In the first few weeks of the 1999 season, the Mets played to a healthy 17-11 record, largely on the strength of a powerful lineup, stellar infield defense, and a shutdown bullpen. Their starting pitching was another story.
All winter, the Mets' front office made efforts to bolster its starting rotation, or at least said it was making efforts to that end. When camp broke, however, the only addition they made to the rotation was the 40-year-old Orel Hershiser, who took the place the released Hideo Nomo. Warnings abounded that the Mets couldn't put much faith in the hurlers who would take the mound on the four days when Al Leiter couldn't pitch. Those warnings came to ugly fruition, and then some, on the road trip the Mets began on May 7.
Their first stop was in Arizona. In 1998, the Mets had trouble beating mediocre teams (particularly Florida and Montreal), but experienced no trouble with the expansion Diamondbacks, winning four of their six meetings. The 1999 version of the Diamondbacks were altogether different, however. Arizona spent big to speed up the team building process, adding Steve Finley, Tony Womack, and Matt Williams to their lineup while bolstering their pitching staff with Todd Stottlemyre. But their biggest addition, in every sense, was fearsome 6'10" southpaw Randy Johnson, the most sought-after free agent pitcher not named Kevin Brown. The addition of The Big Unit to the Arizona staff gave the Diamondbacks instant respectability, and a clear path to contention in 1999.
As April turned to May, the Diamondbacks were about to insert themselves into the National League playoff discussion. They started by using the Mets as a launching pad.
In the series opener, Orel Hershiser placed the Mets in an early 5-1 hole, but the New York offense rallied in the fourth and fifth innings to go ahead, 6-5. For some reason, Bobby Valentine allowed Hershiser to bat for himself during these rallies, even though he'd pitched poorly to that point. Valentine paid for it when the Diamondbacks struck for five runs in the bottom of the fifth. The Mets' bullpen was crushed even further in an eventual 14-7 blowout, their onslaught abetted by the poor fielding of Bobby Bonilla. With Rickey Henderson on the DL, Valentine was all but forced to play Bonilla in the outfield, and watched helplessly as Bobby Bo let several balls fly over his head.
The Mets took game number two by the score of 4-2, behind Masato Yoshii's second strong outing in a row. Even this game was no picnic, however, as John Franco allowed a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to Jay Bell, then put the tying runs on base before giving way to Armando Benitez, who finally shut the door. There were no close calls the next day, when Rick Reed set a personal record for negative efficiency by allowing nine runs in only 1 1/3 innings and 38 pitches. Late homers by Mike Piazza and utility man Mike Kinkade made the final score of 11-6 seem more respectable than it deserved.
From Arizona, the Mets traveled to the last place a struggling pitcher wanted to see: Coors Field. Despite a brief snowstorm prior to first pitch and temperatures of 44 degrees, the series opener on May 10 started right on time, much to the Mets' chagrin. Al Leiter allowed four runs over six innings, a respectable line for Denver, but just as in his last start against the Astros, he made the mistake of pitching further. The three-run shot Leiter ceded to rookie catcher Henry Blanco in the seventh inning proved the death blow in the Mets' 10-3 defeat.
During the mess, Bobby Bonilla was hit by a Pedro Astacio pitch in the same knee that had been trouble him all season. Bonilla stared long and hard at the pitcher, but thought better of retaliating. He would soon join Henderson on the DL, which might have been welcome news had it not depleted the Mets' outfield reserves. The man called up to take his place, surprisingly, was Benny Agbayani, a less-than-athletic Hawaiian native who'd labored in the Mets' system for many years with little distinction. His only saving grace, it seemed, was the fact that Valentine (his former manager at triple-A Norfolk) seemed to like him.
Game number two featured a curious historic anomaly, as it marked the first time in 100 years that two pitchers with the same first and last name squared off against each other. In the contest, Mets veteran Bobby J. Jones was torched for eight runs in five innings and change, half of them coming on a pair of two-run shots by Todd Helton. His counterpart, rookie Bobby M. Jones of the Rockies, limited the Mets to two runs in his own five innings of work. The 8-5 loss was otherwise forgettable, save for Benny Agbayani's first major league home run. At the game's conclusion, Mets starters had pitched to an unsightly record of 11-14, with an ERA of 5.30, which was awful even when accounting for the hyperbolic offensive environment of 1999.
When the Mets traveled to Denver, Orel Hershiser left the team briefly to seek out an eye exam, hoping his recent struggles were due more to tired eyes in need of a contacts prescription than a tired arm. With Hershiser unavailable, a desperate Bobby Valentine asked Rick Reed to pitch on only two days' rest. Reed took one for the team and the team backed him up with their bats, accumulating a 10-1 lead after five innings. The Mets had to hold their breath when Reed was nailed in the rear end with a line drive in the bottom of the fifth, then gave up a long homer to Dante Bichette shortly thereafter. Reed toughed it out through that inning, however, and refused to blame the injury for the longball after the Mets' much needed 10-5 win. "My ass didn't throw that pitch, my arm did," he said later.
The Mets' rough road trip concluded in Philadelphia. The Phillies surprised everyone by playing well in the season's first month and sat right behind the Amazins in the standings when the Mets came to town. Their success was undermined considerably, however, by an ownership that insisted on slashing payroll down to a miniscule $26 million, and fans were further discouraged by constant rumors that the team would have to trade its biggest players, All Star third baseman Scott Rolen and ace Curt Schilling. Despite the Phils' hot start, management's chintzy ways caused so many no-shows at Veteran's Stadium that the team actually encouraged Mets fans to take a trip down the Jersey Turnpike and fill those empty seats.
With plenty of their own partisans in the stands, the Mets took the first two games in Philly. John Olerud hit a ball into the Vet's second deck in the first inning of the opener on May 14, while Robin Ventura and Edgardo Alfonzo also went deep in a 7-3 victory. The next night, Al Leiter faltered early, putting the Mets behind 6-0, but Pat Mahomes (last seen pitching for Japan's Orix Blue Wave) contributed 2 2/3 scoreless innings to give New York enough room to mount a comeback. The Mets scored five times in the fourth inning (four of the runs coming with two outs), tied the game on a Brian McRae solo homer in the fifth, and took their first lead on an RBI single from Alfonzo in the sixth. Despite watching Mike Piazza hit into a triple play, they hung on for a 9-7 win.
The Mets dropped the last game in Philly, 5-2, when Orel Hershiser's new contacts failed him and Matt Franco (pressed into left field duty) misplayed a crucial hit. But if the state of the Mets' rotation was still an enormous question mark, one outfielder had asserted himself as an exclamation point. With Bonilla and Henderson on the shelf, Roger Cedeño began receiving consistent playing time and took full advantage of the opportunity. The Venezuelan grew up idolizing Henderson, and in Henderson's absence he started getting noticed for Henderson-like play. His coming out party came during the first game in Philadelphia, when he victimized the home team by swiping four bags and scoring three times.
Cedeño's emergence had brought an element of speed to a team that was largely comprised of plodders. Of course, this brought up the inevitable queries from the press: Once Henderson healed, who would get more playing time? Bobby Valentine snapped back, "Don't ruin a good day with a silly question." Henderson himself did not think the question so silly, however, and he would make sure everyone knew what he felt before long.
In the next installment of our 1999 retrospective, the Mets would see historic grand slams, dramatic comebacks, and a brief moment of peace before a mighty fall.