June 2-8: To begin a month that would finally see their fortunes turn, the Mets returned home for some interleague action against AL East teams. First up, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Still groggy from his concussion in LA (not to mention a cross-country flight), Mike Piazza sat out the first game. The team made a roster move, acquiring pinch hitter extraordinaire Lenny Harris (who'd spent a productive 1998 at Shea) from Arizona in exchange for Bill Pulsipher, who'd thrown several spot starts, none effective. That made Paul Wilson the last member of Generation K who was still a member of the Mets organization, as he continued to toil in the minors.
In game one, the Rays took a lead on Fred McGriff's 400th career homer, but Todd Zeile belted a three-run shot off of Rick White that proved the difference in a 5-3 win. The next night, outfielder Greg Vaughn misplayed an easily catchable fly ball that allowed Edgardo Alfonzo to score, the only run of the game in a slim 1-0 victory over future Met Steve Trachsel. But they could not complete the sweep when Bobby Jones was tagged for seven runs in five innings in a 15-5 drubbing. The Tampa Bay onslaught included many mistakes by the Mets back-to-back Tampa Bay homers--one coming from pitcher Estaban Yan on the first major league pitch he ever saw. The New York Times judged this game so ugly that it would "be someday viewed as the game that killed interleague play."
Regardless, interleague play continued with a set against the Orioles, rumored to be in fire sale mode, with more than a few players the Mets coveted. In their continuing search for a leadoff hitter, first-round draft pick Jason Tyner was promoted from Norfolk. He managed two hits and an RBI in his debut, but Mike Hampton faltered in a three-run seventh inning, and the Mets fell 4-2. Hampton later insinuated Baltimore had help from the home plate ump's strike zone. ("Let's just say they had 10 weapons tonight and they used all of them.") But they recovered from an early 3-2 deficit in the next game to pound the Orioles, 11-3. In the finale, John Franco allowed Baltimore to load the bases in the top of the ninth and score on a sac fly to tie the game, but Kurt Abbott sent the crowd home happy with a walkoff home run in the bottom of the 10th.
Down south, the Braves decided to temporarily demote mouthy closer John Rocker after his loud confrontation with Jeff Pearlman, the Sports Illustrated scribe whose profile quoted his thoughts on the 7 train and New York City's diverse population. The insane amount of baserunners he'd given up so far and his diminishing effectiveness might have also had something to do with the decision.June 9-11: The first stage of the Subway Series took place in the Bronx, and set the stage for October in more ways than one. In a bit of foreshadowing/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-ism, Bobby Valentine told the Daily News, "I'm sure there's not a person in the Mets organization who would be disappointed if we got to the World Series and the Yankees weren't there. But if we had to write the perfect postseason, I think everyone in the organization would have the opponent be from the Bronx."
After trading zeroes for the first two innings, Jason Tyner led off the third by trying to bunt his way on. Jorge Posada threw high to first, allowing him to reach. The speedy Tyner distracted Clemens, and he wound up walking Derek Bell and Edgardo Alfonzo to bring Piazza to the plate with the bases loaded. The Rocket tried to get a slider past him, but it didn't work. Piazza clubbed it to straight-away center for a grand slam. RBI singles by Bell and Jay Payton in the fourth and fifth innings expanded the lead to 6-2, and the Mets erupted again in the sixth with another RBI from Bell and a two-run homer from Alfonzo. Clemens exited to angry boos from the Stadium crowd (he'd later suspect he was tipping his pitches, though the Mets swore otherwise), Leiter went seven innings, and the Mets cruised to a 12-2 victory, the most lopsided score in the Subway Series' brief history.
To understand what happened later, it's important to know remember Clemens was perceived by Yankee fans at this point. He'd only joined the Yankees the year before, and pitched to a surprisingly high 4.60 ERA. He had some decent performances in the 1999 postseason, particularly in the World Series against the Braves, but his one loss had come to the Red Sox in the ALCS--a serious sin in the minds of Yankees fans. He'd also lost to the Mets twice in his first year in pinstripes, with Piazza delivering key blows each time.
The general consensus: He was not yet a True Yankee. Even worse, he was often compared unfavorably to Piazza. The Mets' catcher was made for New York's grand stage, the papers said. He rose to occasion. He understood what playing in this town meant. And The Rocket, it was often said, did not.
Let all this sink in, and future events will not seem so mysterious.
In game two, the Mets had an early 5-3 lead, thanks to homers from Jay Payton and Robin Ventura and a few well-timed Yankee errors. But Bobby Jones imploded in the bottom of the sixth, and the Yanks scored five runs off of him and Pat Mahomes, the last three on a long Jorge Posada home run, en route to a 13-5 drubbing.
A few days later, Jones accepted a demotion to triple-A Norfolk to allow for a few rosters moves that would bolster the Mets' bench, even though he could have refused the assignment and become a free agent. GM Steve Phillips insisted Jones would only make two starts in the minors and "absolutely" return to the bigs immediately thereafter. Even so, it had to be a bitter pill for the eight-year major league veteran (and former All Star) to swallow, though he said all the right things. "Sometimes you have to swallow your pride and figure out what's best," he said.
A series-closing matchup of Mike Hampton and David Cone made it to the third inning before the rains came down, ultimately postponing the game. That would set up a two-stadium double header in July. It also led to the season's comedic highlight. As the Mets waited out the rain delay, Robin Ventura trudged out onto the tarp in a #31 jersey and a painted-on Fu Manchu, and proceeded to perfectly imitate Mike Piazza's batting stance. He even ran the "bases" with Piazza's lumbering, arm-pumping stride and dove into a drenched second base as if playing with a Slip n' Slide.
June 13-18: As the Subway Series chugged along, the Mets and Yankees were rumored to be competing for the services of Sammy Sosa, who was feuding with manager Don Baylor. But he was still in Chicago when the Mets traveled there for a brief two-game set. Rick Reed pitched well again in game one, but allowed the Cubs to tie the score at 3 on a Brant Brown RBI single in the bottom of the seventh. Then, Kurt Abbot misfired on a potential inning-ending double play in the eighth, allowing the Cubs to score the decisive run in a 4-3 loss. The next night, several rain delays led to a back-and-forth battle of the bullpens in which the Mets prevailed, 10-8.
Nex,t it was on to Milwaukee, where Al Leiter turned in another great start in the series opener, as the Mets cruised to a 7-1 victory. They were nipped in the middle game, 3-2, but backed another solid outing from Rick Reed with a five-run fourth inning, on their way to a 7-3 win.
June 20-28: The Mets returned to Shea for a long homestand that would culminate in their first series against the Braves. But first, a series against the lowly Phillies, who had given the Mets fits at the end of 1999, and did so again here. In the opener, Armando Benitez allowed a leadoff home run to rookie Pat Burrell in the top of the ninth, which tied the game at 2, then surrendered an RBI single to Mike Lieberthal that was their undoing in a 3-2, 10-inning loss. The next night, it was John Franco's turn to play goat. With the score tied at 5 in the top of the ninth, he loaded the bases and issued a walk to put the Phils on top, 6-5. Benitez was called on to stop the bleeding, but he promptly gave up a grand slam to--who else?--Burrell, and the Mets slunk off into the night with a disheartening 10-5 loss.
On the day it was announced that Rey Ordonez would require season-ending surgery on his broken forearm, the Mets managed to eke out a 5-4 win over the Phillies, thanks in large part to a two-run homer from Jay Payton (owner of a .400 batting average in June) to snap a 2-2 tie. The victory started the Mets on a roll that would launch them right back into the division race.
The Pirates came to town next, and so did Bobby Jones, back from his brief stint in the minors. "I think that I needed that, to go down there and just be able to work on things," he said. His teammates erupted for nine runs in the third inning (one less than a team record, which they would soon match), and Jones went eight innings in a 12-1 win. In the middle game, they recovered from deficits of 4-3 and 8-4, scored three runs in the eighth and ninth innings, and held on for a 10-8 win. They completed the sweep with a 9-0 complete game shutout by Mike Hampton.
The Marlins were the next victims, as the Mets pounded five home runs--two by Benny Agbayani--in a 10-5 win. A tidy 5-2 victory followed, thanks to 7 2/3 innings from Glendon Rusch, and then the Mets scored five runs with two outs in the bottom of the sixth to edge Florida, 6-5 for their seventh win in a row.
The streak, combined with some recent struggles by Atlanta, pulled the Mets within two games of first as the Braves came to town for the first time in 2000. Before the series at Shea, John Rocker--back with the big league club--made some more noise by saying he would ride the 7 train he'd so maligned in Sports Illustrated, in what came across as more of a publicity stunt than a goodwill gesture.
In the end, Rocker chickened out and found other means of transportation to the game. But it almost created another security nightmare for a series that, between the Braves' hotel, the 7 train, and Shea Stadium, would require the services of 700 police officers, including the bomb squad. Tons of Mets fans planned to show up in various anti-Rocker attire that most papers deemed "unprintable." Even Yankee Stadium's famous pot-banging fanatic Freddy Sez said he would come to Shea and, if not cheer the Mets, at least boo Rocker in solidarity as a fellow New Yorker.
The crowd would also include a few Braves fans, like Dan Wugman of Rockland County, who wore a t-shirt that said "Freedom of Speech Rocks" and lamented Shea's lack of hospitality to fans of the opposing team. If he recognized the fact that Mets fans were also expressing their freedom of speech, or that Rocker's remarks in SI were not exactly hospitable, the Daily News did not note it.
June 29, 2000: This first meeting between the Mets and Braves in 2000 was too much like 1999 for the Mets' taste: close, but no cigar. Andres Galaragga had missed out on the playoffs that year as he received treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphoma, but he was now recovered and definitely present in this game, knocking in four runs against Rick Reed in the Braves' 6-4 win. Just before giving up a three-run homer to him, Reed took a shot off of his left wrist, breaking a few small bones in his non-pitching hand and adding another wrinkle to the team's injury woes.
Before the game, John Rocker's pretaped "apology" to New York was played on Diamondvision, though it drew nothing but boos. It's doubtful many in the Shea crowd actually listened; otherwise, they would've heard the lefty half-heartedly apologize for remarks "many people perceived...to be malicious," as if the fault lay with Mets fans' perceptions, not his hateful words.
Rocker made an appearance in the game to a chorus of curses and projectiles, but as a mere set-up man this time. He set the Mets down in order in the eighth and walked off the mound, quietly for once, with little incident. Meanwhile, another Braves villain, Chipper Jones, tried to damage the Mets with something other than his bat by attempting to get Mike Hampton to sign with Atlanta in the off season.
For a team that had just won seven straight and seemed to have so much momentum coming into this game, it was a deflating loss, one that had the bitter taste of same-old, same-old. The next game had anything but.
W-L Record, June 29: 44-32