The Mets moved from three charged, exhausting games at Turner Field to four games in Miami, where the atmosphere could not have been more different. Official attendance at Pro Player Stadium hovered around 11,000 for each leg of the series that began on June 28, and the amount of empty seats seen on TV suggested that even this paltry number was generous. In the second game, the post-fire-sale Marlins set the mark for third-lowest attendance in franchise history. Two days later, on a drizzly night when Bobby Valentine rested a healthy number of his regulars, the Marlins crawled under that mark again.
The visitors won three from the Marlins, with Octavio Dotel earning his first big league win in the finale, just barely. Staked to an 8-0 lead after four innings, the rookie got spooked when he was grazed in the back of the helmet by a pitch from Florida hurler Brian Edmondson, a pitch Dotel admitted he never saw. He staggered to the finish line, allowing two runs in the fourth and three more in the fifth, which was just good enough to qualify for the W in the Mets' eventual 12-8 victory.
Once again, the Marlins were little more than a speed bump before another clash with the Braves, with the battleground switching to Queens. The series in Atlanta ended with a thud—a decisive win in the opener followed by a 7-2 loss and a frustrating 1-0 defeat—but the Mets would still return home a mere three games behind the Braves in the NL East standings and a chance to make a statement.
It would be their last chance for a quite some time. The two teams would not face each other again until the final weeks of the season, and so the three games at Shea marked the Mets' last chance to do direct damage against the perpetual division winners until the end of September.
The home team would inflict its fair share of damage in the series, but most of it would be inflicted on themselves.
A sellout crowd showed up at Shea on Friday, July 2 to witness a rematch between Greg Maddux and Masato Yoshii, who'd battled neck-and-neck in the Atlanta finale that resulted in 1-0 Braves win. For those hoping to see another pitcher's duel, Maddux kept up his end of the deal. Yoshii didn't. Atlanta scored three times in the first, two runs coming on a 412-foot moonshot by Chipper Jones. They tacked on five more in a disastrous third inning that was capped by a three-run homer by Eddie Perez. And the Braves were not even close to done.
Longman Pat Mahomes made the first attempt at triage, and he allowed three more runs over the fourth and fifth innings. Greg McMichaels gave up one more in the sixth. If there's anything a team hates more than getting killed, it's the opposition treating that killing like a spring training game. This is exactly what the Braves did. With 12 runs on the board, Maddux departed after six innings, as did many of the Braves' regulars. "It was kind of like an off-day," Maddux yawned later. "We got in a lot of people we don’t normally get into games and gave guys like Chipper a rest."
If the Mets wondered how this debacle could possibly get worse, they found out in the ninth inning when John Franco took the mound. Franco hadn't made many appearances lately and was due to get some work in regardless of the score. He gave up a double and an RBI sac fly before feeling an ominous pop in his middle finger. Franco attempted to pitch through the pain and record the last out of the inning, but he walked two men and was forced to leave the game.
In the days that followed, the Mets would learn that Franco suffered a strained flexor tendon in his pitching hand and would be out of action for at least two months. Armando Benitez, who bewitched hitters as his setup man, would take his place as closer (a move many had been calling for even before the Franco injury). This development would have a huge impact on the bullpen, which had been one of the team's biggest assets. The absence of Franco would not only bump up Benitez, but every other reliever as well. As these pitchers logged more and more time on the mound, the Mets would be forced the team to seek fresh arms elsewhere.
But in that ninth inning, Bobby Valentine had a more immediate issue. He'd not only used almost every relief pitcher at his disposal, but his bench was short as well, with Edgardo Alfonzo away from the team for the birth of his second child. So, he was forced to improvise. Starting pitcher Rick Reed trotted out to right field. Roger Cedeño moved from right to second base, Luis Lopez moved from second to third, and Matt Franco moved from third to...the mound. Normally the Mets' go-to lefty bat off the bench, Matt Franco drew the short straw because he had pitched two whole innings as a minor leaguer, thus making him the most experienced pitcher out of all their position players.
The bored sellout crowd (which stuck around for postgame fireworks) came to life when the Mets' other Franco was called on to pitch, cheering every one of his 84-mph "fastballs." Franco's third pitch in the bigs was crushed for a three-run homer by Gerald Williams, but he did manage to strike out Andruw Jones for the final out of the inning, to the delight of the fans who either failed to notice nor didn't care that Jones's "swings" were poorly disguised attempts to bring this debacle to a close.
The 16-0 destruction marked the Braves' most lopsided win since moving to Atlanta and the worst shutout loss in Mets history. "There was talk from the Mets that this series with Atlanta would be a barometer," William C. Rhoden wrote in the Times, "a measuring stick for how far the team had come in the last month. If the game was a stick, Atlanta used it to thrash the Mets back to reality last night."
Stunned, the Mets continued to flail the next day against Atlanta's rookie starter Kevin Millwood. On a sweltering afternoon, Al Leiter matched zeroes with Millwood for four-plus innings before giving up a two-run double to Chipper Jones, immediately followed by a two-run shot off the bat of Brian Jordan into the picnic seats. Jordan was courted by the Mets in the offseason and expected to receive a contract offer from the team, but never did. He swore to anyone who'd listen that he'd make the Mets pay for their insolence. Now, he finally had.
Trailing 3-0 in the ninth, the Mets began to scratch against Millwood when Brian McRae worked a leadoff walk. Closer John Rocker was called on to restore order, but he threw a wild pitch and gave up a single to Todd Pratt that put runners on the corners with nobody out. That was as close as they would come to scoring. Alfonzo and John Olerud hit fly balls too shallow for McRae to tag up and score on. The Mets still had a glimmer of hope when Mike Piazza strode to the plate as the potential tying run, but Rocker struck him out on three pitches to end the threat and the ballgame.
Grilled by the press after the 3-0 defeat, the Mets did their best to shrug off these losses in Athlete-Speak: It's only two games, it's a long season, we still have our heads up... They insisted the Braves didn't have their number, even though all evidence pointed to the contrary. "If the Mets could have hit as well against Millwood as they rationalized after losing to him," Thomas Hill quipped in the Daily News, "they would have avoided the need for so much introspection."
In the visiting clubhouse, there was no need to rationalize. The Braves had beaten the Mets decisively and repeatedly. Statements from the team (both attributed and anonymous) showed that the Braves felt it was very important that nobody believe they could be dethroned, and that the Mets in particular needed brutal reminders of this fact. "We said when we started to play these guys to keep them down and don’t let them get their confidence up," Millwood crowed after his eight shutdown innings. "So far, we’ve done a pretty good job."
The series finale on July 4 shaped up to be another Braves beatdown. As high temperatures roasted Shea for the second afternoon in a row, Atlanta stayed red hot with back-to-back solo shots from Bret Boone and Chipper Jones in the opening inning. The Mets countered in the bottom of the first, as Mike Piazza tied the game with a two-run single and Benny Agbayani gave the Mets their first lead of the series with an RBI groundout. These were the first runs the Mets had scored off of Atlanta in 28 innings.
The Mets expanded their lead on an Edgardo Alfonzo RBI double in the second, but Orel Hershiser could not hold the advantage. In the top of the third, another Boone homer and an RBI sac fly from Ryan Klesko tied the game before a two-run blast by Randall Simon put the Braves back on top, 6-4.
The Mets' bullpen did its part to keep the Braves scoreless the rest of the way. This looked like it might be too little too late, because while Hershiser was melting, John Smoltz was returning to the unhittable Smoltz of old, putting up zeroes on the board after his rough start. But in the seventh, Rey Ordoñez collected a leadoff single, and Brian McRae followed with a walk. Rickey Henderson bunted both into scoring position to bring up Edgardo Alfonzo, who drilled a Smoltz fastball just over the 410 mark in straightaway center for a three-run homer. As soon as Fonzie connected, Smoltz walked off the mound, not even bothering to wait for Bobby Cox to emerge from the dugout and take the ball. He knew his day was over.
In his first "official" outing as closer, Armando Benitez earned the save in style by striking out Boone, Chipper, and Jordan in order. The Mets escaped by the skin of their teeth with a thrilling 7-6 win.
"It was a test if there ever was a test," Bobby Valentine declared after the game. He failed to mention the Mets made it a test by losing the previous four games against the Braves in such embarrassing fashion. Few in the press give the team any pats on the back. Despite the Mets' recent hot streak, the team has much to prove in the eyes of the media. Dave Anderson of the Times captured the prevailing view:
In their struggle to justify themselves as wild-card contenders, the Mets have yet to learn the trick of winning the series that make a difference in the standing, the trick of rising to the occasion. And until they learn it, they will never be a contender for a wild-card spot, much less a challenger for the division title.
It wouldn't be long before the Mets would have another chance to prove this perception wrong. The impending weekend would bring the Yankees to Shea, another occasion to which the Mets could rise. And rise they would.