July 31-August 2: The Mets ended July on a roll and, after a hiccup, began August with one, too. The Reds came to Shea, with Barry Larkin joining Ken Griffey Jr. as a target for the fans for refusing a trade to New York. The home team was shut out in the opener, 6-0. but rode some clutch pitching in the last two games to take the series.
In the middle game, Mike Hampton pitched a scoreless game into the eighth, but gave up a run on a Larkin double to make the score 3-1. Turk Wendell relieved him and promptly gave up an RBI triple to Dante Bichette, which also put the tying run at third with one out. John Franco came on to get what he called the save (even if it wasn't, technically) by inducing a groundout from Sean Casey, then after a walk, striking out Benito Santiago looking to end the inning. Armando Benitez got the technical save by setting the Reds down 1-2-3 in the ninth to preserve the 3-2 win.
In the finale, Robin Ventura ended a long homer-less drought with a two-run shot in the first, one that landed almost in the same spot as his famous Grand Slam Single. After a shaky start, Al Leiter recovered, retiring 18 of 19 batters at one point, en route to a 2-1 victory that capped an 8-1 homestand.
August 4-10: Arizona was first up on a seven-game Western swing. At the time, the Diamondbacks were the Mets' closest competition for the wild card, just three games behind them in the loss column, and the proud new owners of ace pitcher Curt Schilling.
Joe McEwing continued his baffling power over Randy Johnson by driving in two runs against him. The Mets hung four runs on his ledger in a big four-run fourth inning, and Rick Reed held down the fort in a 6-1 win. They managed to win the next night behind another strong outing from Bobby Jones, but Mike Piazza injured his knee while running the bases in the effort. The Mets held their breath, since it was the same knee that landed him on the DL early in the 1999 season, but an MRI revealed it was only a strain. He sat out the last game of the series, as Glendon Rusch and the bullpen conspired to give the Diamondbacks a 9-5 win. Bobby Valentine compared the game to "a long day in the dentist's chair".
The Mets moved on to Houston next for their first trip to what was then called Enron Field. Mike Hampton faltered in his first game back in Texas, giving up five runs in seven innings. Down to their last out and facing Astros closer Octavio Dotel--traded for Hampton in the off season--Derek Bell hit a long home run to tie the game at 5. After missing an opportunity to go ahead when Todd Zeile was mistakenly called out at the plate in top of the tenth, the Mets took the lead on a home run by Kurt Abbott in the top of the eleventh, and held on for a 6-5 win. After the game, ex-Astro Derek Bell blasted local fans for booing him mercilessly. "Fuck 'em," he said, among other things.
In the next game, with an ailing Edgardo Alfonzo joining Mike Piazza on the bench, the Mets fell behind early and never recovered in a 9-3 loss. But reinforcements arrived the next night, as both Piazza and Alfonzo returned, and Darryl Hamilton was finally taken off the DL after being inactive since April 6. Hamilton's return meant a crowded outfield, but it also meant a much needed lefty bat in the Mets' righty-heavy lineup, one that blasted a homer in his first at bat. Piazza and Payton also went deep in the Mets' 12-5 romp. Piazza had another big day in the closer, going 4-for-4 with four RBIs in a 10-3 blowout.
In the coming weeks, Bobby Valentine would do what he did best: mix and match his players to get the exact right mix. Outfield playing time would be shared by Hamilton, Derek Bell, Jay Payton, Benny Agbayani, Bubba Trammell, and even Joe McEwing, with all five sometimes appearing in the same game, pinch hitting for one another and/or switching positions. Astute use of the bench had kept the Mets afloat as the left side of their infield was devastated by injuries, and now he would use an embarrassment of riches in his outfield to his advantage.
Valentine had gone a while since generating any kind of controversy--somehow--but had to defuse some when a report came out that he was returning to Japan to manage the Yokohama Bay Stars. The manager vehemently denied the rumors, started by two separate Japanese newspapers, and said (as if trying to shame the reporters involved) it was "very bad manners in that culture, speaking about a job when someone still has the job."
Another odd situation erupted when Matt Franco was designated for assignment, and the pinch hitter was angry enough to talk openly about his time with the Mets in the past tense. Things got so heated that GM Steve Phillips wondered if other teams who supposedly coveted him could be charged with tampering. Eventually, both parties cooled down and Franco accepted an assignment to triple-A Norfolk, with the understanding that he'd return with roster expansion on September 1.
August 11-17: Back home, the Mets welcomed the Giants for a four-game set. In May, San Francisco swept the Mets in another four-game series, and New York did its best to return the favor. In first game, Mike Piazza crushed a two-run home run that broke a scoreless tie and had the Shea crowd chanting "MVP! MVP!". His heroics would soon be celebrated in a Sports Illustrated cover story that labeled him, simply, The Man. Glendon Rusch struggled through five innings, but the bullpen picked up the slack in the 4-1 victory.
In game 2, the Mets overcame a 2-1 deficit, thanks to a two-run Todd Zeile double in the seventh, and held on for a 3-2 win. But the game would be most noted for how the Giants got their lead. With the bases loaded in the top of the fourth, Bobby Estalella hit a fly ball to Benny Agbayani in left field. Benny caught the ball and flipped it to a kid in the nearby field level stands. The only problem: there were only two outs. Quickly realizing his error, Benny wrested the ball from the shocked young boy so he could throw it home, but two runs scored on his brain cramp. "I screwed up," Benny said, because what the hell else could you say? The boy, Jack Burns, age 7, was understandably upset, but Agbayani gave him another ball at the inning's conclusion.
In the third game, Al Leiter threw eight fantastic innings of two-hit, shutout ball that looked like it might go for nought until RBIs from Robin Ventura and Mike Bordick in the bottom of the eighth helped secure a 2-0 win. Unfortunately, they could not complete a sweep, falling 11-1 in the finale as they were shut down by Russ Ortiz, a pitcher they had yet to beat. Despite losing three out of four, Jeff Kent said of his team, "We feel we're a better ballclub than the Mets...I just really like our pitching staff."
Colorado came to Shea for their own four-game set as Todd Helton flirted with a .400 batting average (hitting .396 at the time, he'd finish at .372). In the first game of a double header (a makeup for a rainout earlier in the season), the Mets came from behind to win 7-5, thanks to a four-run seventh inning "rally" in which runs scored on two bases-loaded walks, a wild pitch, and a groundout. In the nightcap, Todd Zeile committed a critical error that eventually allowed the tying run to score, but he atoned for it with a go-ahead homer in the bottom of the eighth, and the Mets earned a 4-3 win.
The next night, Glendon Rusch had another poor start, and despite a late rally, the Mets couldn't overcome the deficit or what they saw as inconsistent umpiring in a 7-5 loss. They recovered to pound the Rockies 13-2 the next day, but received another blow when Mike Hampton left with pain after only three innings of work. X-rays revealed a stress fracture in this ribs, a remnant from his high school football days. Regardless, Hampton vowed to make his next start, even though he'd been told it was injury that would require eight weeks to heal.
"I don't have that kind of time," he said. "The team needs me."
At the conclusion of this homestand, the Mets had won 19 of their last 24 games, and hadn't lost back-to-back games since the middle of July. This hot streak put them just 2.5 games out of first place behind Atlanta, and four games up in the Wild Card standings ahead of the Diamondbacks.
August 18-23: For their last West Coast trip of the year, the Mets first traveled to LA. In the opener, they led 3-0 (aided by a two-run Piazza homer off of Dodger ace Kevin Brown) until a three run sixth inning by the Dodgers tied things up and knocked Al Leiter out of the game. But Joe McEwing led off the top of the eighth with a single, advanced to third on an errant pickoff throw, then scored on an Edgardo Alfonzo single. John Franco and Armando Benitez combined to make it stand up in a 4-3 win.
New York was undone by homers from Garry Sheffield and Eric Karros in the middle game, a 4-1 loss, but took advantage of Dodger miscues in the finale. With the score tied at 6 in the top of the eighth and runners at the corners, Mike Bordick broke for home on a ground ball hit by Lenny Harris. Bordick found himself in a rundown, but third baseman Adrian Beltre threw the ball to the backstop, allowing two runs to score. Another run came home when a grounder went through Mark Grudzielanek's legs, and the Mets were handed a 9-6 win. The only bad news of the day came from Mike Hampton, who said he would push back his next start, still feeling some pain in his ribs.
Next, it was on to San Diego, where the Mets stumbled for the first time in a while. In the opener, the fell behind 4-0, rallied to tie it thanks to a Benny Agbayani three-run homer and a Padres error, only to lose in ten innings on a bases loaded walk issued by Dennis Cook to ex-Met Dave Magadan. Then, Pat Mahomes (spot starting in Mike Hampton's place) was tattooed in an ugly 16-1 loss. Things got so bad that Derek Bell was called on to pitch, and did not fare quite as well as Matt Franco did the year before: five runs, three hits, and three walks. They salvaged the closer with a 4-1 win behind eight innings of three-hit, bullpen-saving ball from Al Leiter.
August 25-30: The Mets returned to Shea and began with an important series against the Diamondbacks, who remained their closest competition in the wild card race. Fully aware of this, they made a statement in the opener by pounding Randy Johnson for the third time that season and the second time in less than a month. The Big Unit would strike out 347 batters in 2000 and win the Cy Young award, but he K'd no one this day, the first time he failed to record at least one strikeout in a game since his rookie season. Johnson gave up six runs, though Arizona errors made only three of them earned, and was knocked out of the game with one out in the third as the Mets gave the Diamondbacks a 13-1 drubbing. When asked if he was amazed at the Mets' power over Johnson, Arizona manager Buck Showalter said, "I don't think amazed is the word. Maybe impressed."
In the middle game, Mike Piazza hit yet another home run to give the Mets a slim 1-0 lead (after getting barreled over at the plate, in a play some of his teammates thought was dirty), but the Diamondbacks scratched out a run against Bobby Jones in the seventh to tie, then pounded reliever Rick White (who'd mostly pitched well since coming to New York) for four runs, handing the Mets a ten-inning, 5-1 defeat. In the finale, Mike Hampton turned in a gutsy performance, recovering from his rib injury to pitch eight dominant innings in the Mets' 2-1 victory.
When the Astros came to town, Glendon Rusch finally regained the form he'd shown earlier in the season, going seven strong innings in the Mets' 4-2 win. Edgardo Alfonzo's three-run homer in the first scored all the runs they would need. An Atlanta loss meant they were now tied for first in the NL East, after being six games back at the end of July. As exciting as this was, the Mets tried to not get ahead of themselves. "At the end of the season it means you're in first place," said Bobby Valentine. "You win your division. Last time I checked we're not even in the last month."
It was an important thing to keep in mind for the next game, when Al Leiter and Pat Mahomes gave up six runs apiece in a 16-1 pounding. Another Atlanta loss meant they were still tied for first, and they made sure it stayed that way in the series closer. Rick Reed, who'd been the Mets' most consistent pitcher all year, turned in seven great innings of three-hit ball. The Mets scored their only run on a wild pitch by Houston pitcher Chris Holt in the first, and that was the only run they would need in a tidy 1-0 victory. Armando Benitez struck out the side to record his 11th save of the month.
In a weird incident after the game, hostile autograph seekers repaid Reed by surrounding his car as he tried to leave the Shea parking lot. When he got out of his car to confront one obnoxious person who banged on his it (with his one-month-old child inside), the episode became tabloid fodder for a few days, though by all accounts the whole affair was overblown (early reports that a crowd tried to rock his car back and forth, riot-style, were untrue).
Down in Atlanta, Tom Glavine ended the Braves' skid, but in the next game, as the Mets enjoyed an off day, the Braves were undone by a Sean Casey two-run double in a 4-3 loss to the Reds. Thanks to a scorching hot August, the Mets ended the month all by themselves in first place by a half game. It was the first time the Mets were alone in first place at any point in a season since September 3, 1990.
Bobby Valentine didn't speak of the playoffs yet, but he did feel good enough to insist he would be back in 2001. "I have a good feeling that there's a chance I'll be back with this team next year," he said. "A good chance. It's a feeling." And after thinking a bit more, "It's a little more than a feeling."
W-L Record, August 30: 79-54