Yesterday's 9-8 win over the Pirates contained two significant milestones for the Mets. The most obvious is that they overcame a 7-0 deficit, their second largest comeback in franchise history, and their biggest since the raucous, cathartic win of June 30, 2000, when they scored 10 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning against the Braves, the last three coming on a first-pitch laser beam home run from Mike Piazza.
Thursday's romp marked another rare occurrence in Mets history. Jason Isringhausen pitched the top of the eighth and escaped unscathed, thanks in part to picking off a napping Garrett Jones at first base. Thus, he earned the win, his first since pitching for the Cardinals in 2008. More significantly, it was his first win as a Met since June 8, 1999. Call it a fluke or an anomaly or just dumb luck, but it's not often that a pitcher goes 12 years between wins for a franchise.
In an odd way, there are many parallels between his most recent win as a Met and his last one in that magical (to me) season of 1999. Both featured an embattled manager, a struggling team, and an odd set of coincidences.
First, we need to set the scene. The Mets had just shaken off a dismal eight-game losing streak, the last two-losses of which came during the Subway Series. Expectations were high for the 1999 Mets, and now they suddenly found themselves a game under .500 to begin June. The front office fired a warning shot to manager Bobby Valentine by firing three of his most trusted coaches, replacing them with hand picked successors.
Valentine was forced to attend a dual press conference and bite his lip while GM Steve Phillips assured the press everything was sunshine and lollipops. It was grotesque spin theater that no one in their right mind believed--all of it happening in Yankee Stadium, no less. Valentine said little, except to remark that if he couldn't right the Mets' ship in the next 55 games, he should be fired. He insisted he was the man to turn things around, but it sounded like little more than bluster at the time.
The losing streak finally ended on June 6 when the Mets ended another streak, Roger Clemens' 20 straight wins, a new AL record. The knocked the Rocket out of the Subway Series finale in the middle of the third inning, torching him for 7 runs. Meanwhile, Al Leiter--who'd struggled all season to that point--pitched his best game so far, stifling the Yankees for seven innings in the much-needed 7-2 win. It would be the turning point of their season. In that arbitrarily chosen segment of 55 games, the Mets would win 40 of them, en route to a wild card berth. (Though not before another brush with death, but that's a tale for another time.)
However, when the Mets went back to Shea to host the Blue Jays, all of the anxiety and controversy still hung over their heads. Despite assurances to the contrary from Phillips and Mets ownership, the firing of Valentine seemed a question of if, not when. He'd been undermined by the front office, who removed his closest advisers in the coaching staff, and had a near mutiny on his hands from veterans wailing about playing time; primarily, Bobby Bonilla, who groused about being pushed out of the outfield rotation despite hitting below the Mendoza line, and despite the fact that Benny Agbayani and Roger Cedeno were both playing like houses on fire at the time.
Got all that? Good.
In the series opener, the Mets beat up on a fresh-faced rookie named Roy Halladay, touching him up for 11 hits and six runs. With Valentine opting for his youthful outfield, Benny Agbayani his two more homers to continue the Ruthian pace he'd been on since being called up from Norfolk in May, while Roger Cedeno contributed three hits. Orel Hershiser went six solid innings in the 8-3 victory.
When Jason Isringhausen took the mound the next night, he was still seeking his first win in almost two years. The often-injured righty missed all of 1998 due to injury, and had spent the early part of 1999 at triple-A. His last major league win had come on September 1, 1997, against the Blue Jays and opposing pitcher Pat Hentgen. In an insane bit of coincidence, he was now facing the Blue Jays again, with Pat Hentgen on the hill. To complete the symmetry, he finally gained that elusive victory in a lopsided 11-3 Mets win.
It was not an overpowering performance. Izzy struck out six but also walked five, and gave up a solo home run to Jose Cruz Jr. The Mets were mindful of his history enough to hold back their top pitching prospect, Octavio Dotel, from his scheduled start, with the thought of inserting him in Isringhausen's place in case of ineffectiveness or injury. They also promptly removed Izzy from the game in the sixth inning once he hit the 100-pitch mark with the score 4-1 in favor of the Mets, but his teammates torched the Toronto bullpen for seven more runs to make sure he didn't have to sweat it out in the clubhouse.
The "Generation K" member had become symbolic of that ill-fated marketing scheme, with his seemingly endless string of injuries dashing the promise he'd show in his rookie year of 1995. After the game, he joked about it, with a tinge of real pain in his remarks. "I get teased that every time I go out there, there's a black cloud over the stadium," Izzy told reporters. "At times, if I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have any luck at all."
The biggest sign, perhaps, that it was time for everyone's luck to change came from the usually anemic bat of Rey Ordonez, which produced four hits and two RBIs, upping his average to .438 since he'd dyed his hair orange during the Yankees series. (He threatened to dye it blue next if his luck continued.)
Isringhausen wasn't completely out of the clear, however. Bobby Jones (dealing with shoulder woes) was rehabbing in the minors, and his return was expected to push the star-crossed pitcher into the bullpen or back on the farm. Valentine refused to discuss the matter after the game. Speculating about the future held no interest to a man who'd been repeatedly told he was living on borrowed time. "Why try to figure out what's going to happen in three weeks when we don't know the next five days?" he snapped to reporters. He'd also previously denied any plans to make Izzy a reliever, saying, "You wouldn't use an Indy car as a taxi."
And yet, before long Isringhausen was pushed into the bullpen. Not by Jones, who was eventually lost for the year, but by Dotel, who came up from Norfolk and dazzled batters almost immediately, and Kenny Rogers, acquired from the A's in mid-July. Not long after his elusive win, Izzy was sent sent down to triple-A to make the transition from starter to reliever. He came back in early July, made a few relief appearances, and even earned an old-school save by pitching the last three innings of a lopsided 10-0 win over the Expos on July 6.
All the while, trade rumors circled around him. On July 31, he made came into a game at Wrigley Field and got pounded for five runs in the midst of a 17-10 drubbing at the hands of the Cubs. Later that day, he was shipped to Oakland, along with Greg McMichael, for A's closer Billy Taylor. "We set out to strengthen our bullpen," GM Steve Phillips said at the time. "We certainly did that."
The Mets bullpen, though a strength, was worked hard and had been depleted thanks to a John Franco injury. The idea, presumably, was that the veteran Taylor could add depth and experience. Unfortunately, he provided neither, as he was largely ineffective after coming to New York and was left off the postseason roster. Meanwhile in Oakland, Isringhausen became one of the better closers in the game, racking up 292 more saves with the A's and Cardinals.
Oh, and the day after Izzy's last win as a Met, the Mets overcame a 3-0 deficit against David Wells in the bottom of the ninth and won in 14 innings on another Rey Ordonez hit. This was the game during which Bobby Valentine was ejected for arguing a call of catcher's interference against Mike Piazza, only to reemerge briefly in the dugout tunnel in a Groucho Marx-esque disguise. Ask me again sometime why this was my favorite year.