Perhaps the Mets should have delayed the start some more. Because this game seemed out of reach for them literally from the first pitch. On the Yankees' bench, Knoblauch predicted--to no one in particular--"first pitch is going out." Whether he was truly clairvoyant, knew something no one else did, or was just taking a stab in the dark, nobody knows. But he was undeniably correct.
The shortstop belted Bobby Jones' very first offering, a slow, straight fastball, for a home run. And it wasn't a cheap one, either. (Unlike the park in the Bronx, Shea Stadium had few places in which an easy home run could be hit.) Not known as a slugger, Jeter clubbed the ball deep into the bleachers in the left-center field. It was the first leadoff home run in a World Series game since 1989, when ex-Met/ex-Yankee Rickey Henderson did it for the Oakland A's. Large portions of the crowd had yet to settle into their seats, and the Yankees already had a 1-0 lead.
Jeter later admitted he wanted to "take the crowd out of the game" as soon as possible. If true, mission accomplished. As was the case for good portions of game three, the Shea stands maintained a nervous, grumbling quiet for nearly the entire evening.
Jones retired Luis Sojo, David Justice, and Bernie Williams in order with little trouble to close out the top of the first, bringing Denny Neagle to the mound. He struck out Timo Perez on three pitches; the right fielder's bat had cooled down considerably since terrorizing pitchers in the first two rounds of the playoffs. When asked later to explain how the Yankees were pitching him differently, Timo laughed and placed his hands a foot apart, to indicate they were taking advantage of his free-swinging ways by throwing out of the strike zone.
Edgardo Alfonzo battled to a full count, then walked. (Joe Buck noted that every series game was broadcast on a large TV in downtown Caracas, the capital of his native Venezuela.) Mike Piazza put a charge into the crowd by absolutely destroying a Neagle fastball, but it landed foul, and was followed shortly by a swinging strike three. Todd Zeile bounced into a force out at second, and the Mets were retired in the bottom of the first.
Jones started out the top of the second well enough with a strikeout of Tino Martinez, but the inning soon turned sour. Paul O'Neill laced Jones' first pitch toward the right field corner. For some reason, Timo had been shaded toward center against the lefty batter, and he had to run a long way to get to the ball. He could not cut it off, and as the ball rolled to the wall, O'Neill was able to jog all the way to third, his second triple in as many nights. Bobby Valentine made the curious decision to intentionally walk Jorge Posada and face Scott Brosius, perhaps hoping for a double play. But Brosius did not cooperate, hitting a long fly ball to center field, more than deep enough to allow O'Neill to tag up and score from third, making the score 2-0 Yankees.
After a surprisingly tough at bat, Neagle went down on strikes to end the inning, then returned to pitch the bottom of the second. The Mets got their first hint of a threat when Benny Agbayani walked with one out, and Jay Payton parachuted a single to right that O'Neill could not catch up moving him to second. Neagle fell behind Mike Bordick 2-0, but still induced a pop out to Sojo, prompting some boos from the Shea crowd. The mild-mannered Jones curiously came to bat to the tune of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," but was not any kind of offensive threat, to put it kindly. He fell into a 1-2 hole, then popped out to Martinez, and the Mets remained scoreless.
As the top of the top of the third began, FOX showed soon-to-be free agent Alex Rodriguez sitting in the front row, right by the Mets' dugout. While Buck and McCarver pondered where he would land in the off season (the Mets being a strong possibility), another shortstop got things going for the Yankees. Jeter (reputed A-Rod best buddy) belted another flat Jones fastball, this one to the opposite field. The ball took a very high bounce off the wall in right-center, and hung in the air long enough for Jeter to cruise into third with a triple, already the second of the evening. With the infield not playing in (to the surprise of both McCarver and the batter), Sojo bounced a grounder to Alfonzo. As he flung the ball to first, Jeter trotted home to score. Jones retired Justice and Williams to end the inning, but the Yankees now had a 3-0 lead.
The Mets finally showed some life in the bottom of the third when their leadoff hitter woke up. Timo led off the bottom of the third and quickly fell behind 0-2, but battled back and singled up the middle, only his second hit of the series. Alfonzo ground out to third as Timo moved to second. He could not play hero, so Piazza would with a typical Piazza shot. Neagle threw a 1-0 changeup low and away. Piazza reached down to get it, blasting it into the stands in right-center, not far from where Jeter belted his own longball. The crowd exploded, fully believing the Mets were back in the game, though Neagle retired Zeile and Ventura to prevent them from thinking they could climb any further.
From that point on, the pitchers on both sides took turns allowing baserunners, then stranding or erasing them. Jones ceded a leadoff single to Martinez to start the top of the fourth, but erased him on a fielder's choice by O'Neill. (Torre came out of the dugout to argue the call, one of the few times he did so in the series, but replays showed the call was correct.) Posada then bounced a ball just over Zeile's glove, but Alfonzo made a spectacular play backing him up, grabbing the ball on the run and throwing it to Jones covering first. O'Neill moved to second on the bounce, prompting an intentional walk to Brosius to face the pitcher. That strategy had already bitten the Mets a few times in this series (and once in this game), but Neagle hit an unexpectedly deep fly out to Timo to end the inning.
In the top of the fifth, Jones escaped thanks to some more nifty glovework from Alfonzo. He finally retired Jeter by striking him out looking (the shortstop, as always, unhappy with the called strike three). But he followed with a four-pitch walk to Sojo, then allowed a sharp grounder to Justice that looked ticketed for the outfield. Alfonzo dove far to his left to snare it, then threw out Justice from his knees for the second out. ("I'm getting tired of seeing that!" first base coach Lee Mazzilli joked with Zeile. "Every other play!") Williams lined out to Bordick for out number three, stranding Sojo at second.
As for Neagle, he seemed to be cruising, due to a combination of skills and good fortune. In the bottom of the fourth, after falling behind Agbayani 3-1, he lucked out when Martinez ran down a foul near the first base stands and made a great over-the-shoulder catch. Jay Payton got a brief rise out of the crowd by lacing a single into shallow center, but Bordick flew out to left field, and Jones could only manage a three-pitch strikeout.
Neagle quickly retired Timo and Alfonzo to start the bottom of the fifth, on a total of five pitches. But with Piazza up next, Torre stunned most observers--and the pitcher--and yanked him, even though Neagle was one out away from qualifying for a win. Perhaps he feared another Piazza bomb--or remembered game four of the 1996 World Series, when Torre's team came back against Neagle (then a Brave) despite a 6-0 lead.
After the game, Torre admitted Neagle looked "shocked" and conceded his fear that the decision might come back to bite him. "If something bad had happened, I never would have been able to forgive myself," he said. But with a chance to be up three games to one, Torre would take no chances, trying to eliminate as many question marks as possible.
The lefty was replaced with onetime Met David Cone, a sentimental choice. His regular season was not good, and he'd only pitched one inning in the postseason so far. But he had a lot of great postseason baseball on his resume, andhe still had enough skills left to get Piazza to chase a pitch out of the zone and pop up to Sojo a few steps onto the outfield grass. Cone later reminisced about playing at Shea with legends like Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter. "I was a little interested to see what the reaction would be," he said, noting he hadn't pitched at Shea since being traded to Toronto in 1992. "It was a pretty firm 'boo.' So I know where I stand now."
Glendon Rusch took over for Jones in the top of the sixth and picked up right where his righty predecessor left off, allowing a one-out single to O'Neill and a two-out single to Brosius. With the pitcher's spot up next, Torre pinch hit for Cone with Jose Canseco, who didn't have a single plate appearance so far in these playoffs, or in any playoffs in five years. (His presence on the Yankees' roster was mostly an accident to begin with.) Despite Canseco's righty power, Valentine stuck with the lefty Rusch, and he froze the former slugger for a called strike three.
Todd Zeile got the Mets fans' hopes up when he singled to lead off the bottom of the sixth against new reliever, Jeff Nelson. After a Ventura flyout, Agbayani smoked a line drive that looked like it might head for the outfield. Unfortunately, the only place it headed was Nelson's outstretched glove. Thanks to his sidearm delivery, Nelson was perfectly positioned to catch the ball and fired to Martinez to double Zeile off of first. A would-be rally was brutally extinguished.
After Rusch worked a scoreless top of the seventh (a Sojo single and steal of second the only damage), Valentine made some of the moves many wished he'd made earlier in the series, batting for the struggling parts of his lineup. Unfortunately, his action was no more effective than his previous inaction.
Once Payton struck out looking against Nelson, Lenny Harris batted for Bordick and fought back from a 1-2 count to earn a free pass. Darryl Hamilton was announced as a pinch hitter for Rusch, prompting Torre to replace Nelson with lefty Mike Stanton, which in turn caused Valentine to send up right-handed batter Bubba Trammell instead. It was vaguely reminiscent of the chess games between Valentine and Bobby Cox in the 1999 NLCS, with much the same results. Trammell struck out, then Kurt Abbott (batting for the ice cold Timo) did the same to end what passed for a Mets scoring threat in this game.
John Franco went to the mound in the top of the eighth and gave up a leadoff single to Martinez, but erased him by getting a groundball double play from the bat of O'Neill. He then struck out Posada on three breaking pitches to finish the inning. Though the Yankees had been on base all night, none of them had gone as far as third since Jeter's triple to lead off the top of the third. It remained a one-run game going into the bottom of the eighth.
Unfortunately, the bottom of the eighth is when Torre decided to go for the jugular and erase any thoughts of a comeback. He called on Mariano Rivera to get a six-out save, something he was not asked to do very often. But as with Neagle, he had no thought of going with another reliever and maybe defeating the Mets when he could use Rivera and virtually assure it.
The first batter Rivera faced, Alfonzo, fell behind 0-2 before lining a ball to right field. Luck was not on his side--O'Neill, not exactly fleet of foot, ran in on the ball and made a sliding catch for the first out. (Of his suddenly silent bat, the second baseman said, "I picked a bad time to get a slump...I picked the wrong time to let my team down.") Piazza followed with a groundout to Jeter. Zeile managed to loft a single into shallow center. With dreams of an extra-base hit from the next batter, Ventura, Valentine replaced by slightly quicker pinch runner Joe McEwing, but Ventura swung at Rivera's first pitch and popped out softly to shortstop. In the blink of an eye, half of Rivera's work was already done. In the Yankees bullpen, Doc Gooden got loose, just in case the Mets managed to tie the game and force extra innings, but that did not seem likely.
Despite trailing, Valentine called on his own closer to keep the score tight in the top of the ninth. Typically, Armando Benitez got himself into immediate trouble with a leadoff walk to Brosius. He caught a good break when Rivera, batting for himself (to date his last postseason plate appearance), feigned sac bunt on the first pitch he saw, then suddenly swung away and flew out to right. Then, he caught a bad break when Trammell (now playing right field) ran in on a Jeter line drive and dropped it. Fortunately, Brosius could go no farther than second, and Benitez managed to stave off a potential meltdown with a groundout from Sojo and a fly out from Justice.
The score remained close, but any deficit felt like a yawning chasm against Rivera, who proceeded to make mincemeat of the Mets batters in the last of the ninth.The crowd managed to get up for one of the few times that night, though whether the cheers came from Mets fans urging their team on or Yankees fans wanting Rivera to finish them off was unclear.
Agbayani struck out looking, fooled by cutter on the inside corner. Payton fought back from 1-2 to a full count and fouled off a few tough two-strike pitches, but could manage no more than a fly out to left. When Matt Franco (inserted at first base in the top half of the inning after the flurry of pinch hitters in the eighth inning) came to bat, FOX replayed his game winning hit against Rivera from the previous year's Subway Series at Shea. No heroics were forthcoming this time. Rivera froze him with a called strike three, giving the Yankees a 3-2 win and a 3-1 lead in the series.
At the night's end, the only damage the Mets did to the Yankees came when a standpipe burst in Shea's visiting clubhouse. The water reached "knee-high" levels according to the Daily News, ruining most of the furnishings Steinbrenner had just trucked in from the Bronx. Typical of his luck that evening, Neagle was the first to discover the disaster. After his early exit, he retired to the clubhouse, and as he got undressed, the room began to fill with water. (It wasn't me!" he insisted.)
After the game, Tyler Kepner noted a piece of paper taped to Alfonzo's locker, with the Biblical admonition, "faith is assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen." "The Mets are left with their faith now," he wrote, "left to believe they have lost their final game of the season."
One Met after the other salved themselves with the thought that each of their losses had been one-run affairs. In aggregate, the Yankees had only scored one more run than the Mets (15-14). They weren't getting blown away, they were getting nipped. Couldn't they nip right back?
"They've lost three straight before,'' Payton said. ''And we've won three straight. We'll just have to grind it out, get down and dirty." Agbayani remembered how he didn't give up back in March, even when a demotion or trade appeared imminent, and took comfort in that come-from-behind tale. "It's going to be tough," he said, "but we can't just run away."
But the truth of the matter was, no team had come back from down 3-1 in a World Series since the 1985 Kansas City Royals--and even they needed some help from an infamous blown call. The close scores of these games somehow made it worse psychologically, as if the Yankees were keeping the scores tight just to toy with them.
Interviewed on the field by Olbermann after the last out (as the underwater clubhouse was unusable), O'Neill said "these are gut-wrenching games, physically, emotionally exhausting." But they were even more so if you were on the losing end. Jeff Pearlman contrasted the Lenny Harris of early October--a man who fully embraced and preached the Ya Gotta Believe! philosophy--with the man of late October. Before, Harris proclaimed the Mets a "team of destiny." Now, he mumbled the usual platitudes about the Yankees being a great team, and so on. "the words were dull and the message was clear. Destiny, schmestiny. The Mets are in deep trouble."
"Here's the compliment no team wants to hear: The Mets made it close," Vic Ziegel wrote. "The next time those those five words are used it becomes their epitaph." Mike Lupica summed it up in an almost zen koan: "Game 4 was all the games."
The Yankees were careful to note the words of their former catcher--"it ain't over til it's over." Jeter, in his own on-field postgame interview, called the Mets "the best team we've played in the World Series" and mentioned their improbable comebacks of years past. The team's owner was a little less guarded. "I'll tell you this: I'd rather be where we are than where they are," Steinbrenner told reporters after the game. "You know what they say about the lead dog--the view never changes."
At least the Mets had Al Leiter scheduled to pitch game five. Though still winless as a starter in his Mets postseason career, he'd pitched well in enough in all but one of those starts to earn a victory, not that it mattered much to him. "I know in my heart that I've thrown well enough to have a win next to my name," he said, "but I would far rather have a winning team and a championship than a great postseason record and no championship. It's such a selfless time of the year." Valentine figured Leiter's bad luck so far just meant "the odds will be with us for him to get a win."
"If there's justice for the cheated, if there's truly a law governing averages," Darren Everson wrote, "Al Leiter will win Game 5 of the World Series tonight."