1999: Way down south

This week in 1999: The Mets finally battle the Braves and awaken a sleeping giant.

After taking care of business during a seven-game jaunt to Cincinnati and St. Louis, the Mets returned home on June 22 and executed a tidy three-game sweep of the hapless Marlins. In the series opener, Mike Piazza smacked a home run that extended his hitting streak to 24 games, tying the franchise mark set by Hubie Brooks in 1984. The next day, however, Piazza went hitless while suffering a mild concussion after a Bruce Aven backswing nailed him in the head. He stayed in the game long enough to log another fruitless plate appearance before leaving in favor of Todd Pratt. "I think I swung at one of the balls I saw," a woozy Piazza said later.

With the Marlins putting up little resistance, the Mets were free to look forward to their next opponent, the Atlanta Braves. While they should have been preoccupied with Florida, Mets players were caught running into the clubhouse several times to check the scores in the Braves' series hosting the Expos. Atlanta took two of three from Montreal, which meant the Mets would travel to Turner Field three games out of first place in the National League East.

The Mets had played everyone else in NL East multiple times already, but had yet to face Atlanta in 1999. Now, they would play them six times in the span of a week (three at Turner Field and three at Shea, sandwiching another series against the Marlins). Then, they would endure another long separation before a pair of meetings at the end of September. This scheduling quirk seemed to have no purpose other than to confuse and annoy both teams.

The Braves were the division leaders in perpetuity, and had also ended the Mets' postseason dreams in 1998 by sweeping a trio of games at the very end of the regular season that mean absolutely nothing to Atlanta and meant everything to New York. This may have been why Bobby Valentine spoke of the Braves in almost supernatural terms. "They're always there," he said as the Mets prepared to head south. "They'll always be there."

And yes, the Braves were indeed there in first place again, but for the first time in years they looked vulnerable. A new interpretation of the strike zone put in place for 1999 had adversely affected all pitchers, but none so dramatically as Atlanta's pair of aces, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux. Robbed of the calls off the plate that they'd relied on for years, their stats hit unfathomable heights; on the eve of the Mets series, both Glavine and Maddux had ERAs above 4 and averaged 14 baserunners per nine innings.

A profile of Maddux by Tom Verducci for Sports Illustrated detailed his woes, showing that the new K zone and the overall offensive explosion baseball experienced that season had turned Maddux from an artist to a mechanic. Even Maddux's personal catcher, Eddie Perez, admitted he was stunned by the degree to which he was missing with his pitches. Verducci's piece contained several anonymous quotes from players and execs who feared (or perhaps hoped) that these struggles spelled the beginning of the end for him. John Harper of the Daily News captured the consensus—and what the Mets were certainly thinking at the time—when he insisted "hitters no longer need to genuflect before stepping into the batter’s box against Greg Maddux or Tom Glavine."

The Mets paid no obeisance on the evening of June 25 when they handed their hosts a 10-2 drubbing. Faulty stadium lighting delayed the start of the game by 45 minutes, and Mike Piazza sat out while still recovering from a concussion, but his teammates ignored these ill omens. Benny Agbayani hit a home run to open the scoring in the top of the second, while a trio of RBI hits from Todd Pratt, Roger Cedeño, and Rick Reed in the sixth chased Braves starter Odalis Perez from the game. The Mets piled on with six more runs against Atlanta's bullpen to ensure their first win at Turner Field in almost two years.

All this victory may have accomplished, however, was to wake a sleeping giant. Atlanta was particularly irked in the top of the ninth when Rickey Henderson stole a base even though the Mets already enjoyed a five-run lead. Bobby Valentine dismissed the complaint outright, saying (not in so many words) that Henderson was the all-time stolen base leader and he could steal a base whenever he damn well felt like it, thank you very much.

The Braves were also perturbed that the Mets picked this moment to call up pitching prospect Octavio Dotel. The 25-year-old's live arm had pulverized triple-A competition all season, but the front office—fearful of rushing him to the bigs the way they had done with the ill-fated members of Generation K—resisted calling him up before he was ready.

The Mets brass was nothing if not mercurial, however. During the team's recent road trip, they reversed course and decided to give Dotel his long-awaited promotion. In order to do so, management suddenly changed its mind on another point. Suggestions that Jason Isringhausen might fare better as a reliever were once deflected as hogwash. Then, the luckless pitcher confessed his arm "felt like a noodle" after tossing only 75 pitches in a rough start in St. Louis. This caused the Mets to reconsider their stance on the issue, and thus Izzy was sent down to triple-A Norfolk to recondition himself as a relief pitcher, a move he accepted with the resignation of the condemned.

Dotel's debut would be a welcome addition to a starting rotation that had few strikeout pitchers. But the timing of his addition was curious, at best. The Mets had just played a breeze of a series at home against the Marlins and could have thrown Dotel against a soft opponent. Instead, they asked him to make his very first major league start against their closest rivals. The Braves interpreted this as a lack of respect that must be punished. "He's one of their bright ones, right?" Braves manager Bobby Cox grumbled before Dotel's premiere, voicing an implied I'll believe it when I see it.

Cox did not see much when Dotel took the mound in game two. The visibly nervous rookie walked the first two batters he faced, then hung a slider that Ryan Klesko deposited into the right field seats for a three-run homer. Dotel found a groove for a while before giving up a back-breaking two-run double to Chipper Jones in the fifth. A wild pitch moved Chipper to third, allowing him to score on a Brian Jordan sac fly, and that was all she wrote for Dotel's debut. He might have been removed from the game sooner but for a broken phone in the visitor's dugout; Valentine was forced to use his batboy as a passenger pigeon, carrying messages to and from the bullpen.

Mets relievers held the Braves at bay the rest of the way, but the damage was already done. Tom Glavine picked off corners as if the strike zone hadn't changed at all, handing the Mets a 7-2 loss. With Atlanta up by five runs in the bottom of the seventh, Chipper Jones stole a base, a move that was patently unnecessary except as a reaction to Rickey Henderson's move the night before.

The series finale pitted Masato Yoshii against Greg Maddux and proved that rumors of Maddux's pitching death were greatly exaggerated. He utterly dominated Mets batters for eight innings, a pair of two-out singles in the top of the fifth as close as he came to trouble.

Yoshii was nearly as good, but perfection was needed to best Maddux on this night, and Yoshii was not perfect. In the bottom of the third, Eddie Perez reached him for a one-out single, then moved to second on a sac bunt from Maddux. Yoshii backed the next batter, Ozzie Guillen, into a two-strike count before throwing him a diving forkball. Guillen reached down for the pitch and hit the ball into the right-center gap, a double that rolled long enough to allow Perez to rumble home from second.

It was only one run, and it was one run too many. By the ninth inning, Maddux had only thrown 93 pitches, but in typical Maddux fashion he saw no need to tax himself further. So he gave way to lefty John Rocker, who'd recently grabbed the closer's role from the injured Kerry Ligtenberg. The Mets seemed to stir to life when Edgardo Alfonzo hit a one-out single. A groundout moved pinch-runner Melvin Mora to third and brought Piazza to the plate, but Rocker intentionally walked him to face Robin Ventura instead. The lefty-batting Ventura fared well against southpaws (hitting .281 against them), but he had no answer for Rocker, who struck him out swinging on a sharp curveball.

The Braves won, 1-0, and captured two of their first three games against the Mets in 1999. And yet, to hear the Mets tell it, they were the real winners in Atlanta. Not in games of course, but in the sense that they proved they were nearly as good as the Braves. Henderson had the nerve to say, "We have the better club….The one thing I’ve always said about the Atlanta Braves is they’re a lucky club. When you have luck rolled in and balls going their way, I think they have the little edge over us right now. I think it’s going to be a good run to the end."

Considering what Henderson's stolen base had done to the Braves' resolve, this was dangerous talk. But for the moment at least, Atlanta chose to keep their opinions of the Mets to themselves. They even voiced reserved praise for the Distinguished Competition. "I don’t see them going away," said Chipper Jones, of all people. "They have too many good players."

Having destroyed all competition for an entire decade (in the regular season, at least), the Braves were aware that talk was cheap. They chose to make their statements in between the lines, and were already planning some stern lectures for their upcoming trip to Shea.

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