October 8: Before game three, Bobby Valentine finally announced his game four starter: Bobby Jones. He'd been with the Mets since 1993, longer than anyone not named John Franco, and made his major league debut with a 103-loss squad known as The Worst Team Money Could By. From the very beginning, his career was shaped by luck, most of it bad.
After his rookie year, the soft-tossing righty managed a winning record each season, despite pitching for teams that ranged from mediocre to awful. He did not receive much attention, due both to his unflashy personality and the Mets' irrelevance. For years, he was considered the staff ace, but that was more a comment on the team than his skills. He was the team's lone representative in the 1997 All Star Game, a year when he had 12 wins by the midsummer break but could only notch three more for the rest of the season. He started the Mets' home opener in 1999 and even hit a home run off of Livan Hernandez, only to get hurt and miss almost the entire year. He was reduced to cheerleader status as the team played in its first postseason in 11 years.
At the beginning of the 2000 season, Bobby Jones looked shot, and even that might have been putting it kindly. He owned an ERA over 10 and was incapable of going much more than four innings before getting shelled. Management asked him to accept an assignment to triple-A--partly to accommodate other moves they wanted to make, and partly to give him one last chance get his head and his arm straightened out.
Jones had enough major league service time that he could have refused and become a free agent. Instead, he played good solider, swallowed his pride, and went back to the minors. As if to underscore his anonymity, in his absence Steve Phillips promoted the reliever with the exact same name that he'd acquired from the Rockies during spring training By the time Jones came back from Norfolk, he'd need a middle initial on the back of his jersey to differentiate himself.
But when Jones returned, he seemed a different pitcher. Or rather, he seemed like the pitcher he used to be. Workmanlike, unintimidating but effective. He regained his command and his curveball, and won 10 of his last 13 decisions with an ERA shy of 4.
Even so, many questioned the decision to go with Jones in game four. Why not Glendon Rusch, since the Giants struggled against lefties, and who'd pitched much better over the course of the year? Why entrust the clinching game of a series to a guy whose fastball couldn't hit 90 on a good day with a strong wind behind him? Bobby Jones simply did not seem like the kind of pitcher who should be getting a postseason start. Failure meant a long trip back to San Francisco for a game five. Why take that chance?
Valentine insisted he chose Jones because he thought two lefty starters was "enough," and that Jones was "a pro. Look it up in the dictionary and you'll see his picture beside the word 'pro.'" But even he appeared to question his own choice. He held off using Rusch against Barry Bonds in the top of the 13th of game three, even though the lefty was ready and the go-ahead run was on second base. Though he never said so, perhaps Valentine worried he'd need Rusch to pitch long relief in game four, or perhaps he was leaving himself the option of pulling a switcheroo and starting Rusch.
If Jones faltered, the series would be tied and the Mets would have to return to San Francisco for game five. Mike Hampton would start on three days' rest. He was given the option to travel ahead, but decided to remain with the team. The lefty said he had a good feeling about game four after bumping into Jones. "He asked me, 'When are you leaving?' " Hampton said. "I said, 'Whenever our plane leaves to go to St. Louis.'"
Before game three, Jones' wife Kristi ran into Bobby Valentine and asked him if he was going to opt for Bobby in game four. He said he would.
"Well, he's going to pitch the game of his life," she said.
If nothing else, Jones had the weather on his side. When Jones took the mound at 4pm (to the tune of Hank Williams Jr.'s "A Country Boy Can Survive"), the outfielders behind him held their gloves up to their eyes to ward off the low October sun. The hitters would have to deal with the same light issues, and the 50 degree temperatures at game time. In the WFAN radio booth, Bob Murphy predicted it would dip into the forties by the time the game was over "about three hours from now."
"Three hours, what are you kidding me?" Gary Cohen joked. "A Mets postseason game at home?" Between last night's game and the Grand Slam Single game in 1999, the last two playoff games at Shea clocked in at 11 hours, 2 minutes.
Jones was also helped by his opponent's state of mind. In the wake of game three's marathon loss, the Giants said all the right things. "Guys aren't hanging their heads," J.T. Snow said. "We know what we have to do now." When asked how they would rebound, Jeff Kent said, "I don't know how you do it. You just have to do it...We're going to grind it tooth-and-nail." Barry Bonds insisted, "If they scored a bunch of runs against you, or you made mistakes, you'd have something to be upset about. We have nothing to be upset about."
You wouldn't expect athletes to say anything else, but there was no denying the loss had taken something out the Giants. Manager Dusty Baker was so shocked, he couldn't even remember how long game three had lasted. ("I don't know what inning it was. It was long," he said.) With an afternoon start following a game that dragged well into the night--one in which they bypassed numerous chances to retake the lead--the Giants appeared to be physically and emotionally exhausted.
The first pitch was thrown out by Tug McGraw, the closer whose rallying cry of "Ya Gotta Believe!" inspired the Mets during their improbable trip to the World Series in 1973. Before taking the mound, he took off his jacket to reveal a t-shirt with his signature phrase on it and stormed the hill, pumping up an appreciative crowd.
The Giants fielded the same lineup they had in game three, with the exception of catcher Doug Mirabelli, taking over for the slumping Bobby Estalella. Jones started the game with an easy fly ball to center from Marvin Benard. He went full to Bill Mueller, then got a routine groundout to second. That brought up Barry Bonds, and as the crowd chanted to BAR-RY! (to the tune of DAR-RYL!), Jones struck him out swinging on a high fastball. "The Giants have to make Bobby Jones get them out, they can't give him help," advised Joe Morgan, doing color for ESPN's broadcast, but the Giants weren't listening.
If Valentine was criticized for his choice of starter, Dusty Baker was even more so. Facing elimination, rather than go with Livan Hernandez (still undefeated in the postseason) on short rest, he turned to the back end of his rotation and picked Mark Gardner. Like Jones, Gardner was righty who did not throw hard but could break off a mean curveball every now and then.
He shared a lot else with Jones. Both men grew up in Fresno, went to high school in Fresno, and pitched for Fresno State. They also hosted a charity golf tournament in the offseason together, for a foundation they had founded together. Both grew up Giants fans; according to Gary Cohen, Jones was one of the few people in baseball sad when the Giants moved out of Candlestick Park. They'd never faced each other in the majors before, until now. With two number four starters taking the mound, the consensus was this game would be a slugfest--during the pregame, Jon Miller said he didn't think either pitcher was likely to last longer than six innings.
Gardner made short work of the first two Met batters, striking out Timo Perez looking on three pitches (the third a wicked curveball), then getting Edgardo Alfonzo to fly out to right field on the first pitch he saw. After getting ahead 0-2 on Mike Piazza, Gardner threw a pitch he was convinced was strike three, but home plate umpire Brian Gorman disagreed. (Gardner almost walked off the mound, but stopped himself in time.) Wary of throwing another strike to Piazza (who was 6 for 16 with three home runs in his career against him), Gardner threw three straight balls for a free pass.
It seemed like a good idea. Though Piazza had been cold in the series, the next batter, Robin Ventura, had been absolutely frozen. It had taken him until the 11th inning of game three to finally get his first hit of the series. Ventura was suffering through his worst season at the plate to date: a perpetual .300 hitter, he batted just .232 in 2000. Gardner and Mirabelli had a brief mound conference, but it seemed obvious they would pitch to Ventura here.
It was a bit too obvious, because Ventura turned on Gardner's first pitch and rocketed it out to deep right field, where it bounced off the bottom of the scoreboard. It was his first "official" postseason home run as a Met--the first one where he was allowed to round the bases--and it put the Mets up 2-0. "The Mets have needed either Robin Ventura or Todd Zeile to break out of postseason slumps, following long slumps in the regular season," Cohen said. "That home run by Robin Ventura goes a long way to giving the Mets' offense a boost
The crowd was so ecstatic over getting an early lead, it muted the response for Benny Agbayani's first at bat following last night's heroics. He fouled out behind third base to end the inning, but received a hearty ovation nonetheless. For the next few innings, the game breezed by, as both teams seemed incapable of mustering the energy to get on base. "You wonder," Cohen said, "if the tension and emotion of last night's game took a lot out of both these teams."
Given a lead, Jones worked another 1-2-3 inning in the top of the second, though it wasn't an overpowering one. Jeff Kent hit a hard grounder to Alfonzo for the first out, then Ellis Burks hit one of his own to shortstop, and J.T. Snow lined a bullet to Todd Zeile to end the inning. Jones "didn't exactly fool anyone," in Cohen's estimation, while praising the Mets' advance scouts for helping the infield position itself so well for each Giants batter. At this early stage of the game, it still seemed like just a matter of time before the Giants got to him.
The Mets went very quickly in the bottom half on three groundouts, and the Giants did the same in the top of the third. As the lights flickered on at Shea, Brooklyn native Rich Aurilia (who had lots of friends and family in the stands) popped out behind first base and Doug Mirabelli struck out looking. Mark Gardner swung at curve ball in the dirt for strike three, and Piazza tagged him to complete the put out. Gardner questioned the call--he believed he'd gotten a piece of it--but Gorman gave him no satisfaction.
He returned to the mound and set the Mets down in order again, including strikeouts of Jones and Alfonzo, but Jones returned the favor in the top of the fourth. Marvin Benard tried to bunt his way to first on Jones' first pitch, and Piazza was able to field it and throw him out. Bill Mueller worked a full count, then grounded out to Zeile. Bonds came up again, and he struck out looking on a fastball that dented the inside corner, going down on strikes for the second straight at bat. Twelve men up and twelve men down for San Francisco. This is when it seemed to dawn on both the crowd and the broadcasters that maybe something special was happening on the mound.
The Mets bypassed a one-out scoring opportunity in the bottom of the fourth, when Ventura worked a walk and Agbayani followed with a single. Gardner recovered to Jay Payton struck out, then Zeile hit a grounder up the middle that Jeff Kent made a great play on, diving to grab it and throwing from his knees, to both save a run and end the inning.
The old cliche about the man who makes a great play to end an inning leads off the next one played out next. Kent faced Jones to start the top of the fifth and missed a home run down the left field line by a matter of inches. (It was "fair for about 80 percent of the trip," by Murphy's measurement.) He then hit a line drive just barely over Ventura's glove. ("I wish I had some leaping ability," the third baseman lamented later.) It was the Giants' first hit, and only the second ball to leave the infield. Kent scrambled into second with a double, the Giants' first scoring threat of the day. Ellis Burks (4 career home runs against Jones in just 17 at bats) followed with a long fly ball to right field. It did not miss home run distance by much, but Timo Perez backed up and caught it on the warning track. Kent tagged and moved to third.
The infield played back for J.T. Snow, conceding a run on a grounder, but he walked to put the tying run on base. With Rich Aurilia up next, Jones may have been thinking inning-ending double play; Aurilia hit into 15 twin killings that season. Instead, Aurilia flew out to shallow left field. The ball was not deep enough for Kent to tag up on. Agbayani fired a quick throw into Ventura to freeze both runners.
"It would be a real crusher for the Giants to not get a run here," Cohen surmised. "If Jones can get out of this, boy, the Giants would really be deflated."
With two men down, Jones pitched carefully to Doug Mirabelli and walked him. That loaded the bases but also brought up Mark Gardner. "I don't think Dusty Baker would even think about hitting for Mark Gardner right now," Cohen supposed, and he was correct. Gardner hit for himself and hit a high, easy pop up to very shallow right field. Alfonzo ranged under it and caught it to end the threat. Dusty Baker later said he couldn't have pinch hit for Gardner because he had to compensate for an overworked bullpen "We were short of pitching, and it was the fifth and it was too early," he said. "I figured we were going to get some more runs."
It was an understandable assumption. Who would count on Bobby Jones to allow only one hit to this lineup?
In the bottom of the fifth, after a Mike Bordick groundout, Jones came to bat to face his old teammate for a second time. He struck out swinging, but the third strike took a weird hop away from the catcher, and Mirabelli could not find it for far too long. (Cohen thought it might have glanced off of the umpire's foot.) That allowed the slow-footed Jones to reach first safely. "The only problem with having Bobby Jones on first," Cohen pointed out, "is it might take three hits to score him."
The next batter, Timo Perez, did his best to cut down on that estimate. He got ahead in the count 3-0, took two pitches for strikes, then belted a double down the right field line. With the Mets' big hitters due up, Jones was held at third by coach Cookie Rojas. Doug Henry warmed up in the Mets' bullpen (Murph: "Doug Henry got into the game yesterday." Cohen: "Is there anyone who didn't?"), but Baker remained wary of going a reliever so early in the game. Gardner remained on the mound.
He got ahead of Alfonzo 1-2, and even managed to dial his fastball up to 90, about as hard as he could possibly throw. But Fonzie fought back to work the count full, fouled off two tough pitches, and then launched a ball over Marvin Benard's head in center field and off the wall. Jones and Perez scored, and the Mets were up 4-0 as the Shea stands rocked once again. After stranding four men in the series opener, Alfonzo had enormous, game-changing hits in every game since. "I don't know what it is," Alfonzo said later, trying to explain his abilities in the clutch, "but whatever it is, it's pretty good,"
Dusty Baker finally brought in Doug Henry to relieve Gardner. He got a long fly ball from Mike Piazza, and after an intentional walk of Robin Ventura, a Benny Agbayani line out to center. For the Giants was far too little, far too late. "The air really came out of the balloon when they didn't score," Cohen said, remembering San Francisco's chance in the top of the fifth. "We'll see if they have any more fight in them."
That question was answered in the top of the sixth when Marvin Bernard struck out looking on three pitches, Bill Mueller lined out to Jay Payton in right-center, and Barry Bonds avoided yet another strike out by flying out to left field. "Turk Wendell stays busy in the bullpen," Cohen said, "but Jones looking like he doesn't need a whole lot of help right now."
The Mets got the leadoff man on base in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, but could not score in any instance. It barely mattered, because the offense was no longer the show--Bobby Jones was. The game had become a countdown to a clincher, and to see how long Jones could continue his mastery of the Giants. By the bottom of the sixth, Cohen felt confident enough to announce the details for NLCS ticket sales (phone only; no internet sales just yet). When Jones batted with two out, he received a huge reception. "Bobby Jones probably deserves this game and this success more than anybody on this team," Cohen said. "His comeback is really something special."
Dennis Cook warmed up in the Mets bullpen during the seventh inning, but it was a mere formality. As the sun began to set, the Giants seemed to accept their fates and simply submit to them. The crowd began to recognize they were witnessing something rare and wonderful, rising to their feet with each two-strike count. Jeff Kent swung at the first pitch and grounded out to third, Ellis Burks flew out to shallow center, J.T. Snow grounded out to second base, and the inning was over in the blink of any eye, without so much as a whimper from the Giants. Six outs remained. "Jones has been doing this all day long," Miller marveled. "He's making it look ridiculously easy."
"The fact that Jeff Kent would go up there with his team down four runs in the seventh inning and swing at the first pitch tells you a lot about the life that has been taken out of this Giants team," Cohen said. "It may be last night's loss took more out of the Giants than we'll ever know."
In the top of the eighth, more of the same. Rich Aurilia and pinch hitter Felipe Crespo both hit sinking bloopers to right field that Timo Perez ran down. With two outs, the fans began to chant BOB-BY! BOB-BY! "I don't think we've ever heard this before!" Cohen marveled, as pinch hitter Russ Davis popped out to Todd Zeile to end the inning. Only three outs left, and the cheers for Jones continued when he received a standing ovation as he took a turn at bat in the bottom of the eighth. He'd thrown 109 pitches, but there was no thought of removing him in the ninth. This game was his.
Jones struck out to end the eighth, and no one cared. "Brace yourself for the ninth inning!" Murphy exclaimed (a bit different from his usual late inning rallying cry, "Fasten your seatbelts!"). Jones went ahead 0-2 on Marvin Benard, threw two balls (heartily booed by the crowd), then induced grounder to Zeile. He tossed to Jones covering at first base. One man down.
Bill Mueller flailed at Jones' first pitch and ground out to Alfonzo. Two men down. The Shea stands held 56,245 fans and every single one of them rose their feet.
Bobby Jones had not pitched a complete game shutout in three years. In Mets playoff history, no one had ever pitched a one-hitter. With all the great arms the team sent to the mound over the years--Seaver and Gooden and Koosman and Ryan and Cone and Darling and Leiter--Jones was about to do something none of them had even come close to doing. Jon Matlack pitched a complete game shutout in the 1973 NLCS against the Reds, but he had given up two hits, in a game two. Jones was about to do him one better, in a series-clinching game.
No one had pitched a complete game one-hit shutout in the playoffs since since Jim Lonborg blanked the Cardinals in the 1967 World Series. On October 8, 44 years earlier, Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in game six of the World Series. Jones was not perfect this day, but he was damn close.
It came down to Jones vs. Bonds. The slugger swung at Jones' first offering and sent a ball deep to center field that Jay Payton ran down for the final out of the series. The Mets stormed the field and made a beeline for the pitching mound, everyone fighting for a piece of Bobby Jones. "A masterpiece!" said Miller, and no one would argue it. The man virtually no one wanted to pitch this game had put on a clinic, and powered the Mets to the league championship series.
The Giants trudged off the field, absolutely stunned. Barry Bonds almost ran into a camerman who was running on the field to capture the celebration. In the clubhouse, he refused to shoulder all the blame for their loss. "A lot of us didn't hit," he said. "But if you want to blame me, go ahead." Bonds was actually gracious enough to visit the locker room and congratulate the Mets in person, but Jeff Kent refused to give Jones any credit. "He wasn't keeping us off balance, and he wasn't tricking us," he said. "I just think we were being too aggressive because our backs were against the wall." Kent went so far as to insist the Giants were still the better team. "We'll be asking ourselves, Why couldn't we get to the Mets?"
"He might be right," Darryl Hamilton said, "but we're still going to St. Louis."
Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, the Yankees survived a disastrous game 4 loss, a grueling cross-country flight, and short rest for Andy Pettite to outlast the A's 7-5 and advance to the ALCS against the Mariners. After a listless September and a roller coaster of a division series, they were finally starting to resemble the team that had won the last two World Series. Dreams of a Subway Series remained alive.