October 24: Few liked the Mets' chances going into game three, for a multitude of reasons. They'd looked sloppy in game one. They'd sleepwalked at the plate in game two until the ninth inning, and even that sudden offensive outburst fell short. They were still preoccupied with the bizarre bat-chucking episode (though that was understandable; the only people in the tri-state area who had no desire to discuss it further were the Yankees). Their opponent had made a few mistakes but weathered each one. The Yankees had won 14 straight World Series games going back to 1996.
But most of all, the Mets were not favored because the Yankees had Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez on the mound. He was a big game pitcher in his native Cuba, and an even bigger game pitcher following his defection. His unusual vertical leg kick and endless assortment of pitches, tough to adjust to in the regular season, became impossible to decipher in the playoffs. Thus far in his American postseason career, he was literally unbeatable: 8-0 in 10 starts, and even his two no-decisions were eventual Yankee wins.
Game six of the 2000 ALCS was the closest El Duque had yet come to looking human, giving up six runs in seven innings to the Mariners, before a David Justice three-run shot saved the day. Apart from that, his postseason starts had been brilliant. Though he professed to be fighting a cold, no one expected anything but dominance from him in game three.
The Mets would counter with Rick Reed, who came across to most observers as a decided step down from their lefty aces, Mike Hampton and Al Leiter. During the division series, Reed was referred to by FOX as the "poor man's Greg Maddux," which overstated both his resemblance to the Braves pitcher and his poverty. (Although, according to the FOX broadcast, he admitted he learned a two-seam fastball from watching Maddux employ it during the 1996 World Series.)
If nothing else, Reed was tough. In 1999, he pitched two fantastic playoff games against Arizona and Atlanta, and was by far their most consistent starter during the 2000 regular season. He gutted out six solid innings against the Giants in game three of the division series, giving up seven hits but just two runs, which allowed his teammates to tie the game and eventually win the marathon.
But Reed would have to be better than gutty. He'd have to be damn near perfect, because if he let the Mets fall into a hole, it was unlikely El Duque would allow them to dig themselves out. They'd already beaten some tough pitchers this season, like Russ Ortiz and Darryl Kile (twice), but Orlando Hernandez had yet to show that beating him was remotely possible. Not to mention, Reed's last start against the Cardinals had not gone well, handing St. Louis its only win of the NLCS. For an extra set of odds to stack against him, Reed had never beaten the Yankees.
If Reed had anything in his favor, it was a chip on his shoulder. Like many of his teammates, he was furious at Clemens over what he did in game two ("There was no room in this game for what he did," he told The New York Times). In his mind, there would be no better revenge than beating the Yankees and snapping their historic World Series winning streak.
The Clemens incident turned an already tense city into a powder keg. In Staten Island, overzealous/pyromaniac Yankee fans snuck onto a lawn with a large Mets logo painted in the grass, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze. Before the game, Yankees fans acted as poor guests and paraded around the ballpark carrying brooms. More than 700 police officers were on hand to keep the peace, even more than showed up when John Rocker visited. One fan confronted a policeman and demanded to know if he was a Yankees or Mets fan. His response: "I'm a fan of overtime."
To emphasize the war-like atmosphere now surrounding the teams, FOX opened the pregame show with a montage of a drive to Queens, mimicking the opening credits of The Sopranos. Analyst Steve Lyons adopted the Yankees' party line, saying he blamed the media for inflating the controversy and was sick of talking about the incident. He and Keith Olbermann then proceeded to discuss it for the next five minutes.
Sensing Clemens might distract his team even further, Bobby Valentine attempted to take the high road and refocus the Mets on the task at hand. When asked about what Clemens could possibly have been thinking, Valentine said, "I get very, very upset when people see my actions and try to tell me what my intentions are. I'm not going to take the place of those people or whomever it is that try to figure out what I'm doing."
Valentine also gave a brief report on Rick Reed: "We talked. I think he'll be fine."
The Mets' lineup would remain virtually unchanged, while the Yankees made one move that came as a bit of a surprise. Jose Vizcaino, the game one hero, would play second base and lead off, relegating Chuck Knoblauch to the bench. Joe Torre also confirmed that his game four starter would not be David Cone (as had been occasionally rumored), but Denny Neagle.
Before the game, Al Leiter received the Roberto Clemente Award to honor the humanitarian work of his charitable foundation, Leiter's Landing. Prior to any players taking the field, the Mets welcomed a collection of gold medal winners from the recent summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. (One of them, softballer Lisa Hernandez, threw out the first pitch along with Olympic coach/longtime Dodgers manager/Bobby Valentine mentor Tommy Lasorda.) The Mets fans did not get a chance to express their displeasure with Roger Clemens, at least not specifically. The players who didn't start this game jogged onto the field and took their place on the third base line en masse. (The same protocol had been followed in the series opener at Yankee Stadium.)
But The Rocket did get one unfriendly message: a $50,000 fine from the league office for his bat flinging act. (Which immediately begged the question: If an outburst is serious enough to warrant a five-figure fine, how did it not also warrant an ejection?) Clemens said he reserved his right to appeal the punishment, but made no announcement that he planned to do so. To put it in perspective, Lenny Harris also faced a undisclosed fine for comments he made about Clemens after game two (including, but not limited to, "Oh, it's on"), implying that what Harris said and what Clemens did were equivalent offenses.
Joe Buck reported "an odd feeling on the field prior to the game." Everyone involved--reporters, players, and fans--knew that a fine had done nothing to end the issue, that it could reignite at any moment. "It's still there," Buck said of the incident, "and it's hanging over this series."
Tim McCarver reminded the viewers of how much Shea had rocked (literally) during the pennant clinching game against the Cardinals, and it got very loud very early in this game, the first World Series contest at Shea Stadium since game seven in 1986. Reed quickly got ahead of leadoff hitter Vizcaino 0-2, and after a few fouls induced a harmless fly to Timo Perez in right for the first out. The Shea faithful got even louder when Reed caught Derek Jeter looking on three pitches, the third a fastball that dented the inside corner as Jeter bailed out. He pitched carefully to David Justice and walked him, then went full to Bernie Williams before getting a called strike three on another inside pitch that barely grazed the strike zone. Williams griped to the home plate umpire about the call, to no avail (he'd been 0 for the series so far, which may have contributed to his frustration).
The crowd's enthusiasm was soon dampened by the opposing pitcher. It was clear from the very first Met batter that Reed needed to be on top of his game because, as predicted, El Duque was on top of his. In the bottom of the first, Timo Perez, Edgardo Alfonzo, and Mike Piazza struck out in succession, and the pitcher seemed to expend very little energy in the effort. Reed returned the favor in the top of the first by striking out Tino Martinez on three pitches, caught Jorge Posada looking, and, after Paul O'Neill dunked a ground-rule into the left field corner, struck out Scott Brosius on a rising fastball to end the inning.
In the regular season, El Duque had two weaknesses: the home run ball (31 longballs given up in the regular season) and lefty batters, who hit .280 against him. Both burned him in the bottom of the second. He made the mistake of leaving a fastball high and right over the heart of the plate to Robin Ventura. The third baseman was waiting for it and clubbed the ball to deep right-center, off the base of the scoreboard, giving the Mets a 1-0 lead. Unfortunately for the Mets, El Duque picked up right where he left off by catching both Todd Zeile and Benny Agbayani on called strike threes, then fanning Jay Payton.
Reed started the top of the third by striking out Hernandez on three pitches, making it the 12th consecutive out in the game recorded by strikeout. Even allowing for a generous strike zone from home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg (he was giving quite a bit of space on both sides of the plate, to both pitchers), at this point it looked quite a pitcher's duel.
Of course, this was the point at which Reed began to falter. After Vizcaino grounded out to short, Jeter swung at Reed's first pitch and lofted it into left field. A good route and throw from Agabayani kept him at first base, though he wouldn't stay there long. Justice rifled a double down the first base line, just between Zeile and the bag. Timo fired a throw to Alfonzo, who hesitated for a moment, then threw high to home plate. The delay and the trajectory both conspired to allow Jeter to score the tying run.
Reed induced a groundout from Williams to end the inning, then knocked a one-out single in the bottom of the third to aid his cause. But Timo flew out to left and Alfonzo, after a tough at bat where he fouled a few full count offerings, popped up to second to strand him there, and the Yankees struck again in the top of the fourth.
Martinez led off with a single, and, following a called strikeout of Posada, O'Neill clubbed a hit to the right-center gap that rolled to the wall. Martinez scored all the way from first, and O'Neill, despite his bad hip, legged it out for a triple, putting another run on third with one out.
Trouble continued to brew when Reed's very next pitch hit Brosius in the chest to put runners at the corners. The Mets caught some luck when Hernandez laid down a sac bunt to Reed, and he was able to hold the runner at third while recording the out at first. He followed by tossing a called strike three to Vizcaino, his second backwards K of the inning and already his eighth strikeout of the game. But the most important stat was the score, which showed the Yankees now led 2-1.
The Mets made some noise in the bottom half when Ventura bounced a one-out double down the first base line (it could have been a groundout, but the ball took an odd hop, clanked off of Martinez's chest, and scooted into the outfied). El Duque bore down by striking out Zeile looking and getting an easy fly out from Agbayani to keep Ventura anchored at second.
In the bottom of the fifth, Mike Bordick hit a one-out single up the middle past a diving Vizcaino. After a Reed sac bunt to move him to second, Timo fell behind 0-2, then fought back to work a walk, only the second free pass the Mets earned in the series, and the first time all night the Mets had two men on base at once. But Alfonzo, who'd come through for the Mets throughout the postseason, failed to do so here, chasing a pitch that tailed out of the zone for strike three.
The crowd, which had caught some momentary fervor, hushed itself in a hurry. In stark contrast to the last playoff game at Shea, the stands were almost deathly quiet. The hangover from the two losses at Yankee Stadium, the bad taste of the Clemens incident, another Yankee lead, and the mastery of El Duque all conspired to quiet the Mets partisans in attendance.
But Reed did his best to keep the Mets on the field in the game, bending but not quite breaking. Jeter singled on a ball deep in the shortstop hole to lead off the top of the fifth, but Reed worked around this and a dropped ball in foul territory from Agbayani (not an error, though it could have been). Justice flew out to center, Williams grounded out to first as Jeter moved up to second, and Martinez flew out to center to strand him there. In the top of the sixth, Reed finally recorded a 1-2-3 inning, with some help from Alfonzo, who dove well to his left on a sharp O'Neill grounder and threw from his legs for the second out.
This allowed the Mets to take advantage when El Duque finally showed some weakness in the bottom of the sixth. Piazza led things off with a double down the third base line, just under Brosius's glove (fan interference from the left field stands kept him from going past second, though it's doubtful the catcher had any thoughts of doing so). Remembering the home run in the second inning, Hernandez pitched Ventura carefully and walked him. Zeile made him pay for his caution. He made a halfhearted stab at a sacrifice bunt on the first pitch, then backed out of the batter's box.
"I literally asked if they would let me swing the bat," Zeile said. "I did not want to bunt in that situation. I'm certainly grateful for Bobby--he called it off. On the next pitch, I was able to get it done." Given a chance to swing the bat. Zeile turned on El Duque's second pitch and doubled into the left field corner. Piazza came around to score, Ventura moved to third, and the game was tied at 2.
The crowd reentered the game, and got even more vocal when Agbayani went to a full count, fouled off several tough pitches, then walked to load the bases with nobody out. A big inning seemed likely, a Mets lead almost certain. Neither materialized thanks to El Duque, who fanned Payton and Bordick. With the go-ahead run 90 feet away, each hitter looked overanxious, reaching for breaking pitches that tailed off the plate and fastballs at eye level. Valentine took one last stab at taking the lead by pinch hitting for Reed with Darryl Hamilton, but he bounced a grounder to shortstop for the third out. Amazingly, the Mets had tied up the game. Even more amazingly, they hadn't gone ahead.
Turk Wendell took over for Reed to begin the top of the seventh, and started off brilliantly by striking out Hernandez and Vizcaino. But when he lost Jeter to a walk, Valentine swapped him for Dennis Cook to face Justice. Cook promptly hit the left fielder to move the go-ahead run into scoring position, then fell behind Williams 3-1. But the lefty battled back, freezing Williams on a letter-high fastball, then getting him to flail at a changeup for strike three.
The Yankees refused to go quietly again in the top of the eighth. Cook walked Martinez to start things off, and Valentine turned to John Franco negotiate his way through danger. He got exactly what he needed, a sharp groundball from Posada hit right to Ventura, quickly converted into a double play. Franco got ahead of O'Neill 0-2 (both pitches called strikes that the right fielder, as per his custom, griped about to the home plate umpire). But Franco's third pitch was smacked just under his glove and into center field for a single. With Brosius up next, Torre opted to pinch hit with Glenallen Hill. His history against Franco was good, to put it mildly: 6-for-12, with three home runs. Franco won the battle this time, with an easy fly ball to send the game to the bottom of the eighth, still tied at 2.
After wriggling off the hook in the bottom of the sixth, El Duque set down the top of the Mets' order in order, barely breaking a sweat in the process; after rough fifth and sixth innings, he needed only nine pitches to navigate the seventh. So far, he'd looked every bit the fierce competitor his reputation said he was.
Referring to the bases-loaded, nobody out situation the Mets could not convert, Buck said, "You get the feeling that was the Mets' shot." McCarver wondered why in the sixth inning, with the go-ahead run on third base and only one out, Valentine stuck with a struggling Bordick and didn't send up Matt Franco or Lenny Harris, both experienced pinch hitters, and lefties to boot. It was another wasted opportunity, one the broadcast booth did not think the Mets would get a chance to rectify. Considering how the first two games proceeded, it seemed a question not if the Yankees would win, but when and how.
But El Duque's competitiveness, and his manager's faith in it, worked against him as the game went to the bottom of the eighth. "He deserved the right to get a decision in this game," Torre said after the game. "He was pumped, and with what he has done for us, it was tough for me to deny him what he wanted." Hernandez himself insisted, "The number of pitches you make is not important; it's how you feel."
Despite a large pitch count (121 to start the inning), it certainly looked like he felt fine when he struck out Ventura on three pitches to start the inning, his 12th K of the game (a new franchise record for strikeouts in a World Series game). He then went full to Zeile before giving up a grounder that hopped just over Jeter's glove as he dove for it. That brought Agbayani to the plate, an 11-game playoff hitting streak, and the series, on the line. As Agbayani waited to bat, hitting coach Tom Robson counseled him, "Just go up there and click it. Don't go up and kill it."
Though he was proud of his native Hawaii, to the point of wearing number 50 in its honor, he had little interest in going there soon. "I don't want to go back home yet," he said. Agbayani belted a 1-0 hanging slider to the wall in left-center. Zeile--not the fastest man in the world--rumbled around the bases and rounded third, looking like he was leaking oil. Lucky for him, the ball was hit hard enough, and took so long to retrieve, that the Yankee outfield considered a throw to the plate futile. The stands erupted, and the Mets burst out of the dugout to greet Zeile as he rumbled home. Agbayani stood on second, the author of an RBI double that gave the Mets a 3-2 lead.
Of course, they also had a 3-2 lead going into the ninth of game one and bypassed an opportunity to get more runs against Mariano Rivera, a failure that cost them deeply. This time, they would convert. Payton swung at Hernandez's first pitch and bounced it slowly up the middle. Vizcaino grabbed it and fired to first as quickly as he could, but it was a hair too late. Agbayani moved to third on the play, putting men on the corners with one out.
When Lenny Harris was announced as a pinch hitter for Bordick, Torre was finally forced to go to his bullpen, yanking El Duque after 134 pitches. The lefty Mike Stanton came into the game, which Valentine countered by swapping Harris with Bubba Trammell and sending Joe McEwing to pinch run for Agbayani at third. Trammell responded with a flay ball to center, more than deep enough for McEwing to tag up and score the fourth Mets run.
Pinch hitter Kurt Abbott struck out to send the game to the ninth and bring Armando Benitez to the mound. His failure in game one was fresh in everyone's mind, as were all of his previous postseason failures. So no Mets fan could feel good when pinch hitter Chuck Knoblauch lined his second pitch into centerfield for a single. While a good portion of the 56,000 fans groaned, Alfonzo jogged to the mound to give Benitez a brief pep talk. "Don't forget you're the man," he said, and ran back to his post at second base.
The next batter, pinch hitter Luis Polonia, did Benitez a big favor by swinging at the first pitch he saw, lofting it to Payton in shallow center for out number one. Jeter was up next, and Benitez got ahead of the shortstop 1-2, then froze him on a changeup on the inside corner. It was the 25th strikeout between the two teams, tying a World Series record.
Justice was up next, and it was imperative Benitez get him out. On deck: Williams, 6-for-7 lifetime against the Mets closer. As Knoblauch took second on defensive indifference, Benitez fell behind 3-1, sending more nervous shivers throughout the crowd. For a team just one out away from its first World Series game win in 14 years, the stands were preternaturally quiet--perhaps too spooked to be too loud.
Justice broke his bat on a foul down the first base line, bringing the Yankees down their last strike and bringing a modicum of life back into the crowd. The fans didn't dare erupt until the next pitch, when Justice skied a pop up just behind the infield. Alfonzo backed up and caught it for the final out. Shea could exhale. The Yankees' 14-game World Series game winning streak was over, as was El Duque's unbeaten playoff streak. The Mets had climbed back into the series.
In response to the charges lobbed against the Mets--that they were intimidated or simply unprepared to play on such a huge stage--Zeile said, "There was never a sense of urgency tonight. It was a sense of, 'Now's the time'."