In the Year 2000: NLCS Game 4

For an intro to this series, see the Pregame Show. If you're nostalgic for the previous year's team, peep The 1999 Project.

October 15: After the Mets lost game 3--and hardly put up a fight in the process--the big question was how they would bounce back. Most of the team chalked up the result to "eh, whaddya gonna do?"-ness. "The game goes on and you don't get the hits you think you should," Darryl Hamilton told reporters after the game. "It shouldn't happen in the playoffs, but it happens. Starter Rick Reed, roughed up by the suddenly clicking St. Louis offense, said "It's just one of those days when it wasn't my day." In the Daily News, MIke Lupica wrote:

The Cardinals sort of indicated to the Mets and all their fans yesterday that they still think it's this season for them, that Shea Stadium isn't some kind of waiting room for next season. The Mets? They reminded their fans that the last time October was easy at Shea was 1969, when the Amazin' Mets won it all and lost just one game along the way. Since then, the only thing amazing for them in the postseason has been an easy game.

To add more drama to a series that appeared to be getting tighter, there were reports that the Mets might opt to not resign Bobby Valentine and try to get Dusty Baker to be their next manager. Valentine swore he knew nothing about this. ("I don't have any leaks. I'll leave those to other people.") In private, he reportedly exploded at GM Steve Phillips, wondering how such a story could possibly leak at such a time.

The implication was clear: despite the unlikely series win against the Giants, and despite the great start to the NLCS, Valentine was still very much on the hot seat unless his team got the World Series. And even that might not be good enough to warrant a return.

Bobby Jones took the mound for the Mets, his first start since a one-hit masterpiece in the clincher against the Giants. He'd also pitched a complete game against the Cards at Shea in July. But from the get-go, it was obvious he did not have the same kind of magic going on this evening. Fernando Vina lined his second pitch of the game just past the diving glove of Todd Zeile and down the right field line for a double. For the second day in a row, Tony La Russa asked his number two hitter to bunt him over, and this time the Mets were able to retire Edgar Renteria as Vina moved to third.

Jim Edmonds had no thoughts of sacrifices as he rocketed Jones' first pitch to the base of the scoreboard in right-center field for a home run. After hitting 235 homers in the regular season and six in the division series, this was, amazingly, the Cardinals' first home run in the NLCS. In the radio booth, Gary Cohen noted that Jones gave up 25 home runs in the regular season. ("The longball was not his friend.")

For the fourth game in a row, the visiting team had jumped out to 2-0 lead in the first. Will Clark hit a long fly out to the center field warning track, and Ray Lankford struck out to end the inning, but anyone could see what Tim McCarver observed: "He is not fooling these left handed hitters of the Cardinals."

After losing game three and falling behind so quickly in game four, the Mets couldn't afford to let things get out of hand. With the Cardinals poised to gain some momentum, it was vital that they strike back against this early deficit. So that's exactly what they did, in record-breaking fashion.

Darryl Kile was charged with doing something virtually no pitcher did anymore: throw on three days' rest. Tony La Russa had virtually no other options. Garrett Stephenson suffered a season-ending injury during the division series, Andy Benes had just pitched game three, and Rick Ankiel had a China Syndrome-level meltdown in game two. Pat Hentgen was available, but La Russa hope he could start Kile in game four so he would be ready for a possible game seven.

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Problem was, Kile did not have good numbers pitching on short rest (3-8, 6.98 ERA), as became abundantly clear from the very first batter he faced. Timo Perez rifled a 1-1 pitch to the warning track right-center, where it bounced over the wall for a ground rule double. Considering Timo's speed, the bounce was actually lucky for the Cards; otherwise, he might've wound up at third with a triple.

Their luck did not last. Edgardo Alfonzo went opposite field on the first pitch he saw and sent it down the right field line for a double of his own. Timo scored easily, and the St. Louis lead was cut in half after a mere four pitches. On a 2-0 pitch, Mike Piazza also went opposite field, lining a double just over J.D. Drew's glove in right field. Alfonzo held, thinking Drew might be able to catch it, and was only able to move up to third. On the radio, Gary Cohen understood why Alfonzo was cautious, while McCarver called it a base-running mistake, wondering why he didn't try to score.

Robin Ventura made the debate academic, crushing a 1-0 pitch off the base of the right-center field wall. Alfonzo and Piazza both scored easily. Four batters into the game, a 2-0 deficit had turned into a 3-2 lead. It was the first time in the series that the home team was in front at any point in a game.

As the Shea crowd lost its collective mind, pitching coach Dave Duncan trotted to the mound to try and help Kile through his slog. After relying mostly on fastballs, Kile turned to his breaking pitches and managed to get a groundout from Todd Zeile to finally record the first out of the inning. But he did not have good command of his curveball, and Benny Agbayani picked up where the top of the order left off by blasting yet another double, a shot to center field that missed being home run by mere feet, as Ventura trotted home. That made five doubles in one inning, a new LCS record, and stretched the Mets' lead to 4-2. Referring to Alfonzo's comments on their performance in game three, Cohen observed, "I think it's safe to say the passion is back."

Jay Payton just barely missed a home run before striking out, and Mike Bordick grounded out to bring the inning to a merciful end, but this slugfest was just getting started. As the game went into the second inning, game five of the ALCS just went final: the Mariners won 6-2 to keep their hopes alive and send the ALCS back to the Bronx. It was the longest nine-inning LCS game yet in terms of time (just over four hours), though Cohen noted, "With the way this one is going, it may challenge it."

Jones retired the side in order in the top of the second, and in the bottom half, the Mets got back to the business of tattooing Darryl Kile. Timo Perez got things started with a one-out opposite field single, then stole second easily. After Alfonzo flew out, Kile opted to walk Piazza intentionally. But he followed that with an unintentional walk of Ventura on four pitches. After getting ahead of Zeile on two called strikes, Kile made the curious decision to fool him by changing his delivery, dropping down to an almost sidearm approach.

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It didn't work. Zeile rocketed the pitch into the left field corner, driving in both Perez and Piazza. Agbayani followed with a single into shallow center. Ventura scored, but Zeile was gunned down at home plate by an eyelash. Regardless, the Mets had a seemingly safe 7-2 lead.

After a quiet third inning for both teams, Will Clark hit an opposite field shot just over the wall in left-center field to chip away slightly at the lead, the score now 7-3. "This game is not over by a long stretch," McCarver insisted, and Cohen noted Jones' lack of sharpness in this game compared to his division series outing, when all of this pitches were perfectly placed, "at the knees or lower."

Nonetheless, the Mets went right back to it in the bottom half. Timo Perez led off with a walk, on a ball four call that Kile and the rest of the Cardinals were not pleased with. Dave Duncan came out to relieve Kile, and waited on the mound long enough to have a few words with the umpires, eventually getting ejected. He wasn't the only one unhappy with the strike zone; Tony La Russa told reporters after the game that he thought Kile wasn't getting strike calls he should have on his breaking pitches. ("I don't usually say that, but I believe it.") For his part, Kile only blamed himself. ("I felt good; I just pitched bad.")

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Reliever Mike James retired Alfonzo on a flyout, and as Piazza batted, Perez was thrown out trying to steal on a pitchout. The Mets' slugger made up for it with a titanic shot into the Cardinals' bullpen. "That was a major league home run!" Murphy exclaimed, an understatement.

The Mets' lead was back to five runs, but Bobby Jones suddenly looked incapable of holding it. In the top of the fifth, he got ahead of J.D. Drew 1-2, only to go full and give up a single. Carlos Hernandez swung at the first pitch and hit a ball just under Jones' glove to put two men on, and pinch hitter Eric Davis followed with a double just fair by inches down the left field line. Drew scored, Hernandez went to third, and the Mets' lead was serious jeopardy.

Jones was three outs away from qualifying from a win, but that wasn't nearly as important as winning the game, so Valentine removed him for Glendon Rusch. The lefty had been impressive so far working in relief in the playoffs, despite spending the regular season exclusively as a starter,and never having pitched two consecutive days in his career. He'd pitched briefly in game three but pronounced himself okay to go this evening, and he definitely looked so when he struck out Vina looking.

Renteria followed with a fly ball to right field. Hernandez tagged up, and Timo Perez fired a strong throw to the plate, but Piazza could not quite hold on to the ball, allowing him to score. Edmonds swung at Rusch's first pitch and rifled a single between first and second. Davis came around to score the third run of the inning, and suddenly the score was 8-6. Will Clark ground out to first to finally end the inning, but as Murphy said, "This is anyone's ballgame now."

The Mets had to be feeling a bit nervous when they went down in order in the bottom of the fifth against reliever Mike Timlin, and Ray Lankford hit a first-pitch single to start the top of the sixth. Rusch recovered to strike out Tatis, then induce a sharp lineout from Drew. Carlos Hernandez came to the plate, and as he did, Mark McGwire stood on deck, ready to hit for the pitcher. "Out of the corner of my eye, I knew [McGwire] was there," Rusch said later, "but I knew I had to concentrate and not change my approach with Hernandez."

Hernandez hit a hard grounder to first, but Todd Zeile snared the ball and ran to the bag to record the third out. As he did, Mark McGwire stood on deck, ready to hit for the pitcher. Some thought McGwire should have batted for Hernandez instead, and even La Russa second-guessed himself later. "Probably the only time in the game, realistically, that was the place to take the shot," he said.

In the bottom half, the Mets managed some breathing room with help from some costly St. Louis miscues. It started when Timlin walked the slumping Mike Bordick to lead off the inning. With the pitcher's spot up next, that allowed Valentine to let Rusch bat for himself and lay down a sac bunt. The bunt was hit right toward the mound, which gave Timlin thoughts of cutting down the lead runner or even getting a double play. But the reliever slipped slightly on the infield grass, and his only play was to first. It was a crucial play that turned the momentum back in the Mets' favor, according to John Donovan of SI.com:

Directly in front of the pitcher's mound at Shea Stadium, there's a squarish patch of grass, maybe a little bigger than a standard welcome mat but a lot smaller than, say, Central Park.

You might as well bury the St. Louis Cardinals -- every last one of them -- under it after Sunday night's loss to the New York Mets.

Timo Perez followed with a groundball to Tatis. The third baseman took far too long to throw to first, and when he finally did, it was wide of the bag. Timlin then hit Alfonzo with a pitch to load the bases.

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Piazza came to the plate with a chance to do some serious damage, and Tony La Russa came out to he mound, gathering the entire infield together to make sure they understood the importance of this moment. Timlin got what he wanted, a weak grounder to third, but Tatis bobbled the ball. By the time he recovered, the only out still possible was at first, but Piazza beat out the throw. Bordick scored and everyone else was safe, allowing Ventura to knock in another run on a sac fly shortly thereafter.

With a 10-4 lead, the Mets spent the rest of the game holding on for dear life. While they went down in order in the seventh and eighth innings, the Cardinals threatened in each of their at bats. Each time, the Mets managed to keep them off the board, if just barely. In the top of the seventh, pinch hitter Shawon Dunston led off with a single that glanced off of Rusch's glove. After Vina flew out, Renteria followed with his own fly out to right field. For reasons known only to him, Dunston tried to tag up and go to second base, and Timo Perez gunned him down with a perfect throw to retire the side. "When I saw him getting ready to tag up, I tried to deke him a little bit," Perez said later. "I guess since I'm a rookie, maybe he doesn't know me yet and I just made the throw and it was there."

John Franco started the top of the eighth, after three terrific innings of relief from Rusch. He started out strong by striking out Edmonds on three pitches. (In a play rarely seen, the third strike weirdly popped up out of Piazza's glove, but he grabbed it just before it hit the ground to record the put out.) Will Clark swung at Franco's first pitch and ground out to second. But Franco being Franco, nothing could come easy. He got ahead of Ray Lankford but lost him on a walk, then gave up a bloop single to Fernando Tatis. One more baserunner would bring the tying run to the plate, and would almost certainly mean an appearance by Mark McGwire.

Armando Benitez began to warm up for just that situation, but Franco narrowly averted disaster thanks to Robin Ventura. Pinch hitter Craig Paquette hit a slow roller to third that Ventura ran in on, barehanded, and threw perfectly to first, just in time to get the out. "Sometimes," Cohen observed, "it's not just what plays you make, it's when you make them."

The Mets' closer came on in the top of the ninth in a non-save situation. As you might expect in a game like this, Benitez made things far too interesting. Carlos Hernandez singled up the middle, just shy of Mike Bordick's glove, then fell behind pinch hitter Placido Polanco. "The last thing you want to be doing is setting the table and walking people," Cohen reminded the listeners, "because McGwire is looming." But Benitez couldn't hear him, and he walked Polanco on four pitches, causing a collective groan from the Shea crowd. In case anyone had forgotten Benitez's postseason struggles, FOX ran a quick montage of all of his failures with the Orioles, plus the J.T. Snow home run from game two against the Giants.

"With Franco already used, who would be the safety net?" Cohen wondered as Fernando Vina stepped up to the plate. As Cohen guessed either Turk Wendell or Dennis Cook ("nobody's been as good in the postseason for the Mets as Dennis Cook"), the second baseman hit a sharp grounder into the hole at shortstop. Bordick managed to backhand it, spin around, and toss the ball to second. It was a bad throw, but somehow Alfonzo managed not only to dive to catch it, but slide across the bag as he did so, getting the first out of the inning in the most difficult way possible.

Renteria was next, and Cohen noted, "if he gets on, you won't see McGwire, you'll see Edmonds, maybe a more dangerous hitter right now." But with the first out finally under his belt, Benitez managed to dispatch the shortstop with his usual weapon, the strikeout. Edmonds came up as the Cardinals' last hope, but if he could get on, McGwire would probably be next. (Murphy: "The big redhead is standing by the bat rack." Cohen: "He's been standing there for about four innings now.")

Benitez got ahead of Edmonds 0-2, then threw two pitches well out of the strike zone. Edmonds got anxious on the next pitch--thinking fastball, he swung almost before the ball left Benitez's hand--but managed to foul it off. Benitez tried to fool Edmonds on splitter, but it was low, and the count was full. One more out of the strike zone would bring the tying run to the plate in the person of you-know-who.

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The drama finally came to an end when Edmonds lofted a long flyball to right field. Timo caught it for the final out, and the Mets had taken a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

They were very close now--so close, they didn't actually mention the words "World Series" for fear of offending the fickle Baseball Gods. "We have something close enough we can almost taste it," Todd Zeile said. Game five would take place the next day, and the Mets would have a chance to win the pennant while the Yankees and Mariners were just returning to the Bronx. At least one Met was happy about that. "I've been rooting [for the Yankees] all along," Todd Pratt admitted, "but to be honest, today I was rooting against them. I don't want them to clinch before we do. I want them to be watching us." Piazza admitted, "Obviously, we want to end it right here. I mean, that's our goal. That's our plan."

So far, Tony La Russa's decisions were not going according to plan. Murray Chass of the Times criticized him for going with Kile on short rest, even though Pat Hentgen hadn't pitched in 16 days:

Tony La Russa, the thinking man's manager, thought the St. Louis Cardinals would be best served by having Darryl Kile, their 20-game winner, pitch last night's Game 4 against the Mets, working on only three days of rest instead of the usual four. That way, La Russa explained, Kile could pitch Game 7, if there was a Game 7...For the Cardinals to play that Game 7 La Russa talked about having Kile pitch, they will first have to win what for them are two other Game 7's.

Vic Ziegel of the Daily News blasted La Russa's Hamlet Act when it came to using his secret weapon:

Before the game, St. Louis GM Walt Jocketty was talking about McGwire. "I have visions," he said, "of Mark hitting a home run for us the same way Kirk Gibson did."

He better relay his vision to La Russa. The time is getting short.

Of course, the Cardinals were not about to give up, despite the long odds against them. They'd been on the short end of a 3-1 NLCS comeback before, so they knew it could be done. "What do you want us to do, cry about it?" Eric Davis told reporters. "That's not going to happen. It's time for us to make history." If they were looking for positives, their game five starter had some big game experience. "I've pitched in World Series games before," Pat Hentgen told reporters, alluding to his years with the Blue Jays. "I think that's to my advantage."

As for the Mets' game five pitcher, Mike Hampton gave a preview of what he had planned. "I'm looking forward to pitching the game of my life," he said.

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