October 7: The Mets were anxious to return to Shea, even if it compared unfavorably to San Francisco's Pac Bell Park. "By [Pac Bell's] standards, Shea is a slum," wrote Mark Kriegel in the Daily News. "The best thing about Shea is that it's not The Vet. Then again, at the Vet, at least you can walk across the street and get a cheesesteak. What can you get outside Shea? Stolen auto parts?" But he also conceded, "You wonder how many of the Giants have actually experienced something as crazy, as loud, as profoundly profane as that incredible shaking dump on Roosevelt Avenue."
If Shea was a dump, at least it was the Mets' dump, one that would be filled with 56,000 fans screaming at the top of their lungs for their first home postseason contest since The Grand Slam Single game. Rick Reed remembered witnessing it from the bullpen."The stadium actually was shaking," Reed said. "I'm glad I was on the New York side, because that was scary." Al Leiter looked forward to Mets fans "being pretty brutal" to the Giants when they came to visit. Kriegel opined, "The Giants are accustomed to good fans. They get loud. But it's a well-mannered sort of loud. It's not the same profane menace you hear at Shea. Shea is nasty loud."
The Giants' game three starter, Russ Ortiz, insisted the crowd wouldn't make a difference to him. "Any time you get a packed stadium, a lot of the time the sounds are muffled anyway," he said. "I'm not concentrating on the crowd. I'm concentrating on what I need to do. But at the same time, it makes it fun, a lot more fun, when you have that particular type of crowd...Just to have that atmosphere makes it a lot more enjoyable."
If Ortiz seemed overconfident, you couldn't blame him. Though he'd pitched to an ERA over 5 in 2000 and walked far too many batters (112, third most in the majors, after walking in 125 the year before), he recovered from a brutal start to his season and pitched much better in the second half. He'd also handled the Mets quite easily in his three years in the majors. He owned a record of 4-0 in five starts against them, with a 2.83 ERA. Two of those wins came at the Shea Stadium he was now told he must fear.
Opposing him would be Rick Reed. He did not have the ace-like qualities of Al Leiter or Mike Hampton, but what he lacked in stuff he made up for in consistency. Reed made 30 starts in 2000, and very few of them were bad. He had excellent control (only 34 walks in 2000) and threw strikes relentlessly, which caused the pregame FOX graphics to refer to him as a "poor man's Greg Maddux".
He'd also risen to the challenge down the stretch in 1999. He pitched a complete game over the Pirates in the penultimate game of the year, which the Mets had to win to keep their playoff dreams alive. In the postseason, he turned in two excellent performances: game three of the division series against the Diamondbacks, and game four of the NLCS against the Braves.
Bobby Valentine tinkered with his lineup once more. Despite winning game two, the Mets' offense had yet to click. Timo Perez and Edgardo Alfonzo would bat first and second again. Robin Ventura took over the cleanup spot against the righty (even though he didn't have a single hit in the playoffs so far), and Todd Zeile dropped all the way to the seventh slot. Dusty Baker stayed the course and penciled in the exact same lineup he used in game one against Mike Hampton.
Joe Buck and Tim McCarver were in the booth for FOX, calling this series (and a Mets postseason game) for the first time. They got off to a typical start, with Buck saying that while both teams were strong defensively up the middle, the Giants were not as "flashy" as the Mets. He must have been thinking of the 1999 Mets, because the Giants had a better defensive infield (thanks to the absence of Rey Ordonez and the addition of Todd Zeile) and committed the fewest errors in the league. Not to mention an on screen graphic had just told Buck that Mike Bordick and Edgardo Alfonzo turned the fewest double plays in the National League.
The FOX team also harped on Mike Piazza's poor performance in the series (2 for 7 with 2 walks so far) and harped on his in ability to throw out baserunners. During a shot of a fan who held up a Piazza action figure, Buck thought, "he may have a better throwing arm than Piazza does."*
* If I seem a bit annoyed/surprised by Buck and McCarver, it's because I was lucky enough to see this game in person, so it's only recently that I've been able to watch the televised version. I will spare some of the other gaffes and odd diversions Buck and McCarver committed during this game. Suffice to say, their mountain of stupid was the same 10 years ago as it is today.
Two pitches into the game, the Mets got a most welcome omen. When Rick Reed got ahead 0-2 on leadoff hitter Marvin Benard, the crowd erupted into an ecstatic roar. At first, Benard thought the fans were cheering for a strikeout. Then he saw people pointing frantically at the scoreboard beyond the outfield fence.
Game three of the other NLDS had gone final: Cardinals 7, Braves 1. Atlanta had been swept out of the playoffs, denying them a ninth straight trip to the championship series. (Not that the town noticed--upper deck at Turner Field contained scores of empty seats during the final game.) Jim Edmonds had almost defeated them singlehandedly, batting an astounding .571 with seven RBIs. To everyone's shock (even Tony LaRussa's), the Cardinals had utterly dominated the Braves, who played sloppy, error-filled baseball throughout the series and barely competed.
Though Atlanta would not meet New York again, Chipper Jones managed to get one last shot in. "I hope [the Cardinals] beat the Mets if they play them," Jones said. "If they play the Giants, I'll be totally impartial." Darryl Hamilton responded just as bluntly ("Chipper can kiss my ass."), while Turk Wendell added, "Who cares what he says--he's sitting at home watching."
The fans began a mock Tomahawk Chop to celebrate this historic event--and to exhale, knowing the Mets would not have to go through the Braves to get to the World Series. Of course, they'd have to get past the Giants first, and that looked awful difficult as this game began.
Russ Ortiz set down the Mets in order in the first three innings, and when they finally got a baserunner on Edgardo Alfonzo's leadoff walk in the bottom of the fourth, he was promptly erased on a strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play. It was an unlikely move for the Mets, who were normally speed averse and stole the fewest bases in the league. Perhaps Bobby Valentine figured he had to change his game plan and take advantage of a man on the bases, because Ortiz was in complete and utter command. Whatever the reason, the gamble did not work.
Rick Reed was not nearly as dominant through the first three innings, but he managed to retire the Giants when he needed to. After a 1-2-3 first, Reed worked around singles by Jeff Kent and J.T. Snow by striking out Rich Aurilia and Bobby Estalella to end the second inning. In the third, Bill Mueller cracked a two-out double The Mets opted to give Barry Bonds a free pass and face Kent instead, and the gambit paid off when he grounded out to third.
But Reed's magic deserted him in the top of the fourth. Ellis Burks bounced a single up the middle to lead off the inning, and Snow lined one of his own the same way. After a foul out behind first base from Aurilia, Reed went full to Estalella, then gave up a bouncer that just eluded Robin Ventura's glove. Benny Agbayani fired a throw home, but far too late, and Burks crossed the plate with the game's first run.
It looked like Reed might escape further damage when Russ Ortiz attempted a sac bunt that bounced right to him. The pitcher hurled it to Ventura for the force at third, and almost had enough time to throw to first for a double play. Ortiz just beat it out, and that allowed Marvin Benard to line an RBI single to right field, extending the Giants' lead to 2-0 and sending Ortiz to third.
Glendon Rusch began to warm up in the Mets bullpen, but Reed induced a fly out to center field from Bill Mueller to end the inning. Reed kept San Francisco quiet in the fifth and sixth, allowing only a walk to Ellis Burks, but the way Ortiz was pitching, two runs might be more than enough.
After going down in order yet again in the bottom of the fifth, the Mets finally got to Ortiz in the sixth. Or maybe Ortiz got to himself, as the wildness he struggled with all season returned. He walked leadoff hitter Mike Bordick on four pitches, most of which weren't even close to the strike zone. That fired up the fans ("The crowd's back," Buck noted ominously), and despite Ortiz's protestations to the contrary before the game, the noise seemed to get to him.
He fell behind Darryl Hamilton (pinch hitting for Reed) 2-1, which sent pitching coach Dave Righetti to the mound. But his next pitch was well high, and the Shea crowd roared even louder, hoping to will a meltdown. Anticipating a strike, Hamilton locked in on the next pitch and rifled a grounder between first and second for a single, New York's first hit of the game. Bordick tested the arm of Burks in right field and ran to third, barely beating his throw. The Mets had runners on the corners with nobody out, and the home crowd in full throat.
Timo Perez followed with a single dunked into left field, just in front of Barry Bonds, to bring home Bordick. The Giants' lead had been shaved in half, and the Mets looked poised for a big inning, but it was not to be. Edgardo Alfonzo hit a ball up the middle that just narrowly missed being a double play (running on the pitch, Perez beat Jeff Kent to the second base bag). The tying run was at third with only one out, but after an intentional walk to Mike Piazza, a stunned Ortiz gave way lefty Alan Embree. ("Everything felt so great the whole day," Ortiz said later, "and then I just couldn't get the ball down.") Robin Ventura hit a hard shot off of him, but it bounced right to Kent, who started what Buck called "a rally-crushing double play."
The Mets turned to their own lefty, Dennis Cook, to start the top of the seventh. He walked the first batter he faced, Marvin Benard, and Bill Mueller bunted him into scoring position. That brought up Barry Bonds, but Cook induced a groundout to first as Benard moved to third. Turk Wendell came on to face Jeff Kent, and the fiery righty struck him out to strand the runner. Wendell returned in the top of the eighth and walked his own leadoff hitter, Ellis Burks, but he struck out J.T. Snow and Rich Aurilia, then got a groundout from Bobby Estalella to keep the Giants off the board.
For the Giants, Doug Henry started the bottom of the seventh. He'd handled the Mets easily in game two in relief of Kirk Rueter, and he did so here, retiring Benny Agbayani, Jay Payton, and Todd Zeile in order with little effort. But after getting ahead of Mike Bordick 0-2 to start the bottom of the eighth, Henry plunked him in the shoulder. The Mets caught another break when Lenny Harris (pinch hitting for Turk Wendell) beat out the back end of a potential double play grounder--at least in the opinion of first base umpire Brian Gorman. The Giants didn't protest the call, and to the naked eye it looked like a tie-goes-to-the-runner situation, but replays showed the throw beat Harris by an eyelash.
Despite the favorable call, Tim McCarver criticized the Mets for not bunting in that situation, especially when Timo Perez popped up weakly to the shortstop for the second out. With Edgardo Alfonzo up next, Dusty Baker called on his closer Rob Nen for a four-out save. He'd been strongly criticized for not using him game two, and was not about to make the same mistake again.
Nen had a remarkable year in 2000: 41 saves, 92 strikeouts, and an ERA of 1.50. He hadn't blown a save since July 2, and the Mets did absolutely nothing against him in the ninth inning of game one. If there was a glimmer of hope, it was this: Nen's last blown save came the last time he'd tried to get a multiple-inning save.
Like many closers, Nen did not hold runners well. Harris took off for second base on his first pitch and made it easily. The ball clanked off of Estalella's glove, but even with a clean catch, it's doubtful the catcher could have thrown Harris out with the jump he had. "I never doubted that I could beat the throw," he said later. "I just kept my head down and never let up." The tying run was in scoring position, giving Alfonzo another chance to play hero. He ripped a 1-1 Nen fastball down the left field line for a double. Harris scored easily, high-fiving his teammates furiously as he ran past the plate, and the game was tied at 2.
Later, Nen would not concede that pitching in the eighth inning had anything to do with his failure. "Whether it was the seventh, fifth, first, it doesn't matter," he said. "[Dusty Baker] calls me to come in, I pitch. I made a mistake. I left a slider up. [Alfonzo] did what he had to do with it. Nothing to do with whether it was the eighth inning or the sixth inning or the ninth inning."
That brought up Mike Piazza with a chance to put the Mets ahead, but Nen struck him out on a breaking pitch to keep the score knotted. For the rest of the game, the teams would take turns threatening, shuffling through relievers, and coming up just short of untying the score. In the marathon that would ensue, Alfonzo's game tying double would be mostly overlooked. "Fonzie's entire career," Valentine said later, "it seems like he does the big thing that gets us to the point where we have a chance to win, and then someone else does something right at the end."
John Franco started the top of the ninth. The Giants got another leadoff man on when Ramon Martinez (playing shortstop after a double switch in the eighth) singled, but still could not capitalize. Marvin Benard forced Martinez on a groundout and Bill Mueller flew out, which brought another decisive confrontation between Franco and Barry Bonds. Wary of trying to get Bonds out on off-speed pitches for a second time, Franco shook off Piazza's calls for changeups and stuck to fastballs. He got a few calls on pitches Bonds thought were high, which caused him to swing wildly at another fastball for strike three. The 40-year-old lefty pumped his fist furiously as he ran off the mound. "You have to get the feeling that Barry Bonds has seen enough of John Franco," Roger Rubin wrote in the Daily News.
Nen stayed on to pitch the ninth and got a long fly out from Robin Ventura, then struck out Benny Agbayani looking on three pitches. With two out, Jay Payton bounced a ball deep in the shortstop hole and beat out a bad throw for an infield single, then stole second on a low ball three to Todd Zeile. With first base now open, Nen gave Zeile nothing to hit, walking him. He preferred to face Mike Bordick, who flailed at three straight pitches, sending the game to extra innings.
Armando Benitez came on to pitch the top of the 10th. For the fourth inning in a row, the Giants had a leadoff baserunner when Jeff Kent singled. And for the fourth inning a row, they would strand him. Ellis Burks grounded out as Kent moved to second, which prompted the Mets to walk J.T. Snow. Pinch hitter Armando Rios hit a long flyout that allowed Kent to tag up and move to third, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet away from home, but Benitez got another flyout from another pinch hitter, Felipe Crespo, to end the inning.
The Mets went in order against Felix Rodriguez in the bottom of the 10th, as did the Giants against Benitez in the top of the 11th. In the bottom half, it looked like the Mets might get to Rodriguez as they had in game two. Mike Piazza led off with a single, just his third hit of the series. After Joe McEwing pinch ran for him, Robin Ventura got his first hit of series with an opposite field single, putting the winning run in scoring position. That brought up Benny Agbayani in a sacrifice situation, but Benny bunted back to the screen, then missed another bunt attempt altogether for strike two. He hung in, fouling off four tough Rodriguez pitches, before finally flying out to center.
Jay Payton followed with another long at-bat. He took ball one, then fouled off four pitches. He took ball two, then fouled off another three pitches. In the course of his turn at the plate, he broke three different bats. It was a gutsy effort, but one that only resulted in a swinging strikeout on Rodriguez's tenth pitch. A walk to Todd Zeile loaded the bases, but Todd Pratt flew out to end the threat.
As the game dragged on, both teams were forced to get creative. Double-switching in the bottom of the 11th meant Joe McEwing stayed in the game. He played third base as Robin Ventura switched over to first. ("People ask why I have a first-baseman's glove," he said later. "This is it.") Rick White took over for Benitez in the top of the 12th, which left just Glendon Rusch available in the bullpen. White immediately put himself in hot water by walking Barry Bonds, but followed that error with strikeouts of Jeff Kent and Ellis Burks. He walked J.T. Snow to push the go-ahead run into scoring position before a flyout from Doug Mirabelli (now catching) stranded the runners.
Rookie southpaw Aaron Fultz pitched the bottom of the 12th, and got two quick groundouts from Kurt Abbott and Timo Perez to start the inning. Edgardo Alfonzo made another bid to be the hero by singling, but then made an uncharacteristic mistake on the next play. Joe McEwing sent a ground ball to shortstop, and Ramon Martinez made the odd decision to throw to second. Alfonzo beat the throw, but for some reason didn't slide into the bag. His momentum took him off the base, he was tagged out, and a promising inning ended as quickly as it started.
As the game crept along into the 13th inning, the Shea crowd was hushed, almost nervous, knowing that any mistake (like Alfonzo's) could spell victory or defeat. Or perhaps the fans were exhausted, as the time of the game crawled closer and closer to the five hour mark on a chilly October night. Up in the Bronx, game four of the Yankees-A's series was already in the top of the sixth inning. Oakland had tagged Roger Clemens for six runs and would go on to win 11-1, forcing a game five and a cross-country trip back to California.
Rick White stayed on to pitch and struck out leadoff hitter Calvin Murray (now playing center field) on a good breaking pitch. He got ahead of Ramon Martinez, but on a 2-2 pitch, the shortstop took a pitch at the knees that Jerry Crawford called a ball, then flared a broken bat single into shallow center field. White recovered to strike out Marvin Benard on a nasty curveball, making him the 17th Giant to strike out in the game. But White got another unfavorable call on a check swing by Bill Mueller, which Crawford refused to get help on, then gave up another broken-bat single.
Mueller's hit not only put the go-ahead run in scoring position for the second inning in a row, but brought Barry Bonds to the plate. Lefty Glendon Rusch appeared to be more than ready in the bullpen, but Valentine stuck with the right handed White, even though shots of the dugout showed the manager drumming his fingers on his chin, agonizing over the decision. Bonds made him look like a genius by popping up White's first pitch behind second base. The ball drifted a bit in the winds, but Alfonzo stuck with it for out number three. Bonds yanked off his helmet and fiddled with it nervously, knowing he'd bypassed an opportunity to put the Giants ahead. He would not get another one.
Robin Ventura led off the bottom of the 13th and got ahead 2-0, with Fultz missing badly on both pitches. Ventura may have been thinking of the last Mets playoff game at Shea, when he faced another wild rookie on a cold October night. On the next pitch, he hit a groundball ticketed for the outfield, but Jeff Kent made a great play ranging to his left, then got up in time to throw Ventura out. Someone else would have to be the hero.
Benny Agbayani strode to the plate. In the 11th, he came up with two men on and nobody out, but couldn't get a bunt down and managed only a weak flyout. He'd do a bit better here. Fultz's first pitch was just a bit low and outside for ball one. His next one caught far too much of the plate. Agbayani belted it to deep left-center.
There was little doubt off the bat that this was a home run, but it was still hard to believe that Benny Agbayani would end it, or that this marathon game--one that had devolved into an offensive fail-off between the Mets and Giants--would actually end at all. A full 322 minutes after first pitch, it had finally ended, in the best way it could end, thanks to the unlikeliest of heroes.
"He will be canonized now," The New York Times wrote, "the hero of one of the greatest postseason games in recent years"
The Mets mobbed Benny at home plate and hoisted him on their shoulders. When the season began in Tokyo, he was almost demoted to Norfolk and demanded a trade. Now he was a hero, the man whose blast brought the Mets one win from the NLCS for the second year in a row.
"Bobby Valentine told me things have a way of working out," Agbayani said, remembering his struggles and near-departure in March. "I didn't understand that. Now I do."