June 30: The Mets' deflating loss in the series opener against the Braves felt like, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra, deja vu all over again. In the last year, Atlanta had won 19 of 25 against the Mets, and this one greatly resembled many of those losses. The Braves took an early lead, the Mets rallied for a few runs, only to be stifled by the bullpen, including a 1-2-3 inning from loudmouth racist John Rocker. To make matters worse, they'd lost Rick Reed to the DL, thanks to a fractured left wrist he suffered on a line drive by Andruw Jones.
The general thought amongst the scribes was, despite Rocker's hateful words, the Mets and their fans would do well to shut up for the time being until they could put up against the Braves. So on a wild Saturday night, they did, in one of best games ever played at Shea Stadium.The night certainly didn't appear bound for glory at first. Mike Hampton took the mound for the Mets and turned in a first inning far too reminiscent of his struggles earlier in the season. He loaded the bases on a single, hit batter, and walk, then issued a free pass to Javy Lopez to force in a run. The sloppy inning was abetted by Mike Piazza, who allowed a passed ball to move up a pair of runners, and would not look good behind the plate for much of the night. Hampton redeemed himself by inducing an inning-ending double play, all the more crowd pleasing because it was started by Bobby Bonilla (playing third base (!) in place of Chipper Jones, who'd flown back to Atlanta for the birth of his second child).
After a quiet second inning, Hampton loaded the bases again in the third, then unloaded them by giving up a single to Javy Lopez. Benny Agbayani fielded it and fired a throw to the plate, but Piazza could not handle the throw, nor locate the ball after it skipped past him, allowing a third run to score. For the second game in a row, the Mets were in an early 4-0 hole, and his teammates could do nothing against Braves starter Kevin Millwood. (Todd Zeile, in describing Millwood's power over the Mets' bats, used the curious phrase "wafflestomped.")
Hampton allowed another run on an RBI groundout by Keith Lockhart in the top of the seventh, and was yanked for a pinch hitter in the bottom half. Matt Franco knocked an RBI single in his place, but the Mets still trailed 5-1, and the hole would only get deeper. Eric Cammack, a recent call up from triple-A, pitched the top of the eighth and gave up a crushing three-run homer to Brian Jordan.
The score was now 8-1. Jordan's homer had extinguished any realistic hopes of a come-from-behind win. It was the kind of game where all but the most die hard leave to get an early jump on traffic. As luck would have it, this was Fireworks Night at Shea, which meant that many people stayed to wait out the game and see some pyrotechnics. A` healthy crowd of 52,000+ was still on hand as the bottom of the eighth began, and a blowout turned into a blow-up.
With a seemingly comfortable lead, Bobby Cox removed Millwood in favor of seldom-used veteran Don Wengert. Derek Bell led off with a single, and after Edgardo Alfonzo flew out, Mike Piazza hit a ball that shortstop Rafael Furcal misplayed and threw into the Mets dugout, moving Bell to third and the catcher to second. On TV, play by play man Gary Thorne lamented the fact that, due to the error, Piazza wouldn't have the chance to continue either his hit streak (seven games) or streak of consecutive games with an RBI (12).
Robin Ventura followed with a groundout that allowed Bell to score and Piazza to move to third. The score was 8-2 Braves, but now there were two out in the inning. The game had been such a slog to this point that both Thorne and color commentator Tom Seaver mistakenly thought this was the third out, perhaps hopefully. Any thoughts of a comeback were premature at best, but when Todd Zeile singled to score Piazza, and Jay Payton followed with a bloop single to shallow right field, some life returned to the crowd.
The Braves still enjoyed a five-run lead, but Cox didn't want to take any chances. He took out the ineffective Wengert and inserted Kerry Ligtenberg, who'd taken over the closer's role from John Rocker. Unfortunately for the Braves, Ligtenberg could not close anything this evening, or even throw strikes. Benny Agbayani worked a full count, then walked to load the bases. When pinch hitter Mark Johnson (a man with only 14 at bats so far that season) walked to force in a run, Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone began to pace and rock in the dugout, and it only got worse after another bases-loaded walk to Melvin Mora.
Atlanta's once comfortable lead had been whittled down to 8-5. With each successive pitch out of the strike zone, the Shea crowd grew more and more raucous, hoping they were witnessing a bullpen implosion, and also hoping their cheers might aid that cause.
Cox had seen enough from Ligtenberg, but he had few weapons at his disposal. John Rocker was unavailable due to a callous on his pitching hand that had blown up. Rookie Jason Marquis had thrown two innings the night before, and Mike Remlinger had just rejoined the team after experiencing some elbow trouble. So Cox went with one of his starters, Terry Mulholland--despite the fact that the next batter, Derek Bell, owned a .417 career batting average against him.
Just before Mulholland threw his first pitch, Bobby Valentine called for time so he could pinch run for Johnson with Joe McEwing. Whether the timing was calculated or not, it seemed to irk Mulholland, and he walked Derek Bell on five pitches. Now the score was 8-6 Braves. The fans were up on their feet, screaming at the top of the lungs, making what happened next almost an inevitability.
Edgardo Alfonzo batted for the second time in the inning, He fell behind 1-2, fouled off a tough pitch, then laced a single just past a diving Keith Lockhart at third. As the ball shot into left field, both McEwing and Mora scored to tie the game. Left fielder Trent Hubbard lobbed the ball back into the infield with a mixture of disbelief and disgust on his face, as Shea literally shook with excitement.
Next up, Mike Piazza. He'd had a rough day behind the plate, as his errors assisted the Braves in building an early lead. A short while ago, Thorne and Seaver lamented that he wouldn't get a chance to extend his hitting streak and his RBI streak, but a chance suddenly presented itself, and he jumped on it. Piazza turned on the first pitch he saw and shot a laser beam three-run home run that left the park in a nanosecond, rocketing off of the retired numbers in left field. "There was no doubt it was going to stay fair," Todd Zeile said later. "It was just whether it was going to hit the wall or go through the wall."
The 10 runs scored in the inning matched a team record. Nine of them had scored with two outs. Piazza's home run gave him an RBI in 13 straight games. It was the second biggest comeback in franchise history And best of all:
11-8 Mets leading the Braves.
The Shea crowd was in complete ear-splitting pandemonium as Piazza rounded the bases, pumping his fist when his shot cleared the fence. Over in Manhattan, Al Leiter--given leave to go home, since he was starting the next day--was driving back to his apartment while listening to the comeback on the radio. Rather than park his car in a garage and lose the signal, he pulled over at the corner of 83rd and First Avenue and heard Gary Cohen ecstatically call Piazza's home run. He didn't regret not being there in person. "It was almost even better," Leiter said, "because when you listen to it on radio, you can just imagine."
In the top of the ninth, the Braves managed to get the tying run to plate on a single and a walk off of Armando Benitez, but there would be only one comeback this evening. Wally Joyner swung at the first pitch he saw and flew out to center to end the game. "What a comeback!" Thorne screamed, the understatement of the year, as the PA system blared David Bowie's "Heroes."
Benitez was credited with the win, as the official scorer deemed Eric Cammack unworthy of that honor (a rare instance of common sense in such scoring). But the W could have gone to Piazza. Or Alfonzo. Or the Shea crowd.
Or the Braves' bullpen, which had expended over 60 pitches in a brutal effort. In the visiting locker room, Atlanta's players sat stunned, utterly gobsmacked by what had transpired. Rocker said he felt "like I let the team down". "I've never seen a game like this," mumbled a dazed Javy Lopez, "It's embarrassing."
Fireworks followed shortly after the game, even though nothing could top what the fans had just seen.