In game five, Al Leiter would return to the mound for his second start of the series. This should have been a plus. He was, after all, arguably their best pitcher, death to left handed batters, and someone who'd put the team on his back and won some enormous games for the Mets in 1999 and 2000. But he also had a history of not winning in the postseason, usually through no fault of his own. Just in the last two years, he'd pitched five games in which the Mets failed to score for him, or he left with a lead, only to watch the bullpen blow it.
- 1999 NLDS, game four: Leiter pitched 7 2/3 innings against the Diamondbacks to preserve a 2-1 lead, until a walk and a rare Edgardo Alfonzo miscue in the top of the eighth put two men on. He was relieved by Armando Benitez, who gave up a booming double to Jay Bell that gave Arizona a 3-2 lead. Mets tied it in the eighth and eventually won on Todd Pratt's walkoff home run in the bottom of the 10th.
- 1999 NLCS, game three: Two errors in the top of the first conspired to give the Braves an unearned run. Leiter clamped down for the next six innings, but the Mets could do absolutely nothing against Tom Glavine, eventually losing 1-0
- 2000 NLDS, game two: Leiter kept a powerful Giants lineup in check for 8+ innings. An Alfonzo two-run homer gave him a 4-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth. A leadoff double by Barry Bonds in the bottom of the ninth caused Bobby Valentine to turn to Benitez, who poured gasoline on the fire by giving up a a three-run game-tying home run to J.T. Snow. Mets eventually won it in 10.
- 2000 NLCS, game two: Leiter labored but managed seven quality innings against another high-powered lineup, the Cardinals. The Mets went ahead in top of eighth 5-3, putting him in line for the win, but John Franco and Turk Wendell combined to allow the Cardinals to tie. Mets managed to pull out a victory in the ninth.
Add to this his dominant but ultimately fruitless performance in game one, and it equaled a heart-breaking string of bad luck. His postseason misfortune predated the Mets; he was winless in all 10 of his playoff starts, dating back to his days with the Blue Jays and Marlins. His only win in October came with Toronto in 1993, and that was in relief. To emphasize his ill fortune even further, his opponent--Andy Pettitte--had the exact opposite kind of history. Pettitte's luck was even better away from Yankee Stadium; he had yet to give up a run on the road in the World Series.
But as far as Leiter was concerned, his stats meant nothing. "I know in my heart that I've thrown well enough to have a win next to my name," he said, "but I would far rather have a winning team and a championship than a great postseason record and no championship. It's such a selfless time of the year."
Valentine agreed, and figured a pitcher as good as Leiter would be due for a break in his luck. "The odds will be with us for him to get a win," he said. "I think Al has been here. He understands the situation and the preparation. I just got through talking to him on the field. I think he's mentally and physically ready. That's all you hope for."
With his back against the wall, Valentine made a few adjustments to his lineup. Timo Perez had powered the Mets through the division series and the NLCS, but turned back into a pumpkin once the World Series began, collecting just two hits in the first four games. Bubba Trammell took his place in right field, batting sixth, while Benny Agbayani was inserted into the leadoff spot, where he'd batted often during the regular season (though that was more indicative of the Mets inability to find a leadoff hitter than his suitability for the job). Kurt Abbott took over at shortstop for the struggling Mike Bordick, batting eighth.
Joe Torre, after experimenting with Jeter in the leadoff spot in game four, reverted to the same basic lineup employed in the first three games. Jose Vizcaino was back at second base, batting first. When Mets bench coach Jon Stearns brought the lineup card to the umpires, he greeted them with, "I hope we see everyone real soon...I'm talking Sunday! [Game seven was scheduled for the following Sunday.] We gotta get as much revenue out of this as possible, right Major League Baseball?" Yankees hitting instructor Chris Chambliss had no comment.Pyrotechnics went off when the Mets ran onto the field (some of the few fireworks the home team managed in the series), and a haze settled over the field as Al Leiter warmed up. (The huge Springsteen fan tossed to the tune of "Tenth Avenue Freezeout.") Joe Buck mentioned Leiter's tendency to get emotional, saying that his "emotions can get the best of him," and named his five-run, zero inning performance in game six of the 1999 NLCS as an example. What Buck neglected to mention--or forgot--is Leiter pitched that game on short rest with a heavily taped knee.
He had no such handicaps in this game, and proceeded to pitch it like a man possessed. He'd grown up in New Jersey, cheering for the Mets, idolizing Tom Seaver, and now he was given the ball in the Mets' biggest game in nearly 20 years. The emotions Buck alluded to would not hinder him. If anything, they helped. "Leiter is an expressionist pitcher," Rafael Hermoso wrote in The New York Times, "who lives off the energy he burns." Every single pitch he threw this evening seemed to have a little extra something on it, almost through sheer force of will.
Aside from having full rest, Leiter was also bolstered by a Shea crowd much louder and enthusiastic than the ones seen thus far. He induced a ground out to second from Vizcaino to start the game, and to the delight of the Mets fans, struck out Derek Jeter (recipient of a healthy amount of boos for the first time) on a slider in the dirt. He fell behind David Justice 3-1, but got a called strike two on the outside corner, then a ground out to Todd Zeile. It was the first time in 12 innings the Yankees were retired in order.
Like every other Yankees pitcher in the series, Pettitte had no trouble keeping the Mets off the board in the bottom of the first, with some help from Scott Brosius. Agbayani led off with a sharp grounder down the third base line that Brosius snared and fired to first, low but just in time. Alfonzo worked the count full, then hit a Baltimore chop to the third base side, but once again Brosius was able to field it and throw out the runner. Mike Piazza singled up the middle for the first Met hit of the night, extending his playoff hitting streak to 10 games. Todd Zeile got ahead in the count 3-1, before fouling off a pitch, then bounced into fielder's choice at second to end the inning.
Bernie Williams started things off for the Yankees in the top of the second. His team's commanding lead in the series kept the heat off of him as he suffered through a horrendous slump, hitless in 15 at bats so far. It had been a while since Williams had done anything in a World Series game; he was 0 for his last 22, going back to 1999, and hadn't knocked in a run since the 1998 series.
But in this at bat against Leiter, he appeared to have finally figured things out. He got ahead in the count 3-1, then fouled off a few tough offerings. McCarver thought he was making more "authoritative swings" than he had the entire series. As if on cue, he took advantage of a flat cutter and launched into the mezzanine seats in left field. It was possibly the most impressive home run in a series that hadn't seen many longballs (the only other contender being Piazza's blast 3/4ths up the foul pole in game two), and it caused another hush to fall over Shea, the same kind that plagued it throughout games three and four. More importantly, it put the Yankees up 1-0.
Leiter retired Tino Martinez on a fly out, struck out Paul O'Neill on a fastball (after backing him up from the plate on a fastball inside), and got Posada to ground out to get through the inning without further damage. But the Mets found themselves in the familiar, uncomfortable position of playing from behind. McCarver pointed out that, of the 41 innings played so far, the Mets had led in a grand total of five.
However, they pulled out a budget-sized rally in the bottom of the second. After Robin Ventura was called out on strikes, Trammell worked worked a full count and earned a walk. Jay Payton worked a full count, fouled off a few pitches, and lofted a single to shallow right field. Both Buck and McCarver criticized the Mets for not running Trammell ahead of the hit; they seemed fearful of Pettitte's pickoff move. The lack of aggressiveness looked costly when Abbott hit a slow grounder to Jeter, who threw to Martinez for the second out.
The runners moved up on the play, but it brought up Leiter, a notoriously awful hitter (in the radio booth, Gary Cohen described him as "almost a complete give-up, lefty to lefty). Curiously, he made it almost all the way to the batter's box before returning to the dugout to get a different bat, the kind of thing a feared slugger might do. (Unlike a more experienced hitter, he nearly batted with his jacket on.) Down in the game and the series, with nothing to lose, Leiter took a gamble. On a 1-0 count, he laid down a bunt that scooted past the right of the pitcher's mound. Martinez ran over to field the ball as Pettite came out of his delivery and scrambled to beat the slow-footed Leiter to the bag. Vizcaino also ran to first, perhaps thinking Pettitte might not get there in time.
Martinez double-clutched, then shoveled his throw, and still might have had time to get the third out. But with Pettitte, Vizcaino, and Leiter running to the same spot, all these moving parts conspired to give the Mets some dumb luck. Pettitte bobbled the throw, Trammell scored, Payton went to third, and the score was tied at 1.
Life returned to the crowd, which got even louder on the next at bat. Agbayani swung at Pettitte's first pitch and sent a bouncer down to third. Brosius had made great plays all series, and twice in this game already, but when he tried to barehand the ball, it zipped right under his outstretched hand. Payton trotted home, and despite not having a single hard-hit ball in the inning, the Mets had a 2-1 lead.
Alfonzo stayed cold, popping out to Vizcaino to end the inning, but Leiter returned to the mound with renewed purpose. Pitching with a lead for the first time in this series, he dismissed the Yankees in order in the top of the third, with a pop out by Brosius, a swinging strikeout of Pettitte, and, after falling behind 3-1 Vizcaino, climbed out of the hole and poured in a called third strike. Then, he worked around a two-out single by Williams in the top of the fourth and a one-out single from Posada in the top of the fifth to keep the score where it was. He was determined to keep the Yankees at bay, through sheer force of will if he had to.
Meanwhile, the Mets squandered a few opportunities to expand their lead. After a 1-2-3 bottom of the third, Trammell singled to lead off the bottom of the fourth. A Payton grounder forced him out at second, then Abbott walked to move a runner into scoring position. (During his turn at the plate, Abbott broke a bat, sending a huge chunk of lumber toward Jeter's feet, and derisive chants of ROG-ER! from the crowd.) Throughout Abbott's at bat, McCarver once again criticized the Mets for being too timid and not trying to play hit and run. Naturally, before Pettitte threw a pitch to the next batter (Leiter), he caught Abbott napping and fired a throw to first, picking him off. Leiter reverted to form and hit an easy groundout to Jeter to end the inning.
In the bottom of the fifth, Piazza belted the first pitch he saw for a two-out double off the wall in left-centerfield. With first base open, the Yankees opted to walk Zeile and face Ventura. The third baseman was the only lefty batter to homer against Pettitte all year, and intentional walks had already burned the Mets a few times in the series, but they worked for the visitors this time. Ventura went the opposite way with a 1-2 pitch and made Justice run back to the way back to the warning track, but it settled in his glove for the third out.
Leiter started the top of the sixth strong by getting Vizcaino to hit a comebacker for out number one. But he fell behind Jeter 2-0, then left a cutter right out over the plate--almost identical to the mistake he made to Williams--that the shortstop clubbed into the Yankees bullpen for a home run. That made 14 straight World Series games with a hit for Jeter, and the second roundtripper in two games from a hitter not renowned for his power. From the stands, not silence this time, but the disturbing sounds of "let's go Yankees" chants, with few "let's go Mets" chants to shout them down.
The Mets' lefty threw a slider in the dirt that Justice flailed at for strike three, and after a four-pitch walk to Williams, induced a groundout to short from Martinez. But Leiter cursed into his glove as he stalked off the field. He'd let a lead get away from him, and if his history was any indication, it would be near impossible to get one back.
Pettitte began the bottom of the sixth with a groundout to shortstop from Trammell, with some help from Martinez. The first baseman stretched to snare a bad throw from Jeter and lay a tag on Trammell as he tried to slide into the bag. Payton followed with a sharp grounder to third that took an odd hop and eluded Brosius, allowing him to reach. Abbott fell behind 0-2, then fought off a few tough pitches before singling up the middle. Leiter came up next and managed to bunt both men into scoring position (after Payton was nearly picked off second), and the Shea stands conjured up a hopeful "let's go Mets" chant as Agbayani came to the plate. But the left fielder could not convert, grounding out to Jeter to end the inning.
As it turned out, this would be the last real chance the Mets had to launch themselves back into the game, and the series.
Leiter, meanwhile, did everything in his power to match Pettitte zero for zero. He walked O'Neill to start the top of the seventh, grumbling to himself as the Yankee trotted to first, but rebounded to get Posada to fly to left and Brosius to right. Pettitte came up next, and despite having a high pitch count, Torre stuck with him. (According to McCarver, Torre wanted to get "at least seven innings out of Pettitte.") After a few failed attempts to do what Leiter had done earlier (bunt his way on), the pitcher ground out to first to strand O'Neill.
In the bottom half, Alfonzo finally got another hit, a single just to the left of Jeter. True to McCarver's assertion, Torre stuck with Pettitte, even though Piazza now came to the plate with a man on base for one of the few times in this series. The slugging catcher went 2-2, then reached for a pitch on the outside corner that he lofted to Williams in center for the first out. Zeile worked a full count, but swung and missed at a curveball for strike three, Ventura got ahead in the count 3-1, rifled a foul into the first base stands, then went down on the same pitch that felled Zeile.
Pettitte finished strong, 129 pitches under his belt, and Leiter remained so. He too was over 100 pitches as the top of the eighth began, but as the FOX cameras showed, the Mets' bullpen was completely empty. Not only was no one warming up in it, there was no one in it period. This was Leiter's game all the way.
He fell behind Chuck Knoblauch (batting for Vizcaino) 3-1, zipped in a fastball right by him, and retired him on a towering pop up behind the plate. Jeter got ahead 2-0, then was fooled badly on two fastballs, and took a pitch that was borderline at best for ball three. Leiter looked incredulous on the mound, but went right back to work and got Jeter to swing wildly at a cutter up and in.
Justice reached base when his hard-hit ball up the middle could not be snared by Abbott. Once again, Leiter almost let his emotions get the better of him, slamming his fist into his glove for giving up a hit (mad at himself more than anyone else). Pitching coach Dave Wallace trotted to the mound for a brief conference, counseling him on how to approach the suddenly red hot Williams. Leiter, talking to himself and stalking the mound with each pitch, struck out the center fielder to the game tied.
Mike Stanton relieved Pettitte in the bottom of the eighth, owning some impressive World Series stats (all time best series ERA, 1.08) that he proceeded to extend here. Trammell laced a grounder to third that Brosius handled with ease, Payton chased a splitter for strike three, and Abbott hit a lazy fly ball to right field.
As the ninth inning began, there was still no action in the Mets' bullpen, and no reason to think there should be. Leiter just let it fly, grunting like the Williams sisters on each pitch and fanned Martinez on three pitches. Then he got ahead of O'Neill 0-2 and, after a few fouls, struck him out on a slider. McCarver thought Leiter "seems to be improving as the game goes deeper." The last four Yankee outs had come on strikeouts, and Leiter now had nine in the game. The Shea crowd was as loud and pumped up as it had been since the end of game three. Leiter appeared in complete command. One more out, and the Mets would have a chance to win it in the bottom of the ninth.
Posada came up next, and Leiter battled the catcher to a 2-2 count, grunting with each pitch, very obviously throwing as hard as he could. Posada's strikeout total was fourth highest in the American League, and another K looked likely. But after two foul balls, Posada looked at a very close pitch on the low inside corner, and home plate umpire Tim McClelland called it a ball, prompting a groan from the crowd. After another foul down the third base line, another pitch slightly more inside than ball three, and Posada had a free pass.
Cohen wondered how Leiter would be able to navigate the rest of the inning. "It may be awfully tough for Leiter to crank it up again here," he said. "He let it all hang out against Jorge Posada." For the first time, warmup action began in the Mets bullpen, and John Franco began to toss, but Leiter remained on the mound to face Brosius. The third baseman promptly smacked a 1-1 fastball between Ventura and Abbott for a single, pushing Posada into scoring position.
"Leiter's running on fumes now," Cohen noted. Leiter had thrown 141 pitches so far, an astronomical tally even for him, and yet there was not even a mound conference, no hint that he would do anything but face the next batter, Luis Sojo, who'd replaced Vizcaino at second base in the top of the ninth. Perhaps after seeing so many wins escape him thanks to the bullpen, he deserved the chance to decide the game himself. In game three, Torre had stuck with El Duque just a bit too long, and it cost the Yankees a game. The Mets, on the other hand, had absolutely no margin for error. "Pitch counts mean nothing the last day of the season," Valentine said much later. "I thought we were winning or losing with Al in that inning."
The result was the latter. Leiter's 142nd pitch would be his last of the night, and the season. Sojo took his first offering and sent it up the middle. It hugged the ground the whole way. Leiter came out of his motion and just missed grabbing it. As he crumbled to the ground, he craned his neck, hoping someone behind him could make a play. But Abbott dove in vain as it bounced past the second base bag, and Alfonzo, playing deep on the outfield grass, could not slide to snare it either.
Payton ran in, hoping for a play at the plate against the slow-footed Posada. He scooped up the ball and fired it home in one motion, throwing it so hard he did a bellyflop onto the outfield grass. His throw was right on target to Piazza. Unfortunately, Posada was passing right in front of the catcher as the ball arrived. It caromed off of Posada and into the Mets dugout, allowing Brosius score right behind him. The Yankees had a 4-2 lead, and the Mets had only three outs left to do anything about it.
As the Yankee bench emptied in jubilation, a shot of the Mets dugout showed the normally effusive Valentine looking completely stoic, impassive. He went out to argue about Sojo being awarded third base on the play, but very mildly, almost by rote. He later admitted allowing Leiter to continue after Posada's walk and Brosius's single was a mistake. "I thought that striking out those first two guys and the pitches he threw to Posada made me think he had plenty," he said. "I was wrong. It was the wrong decision, obviously. If I brought somebody else in, they definitely would have gotten the guy out and we'd still be playing."
Valentine finally yanked Leiter, and the pitcher stalked off the mound slowly to an appreciative ovation. He'd given as gutsy a performance as any in Mets history, and it would go in the books as another L. Though Buck said, "he has nothing to hang his head about," Leiter sat in the dugout with his head literally slumped between his shoulders as Franco took his place. The reliever retired pinch hitter Glenallen Hill on a fly to left, sending the Mets to their final chance.
Once again, the Mets were put in a position of trying to rally against Mariano Rivera. If there was any hope at all, it was that Torre has asked him to pitch two innings the night before. But he did not look exhausted facing Darryl Hamilton (pinch hitting for the pitcher's spot), striking him out on three pitches. But he followed it with a four consecutive pitches to Agbayani to give the Mets life and hope; a walk from Rivera was rare event, a once-in-a-blue-moon event. Alfonzo was next, with one last chance to play the hero role he'd enjoyed in every playoff series the Mets had played in the last two seasons, before this World Series. But he fell behind 1-2, then lofted an easy fly ball to left field. It accomplished nothing more than allowing Agbayani (who'd moved to second on defensive indifference) to tag up and run to third.
Mike Piazza represented the Mets' last chance, and the tying run. He took cutter at the lower reaches of the zone for strike one. The second pitch was belted to deep center field. The (rare) excitement in Buck's voice indicated he thought Piazza had gotten all of it, perhaps clubbing a game-tying home run. Even Torre let out an anguished "no!" in the dugout, thinking the same thing. "Any time he hits a ball in the air it's a home run in my mind," Torre explained later.
But as was the case throughout the series, the Mets fell agonizingly short. Bernie Williams grabbed it just shy of the warning track for the final out. When the center fielder snagged the ball, he went down on one knee, a few steps from the spot where Cleon Jones made the exact same move when catching the last out of the 1969 World Series.
In the FOX booth, McCarver praised the ability of the Yankees to make a dynasty "in the era of free agency" (ignoring the fact that a good chunk of their roster was now made of high-priced free agents).
As the visiting team piled on one another and tried out the spoils of their victory--hastily produced caps and shirts--the home team stared blankly from their dugout. Despite sizable numbers of Yankee fans on hand, the stands were curiously subdued. The result was being cheered, but distantly, as if the fans were standing outside the park. The cameras panned the crowd and showed seas of immobile blue, dotted with leaping pockets of navy.
In the visiting clubhouse, between the hoops and hollers and champagne showers, the Yankees were gracious enough to the team they just defeated. Jeter--just crowned World Series MVP--repeated his contention that "This is by far the best team we've played. All the games could've gone either way." Even George Steinbrenner managed to say something not completely terrible about them. "The Mets gave us everything we could want," he said, "and it was great for New York. [I have the feeling his opinion of the series' civic boon would have been different if the Mets won] It was a great one to win. They showed me as much heart as any team I've ever had."
In the Mets' locker room, the mood was decidedly different. "There are a lot of heavy hearts in that clubhouse," Valentine said, "and I have a heavy heart with them." Robin Ventura admitted, "It hurts, a little more than most."
In the end, the 2000 Subway Series was a lot like the subway series of old. They merely increased the animosity of the fans of of different teams for one another, gave people more things to grouse about at bars and over the water cooler. And exactly like the subways series of old, the Yankees, to the surprise of no one, came out on top.