September 1-3: As August turned to September, the optimism and momentum of August soon gave way to a familiar (and unwelcome) feeling: that of impending doom. In 1998, the Mets lost their last five games, when even one win would've forced a three-way tie for the wild card. In 1999, a seven-game losing streak nearly knocked them out of contention before a miraculous comeback. The team was well aware of this--too aware of it, maybe, because as soon as the calendar flipped to September, the team began to collectively press.
It started when the Mets traveled to St. Louis, where the Cardinals were flying high, in first place by the largest margin in the majors at the time (eight games). Even though Mark McGwire had been sidelined with patella tendinitis in his left knee since early July, Will Clark (acquired at the trade deadline from Baltimore) picked up the slack and quickly endeared himself to the locals by hitting the tar out of the ball. Not to mention the fact that Jim Edmonds was compiling some MVP-caliber stats, which the Mets would see far too much of in this series.
In the first game the two teams traded leads before the Cards tied it on an RBI single by Edmonds in the bottom of the seventh, then won it on his homer off of Pat Mahomes in the bottom of the ninth. The lone positive in this game (though no one could have known it at the time): Timo Perez made his major league debut.
Perez had been signed as a free agent when he was released by the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, and was not expected to rise above double-A in 2000. But Norfolk needed an outfielder, so Perez went to triple-A and wound up hitting .357, thus earning himself a September callup. He was still a virtual unknown, even in to most people the Mets organization. As Greg Prince recently pointed out, his first major league at bat was a microcosm of the shooting star that was his Mets career. He knocked a pinch hit single in the top of the ninth, putting the potential go-ahead run on base--then was promptly picked off first base by Dave Veres.
Game two was a pitcher's duel between Mike Hampton and Darryl Kile, enjoying a great bounceback season away from the lofty confines of Colorado. The Cardinals righty went the distance and just allowed one run. Mike Hampton tried to do the same, but faltered in the bottom of the ninth. After giving up a leadoff double to J.D. Drew and a sac bunt that moved him to third, Armando Benitez took over to try and strand him there. He almost managed it, striking out Ray Lankford, but then gave up a single to Fernando Vina, handing St. Louis their second walkoff win in a row. After a hot August, it was the first hit Benitez had allowed in eight innings.
In his continuing quest to find a new leadoff hitter, Bobby Valentine hit Timo Perez first in the order in this game. "They'll think we finally found someone," Valentine said, but with a laugh, indicating he'd all but given up hope on ever determining one. For the remainder of the year, Benny Agbayani would bat first most often. He'd become a more patient hitter than he was in 1999, but was still a less than ideal candidate for the position.
In the final game, the disturbing pattern continued. After the Mets scratched out one run against rookie phenom Rick Ankiel (who'd grown up a stone's throw from their spring training home in Port St. Lucie, Florida), the Cardinals scored three runs off of the Mets' bullpen to take a 3-1 lead. New York responded with a game-tying two-run homer from Bubba Trammell in the top of the ninth, only to watch Jim Edmonds play hero again with a home run off of John Franco in the bottom of the 11th.
The offense, which hadn't exactly been firing on all cylinders even when the Mets were winning, was now flatlining. The entire team went into a slump all at once. Aside from being bad for the team's prospects, it damaged Mike Piazza's MVP credentials. At the end of August, fans were chanting "MVP!" whenever he strode to the plate; now, that hope seemed to have vanished.
"The bad news is we haven't hit for the last week or 10 days," Bobby Valentine said. "The good news is, we're going to hit a lot."September 4-6: Unfortunately, that promised offensive outburst was not to be found in Cincinnati, where the Mets traveled next. For the second time in 2000, they were shut down by Elmer Dessens in a 6-2 loss. Their fourth defeat in a row began rumblings from fans and scribes alike, all of whom had vivid remembrances of September swoons past. "September is a bad month for us," Darryl Hamilton admitted. "I think it's a blessing we're having it now."
The Mets bounced back the next night when Todd Zeile (owner of a dismal .146 batting average since August 17) went deep in the top of the tenth to give the Mets a 3-2 win. In the bottom of the ninth, when Ken Griffey Jr. hit a long fly ball down the left field line that looked like it might win the game for the Reds, Turk Wendell waved it foul from the mound. "I dropped the Carlton Fisk on 'em,'' he said.
In the finale, the Mets' offense finally made an appearance, and they took an 8-5 lead into the eighth inning, only to watch the bullpen implode. After Turk Wendell and John Franco conspired to let the Reds crawl within one run, Bobby Valentine turned to Armando Benitez to stop the bleeding. But Benitez's pitch to Benito Santiago caught too much of the plate, and the veteran catcher clubbed it to left-center field for a grand slam, the decisive blow in a crushing 11-8 defeat. Thanks to the Braves' win over the Diamondbacks that day, and another as the Mets traveled back to New York, they fell to 2.5 games back in the NL East. As luck would have it, since Arizona were their closest rivals for the wild card berth, they remained 5.5 games up in that race.
September 8-10: The Mets returned to Shea to take on the last place Phillies, owners of the worst record in baseball. In 1999, an awful Philadelphia team had put a serious dent in their playoff hopes, and they tried their best to do the same in 2000. In the opener, Mike Hampton cruised through most of the game, but with two outs in the top of the eighth, he gave up a walk to Doug Glanville, then a home run to Scott Rolen. He slammed his glove and took his frustrations out on two innocent water coolers in the dugout, knowing he'd given up two runs too many. The offense completely sputtered against Bruce Chen and the Phillies' bullpen, never threatening in a 2-0 loss.
The next night, there was more frustration on display. The Phillies broke a 1-1 tie in the top of the seventh against Turk Wendell, who gave up a single, double, and sac fly. He then walked Scott Rolen intentionally to face rookie Pat Burrell, but Burrell hit an RBI single to put the Phils up 3-1. Wendell was removed, and whipped his glove into the stands on his way to the dugout. "Just get rid of your stuff and start over again," he said later. "A new, clean slate. Time for a new one. I'm surprised anyone even wanted it and didn't throw it back." Armando Benitez made things worse in the top of the ninth by whizzing his very first pitch over Burrell's head, eventually walking him, then giving up a three-run homer to Brian Hunter. Solo homers by Derek Bell and Benny Agbayani in the eighth and ninth made the score closer, but not close enough, and the Mets had lost for the second straight time (6-3) to the worst team in the league.
As panic buttons were pressed all across the tri-state area, and Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine had a closed-door meeting (typically, the two men's interpretation of the import of this meeting differed greatly), Al Leiter did his best to calm everyone's nerves. He not only pitched a complete game, nine-K shutout, but also kept the bench loose with a megaphone and a Fire Marshall Bill imitation (oh, if only video of this existed). After climbing within 3.5 of the wild card lead the day before, the Diamondbacks lost again to fall 4.5 behind. The Mets still trailed Atlanta by 2.5 games in the NL East.
September 11-13: The Brewers came town next, another team with not much to play for, save spoiling the Mets' playoff chances. So naturally, the owners of the worst team batting average in the majors pounded out 12 hits off of Rick Reed and the Mets' bullpen in an 8-1 lambasting. Reed was just as baffled as anyone: "We played pretty well up until Sept. 1. As soon as the month of September hit, I mean -- boom. It's really hard to explain. We've got to figure out a way to get out of it. I think what we need to do is go out and relax and play the game."
They managed to do that the next night, returning the favor by slapping around Milwaukee pitching in a 10-2 romp, then turned a crushing defeat into a thrilling victory in the closer. The Mets trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the only run scoring on a misplayed fly ball that fell in front of Jay Payton ("I was offering steak dinners for anybody who got a run back for us," he said later), but the rookie redeemed himself twice. In the bottom of the ninth, he led off the inning with a double and scored when Robin Ventura (who'd just been benched to clear his head from a brutal slump) doubled him home to tie the game. Then in the bottom of tenth, after singles from Mike Bordick and Joe McEwing, Payton knocked one out of the park to give the Mets a 4-1 walkoff win.
September 14-17: The Mets began a long, pivotal road series--their last of the year--with yet another set against a lowly team, traveling to Montreal to take on the Expos. An up-and-down four-game series unfolded, with the two teams trading wins. The Mets took the opener by pounding out 10 runs and 14 hits, as Robin Ventura hit his first home run in what felt like forever. Then they were stifled by Javier Vazquez's pitches, and Al Leiter was frustrated by his bat (the pitcher touched him up for two hits and a game-changing RBI) in a frustrating 4-3 loss. They won by the familiar score of 10-4 in the third game, scoring six runs with two outs in the fourth inning, aided by home runs from Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo. Then they were shut down by another Expos hurler, Tony Armas, in a 5-0 blanking.
It was a disappointing showing, especially since they'd have to travel to Atlanta next. Bobby Valentine didn't try to dismiss or gloss over the importance of the series. "They have been our strongest competition, a team we've been trying to catch for a long time," he said. "So you figure out what it means."