from Edgardo Alfonzo and Todd Zeile in the top of the sixth.
Meanwhile, Al Leiter turned in another terrific performance. He did not allow a baserunner until the bottom of the sixth, when Walt Weiss reached on an error by Robin Ventura (this one a tougher play than the previous night). Things got scary when Rafael Furcal came up with two out and battled Leiter in a 10-pitch at bat before hitting a single to score Weiss. After Furcal stole second, Leiter walked Andruw Jones, then saw Chipper Jones barely beat out an infield single to load the bases. But he retired the dangerous Brian Jordan on a pop-up to escape further danger.
The seventh inning brought more trouble, when Leiter gave up two walks and two singles to score another Atlanta run, cutting the Mets' lead to a slim 3-2. Bobby Valentine relieved Leiter with another lefty, John Franco, who walked the first batter he faced, Rafael Furcal, to load the bases. He then went 3-0 to Andruw Jones before throwing a strike, then getting the center fielder to hit an easy fly out to end the threat.
The Mets expanded their lead in the top of the eighth on a Mike Piazza homer, then scored another run when Robin Ventura advanced to third on a botched pickoff move and came home on a Jay Payton sac fly. The Braves threw another scare into them when Chipper Jones homered to lead off the bottom of the eighth, and Andres Galaragga hit a one-out single. That prompted Valentine to go to Armando Benitez for a five-out save. Benitez promptly walked Javy Lopez and Reggie Sanders to load the bases and give Mets fans a collective coronary, but he induced a pop up from Keith Lockhart and a groundout from Wally Joyner to escape danger.
After Todd Zeile knocked in an insurance run in the top of the ninth, the Braves went much more quietly in the bottom half, and the Mets managed to slink out of Atlanta with a 6-3 win, only their third victory in their last 21 games at Turner Field. If nothing else, the win allowed them to engage in the end-of-year rookie hazing tradition and not have it take on a funereal air. ("I don't know if we wanted to win to beat the Braves, or win so we could dress the rookies up," Mike Piazza admitted.) Plus, a 1-0 Dodgers blanking of the Diamondbacks gave them a commanding 5.5 game lead in the wild card standings with 10 games left to play.
The wild card cushion had made the Mets' September swoon less of a story than it would have been otherwise. They were also helped by the fact that the Yankees' woes garnered more panicky attention in the sports press. As bad as the Mets had looked down the stretch, the Yankees were playing far worse, losers of eight of their last nine at the time--although they too enjoyed a healthy lead (5.5 games up in first place).
September 21-24: For their last road series of the year, the Mets traveled to Philadelphia for four games at the Vet, feeling much more relaxed than they had in a while. Perhaps they were a bit too relaxed in game one, falling into an early 5-1 hole. They clawed back with two runs in the top of the seventh, then tied things up on a Todd Zeile homer off the left field foul pole and a two-out Robin Ventura RBI double in the top of the ninth. Unfortunately, Rick White could not hold down the fort in the bottom half. He gave up a single to Doug Glanville and a double to Bobby Abreu, then walked Scott Rolen intentionally to get a force at any base. But the next batter was Pat Burrell, who had made the Mets pay for walking Rolen in the past and did so again, singling in the winning run in a 6-5 defeat. It was the seventh time the Phillies had defeated the Mets in 10 tries that year. "For some reason, they turn it up on us," Darryl Hamilton noted.
The Mets managed to turn things up for the remainder of the series. In game two, they broke a 3-3 tie with a four-run sixth inning, initiated by a Mike Piazza homer. John Franco inherited a 7-3 score from Bobby Jones in the bottom of the eighth and gave up a two-run homer to Scott Rolen and a solo homer to Pat Burrell (his fourth homer and 11th RBI of the season against the Mets) to pull the Phils within one. But Piazza clubbed a two-run blast in the top of the ninth to give the Mets some breathing room, and Armando Benitez worked a drama-free 1-2-3 save to make it stand up. It was Benitez's 39th save of the year, breaking a club record held by Franco.
In game three, the offense was powered by Edgardo Alfonzo, who hit a double and a home run, and scored three runs, despite playing through a sore hip and groin. The Mets also took advantage of some imprecise pitching, as two wild pitches allowed two men to cross the plate in a four-run seventh. It all added up to a relatively easy 7-3 win. Timo Perez had two more hits in the game, making it seven so far in his young career and earning himself comparisons to Melvin Mora, who came out of nowhere at the end of 1999 to add some speed and life to the Mets' lineup.
He continued to impress in the series finale when he lined a hit to center field in the top of the third. Doug Glanville slipped trying to field it and the ball flew past him, allowing the speedy Perez to race around the bases with an inside-the-park home run. Todd Zeile hit a two-run homer of the out-of-the-park variety to account for the rest of the Mets' scoring, while Glendon Rusch rebounded from his terrible start in Atlanta to limit the Phillies to one run over eight innings. In the ninth, a single, walk, and two-out bloop single from Brian Jordan shaved the Mets' lead to one run, but Armando Benitez struck out future Met Marlon Anderson to preserve the 3-2 win.
Mike Piazza felt confident enough to say, "We've got a little bit of swagger back." As the Mets headed back to Shea, they led the wild card standings by a healthy six games over the Dodgers. Bobby Valentine said proudly, "We're not backing into anything."
September 26: The Braves rolled into Shea in a series that was dubbed BATTLE FOR THE NL EAST on thousands of rally towels that ticket takers handed out to the crowd. But really, that battle had already been fought in Atlanta a week earlier. Now that the Mets were four games out of first place, taking the division was highly unlikely and, as far as getting to the playoffs was concerned, unnecessary.
The Mets' magic number to clinch a postseason berth was down to one, taking a good deal of pressure off of them and a good deal of the drama out of a series that just a few weeks ago looked like it would be a dogfight. Although Braves-Mets still took on a war-like air in one sense: John Rocker's presence in the visitor's bullpen would require 600 police officers on hand to keep the peace.
Steve Phillips also put a damper on the series by insisting that, if the Mets did clinch the wild card, they would not celebrate. "Our goal was to win the division," he said. "The wild card is a fallback." The wild card, only six seasons old, still had a stigma attached to it, as if its winners should almost be ashamed for reaching the playoffs that way.
They certainly seemed sheepish in the series opener, going down quietly, 7-1, on a raw, rainy night. The victory clinched the division for the Braves for the ninth season in a row (mathematically, the Mets could tie Atlanta for first, but the Braves would still win the division because they won the season series between the two teams). Al Leiter went five-plus innings and gave up four runs, Rick White ceded three more, and the Mets' bats fell asleep against Atlanta's number five starter, John Burkett. To add insult to injury, John Rocker "closed" the game in the ninth. One unruly fan chucked a beer bottle his way, which landed just behind the pitcher's mound, and was promptly ejected for his trouble.
The sole bright spot was that the Braves did not celebrate on the field. "It's not the World Series," Bobby Cox said, "it's the playoffs, the division. We didn't want to show anybody up, and we didn't." Even so, it was disheartening to fall just short of the Braves again, a team that always seemed to bring a little extra when they played the Mets.
"Guys in here really get up to play the Mets," Chipper Jones admitted later. "Whenever we play them, a switch goes off in the clubhouse...Everyone has a team that they do good against, For me, it's the Mets. I can't understand it and I'm not going to try and explain it."
Conversely, Bobby Valentine admitted that something bad happened whenever the Mets played the Braves, but he cold not quantify it. He could only call it "the thing."
September 27-28: Despite clinching the night before, the Braves fielded most of their regular lineup in game two, perhaps with thoughts of knocking the Mets out of the playoffs like they nearly did in 1999. Atlanta took an early lead on an Andruw Jones solo homer off of Rick Reed in the top of the first. But Reed settled in from there, and would go eight innings and scatter four hits. The Mets tied things up against Kevin Millwood in the bottom of the fourth, when a Timo Perez single and two walks loaded the bases, and another walk to Todd Zeile forced in a run. They then struck for three runs with two outs and nobody out in the fifth, thanks to a Timo Perez triple, a Darryl Hamilton single, and an Edgardo Alfonzo two-run blast. The lead was extended with single runs in the sixth and seventh.
Although Armando Benitez gave up a leadoff home run to Andres Galaragga in the top of the ninth, he struck out the side to preserve the 6-2 win and clinch the wild card for the Mets. After a rough September, the Mets could finally, officially breathe easy. Unlike the Braves, and despite Steve Phillips insisting otherwise, they celebrated both on the field and in the clubhouse. Phillips partied by emptying an entire bottle of champagne over Bobby Valentine's head, while Valentine fielded a congratulatory call from Fred Wilpon and pretended he was receiving a contract extension. "Yes, Fred, sure, gladly -- how many?"
In the series finale, with many stars taking a well-deserved day off (Mike Piazza, Robin Ventura, and Todd Zeile three notables), the Mets squared off against Greg Maddux as he sought his 20th win of the year. He brought a 36 1/3 scoreless inning streak into this game, and extended it until the bottom of the fourth, when once again Timo Perez got things going. He walked to leadoff the inning, advanced to third on an error, and scored on an infield single by Lenny Harris. Soon after, a two-run single from Todd Pratt put the Mets up 3-1. That's all the support Bobby Jones would need, as he pitched eight innings and allowed only one earned run in the Mets' 8-2 win. Since his demotion to Norfolk earlier in the season, he'd gone 10-3 with an ERA of 3.69.
Though it meant little in the standings, the Mets seemed to believe it was important to take the last game from Atlanta. "We look at it as three of the last four, because we won the last game at Turner Field last week," Darryl Hamilton said. "Getting that kind of monkey off our back with the Braves gives us some added confidence if we play them again in the playoffs." It was assumed that, if the Mets hoped to make it to the World Series, they'd have to go through Atlanta.
September 29-October 1: With the business of qualifying for the playoffs out of the way, as well as the pressure of playing the Braves, the Mets could relax, rest players as need be, and get their pitching tuned up for the postseason. They finished the year at Shea with a sweep of the Expos. In the first game, they pummeled Montreal for six runs in the first (the big blow a grand slam from Jay Payton), then four in the third, and sailed calmly on to an 11-2 drubbing. Mike Hampton pitched five easy innings in his last regular season start.
The Mets trailed 2-1 going into the bottom of the eighth of game two against Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who always gave them trouble. That's when September callup Jorge Toca hit a bases-clearing double to put the Mets on top, 4-2. Armando Benitez pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his 41st save of the year. In the season finale, they played 13 excruciating innings until the bottom of the thirteenth, when Benny Agbayani walked to leadoff, followed by reliever Pat Mahomes singling him to second. Another September callup, Jorge Velandia, tried to lay down a sac bunt, but third baseman Geoff Blum threw away the ball trying to nail Agbayani at third, so he was able to trot home with the winning run.
Meanwhile, down in Atlanta, the Braves were finishing out their season against the lowly Rockies. They took a 5-3 lead into the ninth of their last regular season game, when a two-out error by Chipper Jones opened the floodgates. When the dust settled, Colorado had scored seven runs and went on to win 10-5. In St. Louis, the Cardinals beat the Reds, 6-2, meaning both the Braves and the Cardinals finished with 95 wins. But because the Cardinals won the season series between the two teams, St. Louis would get home field advantage in the division series. It would prove costly to Atlanta.
The 2000 Mets finished with three fewer wins than the 1999 squad, even if the way they cruised to the finish made this a much easier year to deal with. 2.8 million fans came out to Shea, their best attendance since 1989 and the fourth best total to date.
Next stop: San Francisco.
Final W-L record: 94-68