October 4: Before the last game of the regular season, Bobby Valentine finally announced his game one starter would be Mike Hampton. He downplayed the choice of Hampton over Al Leiter: "There is no determining factor other than it's Mike Hampton and Al Leiter pitching two very important games on the road as we open the playoffs." Even so, Hampton's lifetime record of 9-0 against the Giants may have had something to do with his decision. Leiter would start game two, both because of the fantastic year he had and because the Giants went 19-20 against lefty starters that season. Rick Reed, who'd had very few bad outings all year, would pitch game three. The game four starter was a toss-up between Glendon Rusch and Bobby Jones, but Valentine preferred to cross that bridge if he came to it.
As for the batters, Valentine's biggest surprise inclusion was Joe McEwing, who the manager said he wanted because of his ability to "rise to the occasion". Bubba Trammell also made the roster, and pinch hitter Matt Franco, a big contributor during 1999's postseason, was the odd man out on the bench. The bullpen was largely the same as it had been the year before, with the addition of Rick White and the subtraction of Pat Mahomes, who'd struggled all year. Either Rusch or Jones--whichever one did not start--would take his place as the long man.
The Giants finished the year with the best record in baseball, 97-65, 11 games ahead of the second-place Dodgers. After a slow start to their season, they heated up in May and never cooled off. They also shared the best home record in baseball with the Mets (55-26), which New York saw in full effect during their first trip to Pac Bell Park, a four-game Giants sweep. (Technically, the Mets had a 55-25 record at Shea--one of their "home" losses came in Tokyo.)
Many Giants traced their team's success in 2000 to the brand new ballpark, which drew rave reviews for many reasons, but most of all because it wasn't gloomy, frigid Candlestick Park. "It's night and day," said outfielder Ellis Burks. "It's more of a baseball atmosphere here. Everything is right on top of you. It's the difference between playing in front of 45,000 fans and 15,000." When asked about the park's unique dimensions, which had bamboozled many visiting teams that year, Valentine joked, "We've had meetings where we've instructed our pitchers to keep the balls in front of our outfielders so that the walls won't come into play." The advice would go unheeded in game one.
San Francisco's starting rotation was top heavy, headed by Livan Hernandez, Shawn Estes, and Russ Ortiz, and their bullpen was anchored by fireballers Felix Rodriguez and closer Rob Nen, who had not blown a save since July 2. The Mets had some great pitching of their own, but their hitters were slump-prone and collectively struggled at times, while the Giants' powerful lineup rarely had, even in their spacious new park. It was powered by eventual NL MVP Jeff Kent (an ex-Met who insisted playing his former team meant nothing special to him), Ellis Burks, Rich Aurilia, and of course Barry Bonds, who belted a career-high 49 home runs in 2000 (yes, 49 home runs was once his career high).
And yet, Bonds was almost seen as a liability in October. Between his days with Pittsburgh and San Francisco, Bonds had never hit well in the playoffs (lifetime postseason batting average before the start of this NLDS: .200). The bulky left fielder was already tired of fielding questions about his clutchness (or lack thereof). "It's not about me because I'm not playing the Mets by myself," he said on the eve of the playoffs. "If Hampton throws a shutout against the Giants, Hampton didn't shut down Barry Bonds. Hampton shut down the San Francisco Giants because he also shut down eight other batters. That's how it should be written." Writers were already harping on Bonds not only for his playoff struggles, but also his aloofness from the rest of the team, as exemplified by his "lair" in the Giants' clubhouse, outfitted with its own leather recliner.
While the Mets took on the Giants in San Francisco. the Yankees were across the Bay in Oakland. They sputtered down the stretch even worse than the Mets had, and finished with a mere (for them) 87 wins, meaning they'd start the playoffs on the road. It also meant both teams would be back in New York at the same time for their respective series, creating a logistical nightmare for both the city and the networks broadcasting the games. After the Mets and Giants did battle, the Yankees and Oakland would meet up for game two of their series. Oakland took game one by scoring four runs off of Roger Clemens, tagging him with the loss.
The game began on an odd note (literally) when the National Anthem was performed by the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, opera singer Frederica von Stade, and Jerry Lawson, member of the doo-wop group The Persuasions. With that cacophonic tribute to our nation out of the way, Livan Hernandez took the mound for the Giants. He was 4-0 in his postseason career so far (all previous starts with the Marlins in 1997, one at the expense of the Giants), and also had lots of big game experience as an ace in his native Cuba. Hernandez would turn in a typical Livan performance: maddeningly good, dominating without being overpowering.
Hernandez set down the Mets in order in the top of the first, then Mike Hampton went to the hill for his first postseason start as a Met. Despite his dominance of the Giants, he had not fared well in his previous playoff chances. In three starts over three years with Houston, he went 0-2 with a 5.87 ERA, and he struggled from the get-go in game one. WIth one out in the bottom of the first, he gave up a double to Bill Mueller and a single to Barry Bonds. Jeff Kent followed with a groundout to shortstop, and with the infield playing back, Mueller easily trotted home with the game's first run.
After each team went quietly in the second inning, the Mets mounted one of their few threats in the top of the third. Mike Bordick singled with one out, and Hampton--no slouch with the bat--hit a single of his own. Then, Benny Agbayani walked to load the bases. The potential was there for a huge inning, but all the Mets could muster was a sac fly from Jay Payton. That tied the game, but after Edgardo Alfonzo went ahead 2-0, he got anxious and popped out to end the inning ("He would give me a good pitch to hit and I wouldn't hit it and I don't know why," Alfonzo said later, summing up every batter's reaction to facing Hernandez.) The Mets would rue not getting more.
In the bottom of the third, Hampton induced two quick groundouts to start the inning, but gave up a single to Mueller. That brought up the dangerous Bonds. Hampton battled him to a 2-2 count, then threw a pitch he thought was on the outside corner--so much so that he started toward the dugout. Instead, home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg called it ball three. "It could have gone either way," Hampton said later. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, it's going to go to the Hall of Famer."
Given a reprieve, Bonds turned on Hampton's next pitch and pulled it just fair down the first base line. The ball skipped over the bullpens in foul territory and caromed off of the wall, back toward the infield. Derek Bell, patrolling right field, had to make a sudden turn to pursue it. In doing so, he slipped and rolled over his ankle. The outfielder caught up with the ball and heaved it toward second, but by then, Bonds was standing on third with an RBI triple. Later, Bell would find out he suffered a high ankle sprain that required three to six weeks of recovery. In other words, he was done for the rest of the postseason.
Darryl Hamilton trotted out to right field to take his place for the rest of this game. The injury delay took several minutes, but Mike Hampton only threw two warmup tosses during that time. After the game, Bobby Valentine said this was a big mistake. "I should have had Mike throw more. He lost his rhythm after that."
Next up was Jeff Kent, who Hampton walked on four pitches. He later admitted this was more or less his plan; he'd much rather face the next batter, Ellis Burks, than the future NL MVP. But the plan backfired. Burks turned on a Hampton cutter and drilled it down the left field line. The only question was whether it would be fair or not. That was answered when the ball clanged high off the foul pole for a home run.
San Francisco would mount some serious threats in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings, but Hampton and the Mets' bullpen would keep them off the board. Glendon Rusch was particularly impressive; he came on with the bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the eighth, and struck out pinch hitter Russ Davis and Bill Mueller to strand the runners.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Burks' home run gave the Giants a 5-1 lead, more than enough for Livan Hernandez. He would work through the Met lineup effortlessly for 7 2/3 innings.
Whenever it looked like luck might break the Mets' way, it didn't. Mike Piazza and Robin Ventura both hit towering fly balls to the outfield, but in the cavernous expanses of Pac Bell Park, they simply went as outs. In the top of the fifth, Edgardo Alfonzo hit a fly ball to center field that Marvin Benard temporarily misjudged. He ran in on it, realized the ball was hit farther than he first thought, and recovered just in time to snare it. In the top of the eighth, Jay Payton hit a ball to third so hard it almost tore the webbing out of Bill Mueller's glove. Almost, but not quite; the glove held up and a potential line drive hit became a line out.
After Payton's near miss, Hernandez finally seemed to tire, giving up a single to Alfonzo and a walk to Mike Piazza. Then, in a play weirdly similar to Payton's, Robin Ventura hit a sharp grounder that lodged itself in the webbing of Jeff Kent's glove. For a moment, it looked like Ventura might reach safely, but Kent managed to dig out the ball and fire it to first for the second out.
Hernandez walked Todd Zeile to load the bases, prompting Dusty Baker to turn to his hard-throwing setup man, Felix Rodriguez. He struck out Darryl Hamilton to strand all three runners and end the last flicker of hope for the Mets. Rodriguez "danced" off the mound (in Hamilton's view, anyway) in celebration, something that Hamilton would not soon forget.
In the ninth, closer Rob Nen set them down in order to secure a game one win for San Francisco. It was the first postseason win for Dusty Baker as a manager, and the first Giants win in the playoffs since the 1989 NLCS against the Cubs.
The postgame verdict for the Mets: They were in trouble. Their hitters went 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position, and they seemed to be pressing, in a way eerily similar to their offensive disappearing act in early September. In the division series' brief history, only four teams had lost game one and gone on to win the series, and only once had a National League team done it. Even worse, by allowing two big hits to Barry Bonds, they may have allowed the slugger to break out of his postseason doldrums.
Comparing this game one to first game of the 1999 division series (when they pounded Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks, 8-4), Murray Chass opined, "The Mets served notice yesterday that their playoff run this year might not be so scintillating...The Mets played like a team that doesn't have the right ingredients to advance beyond their consolation (wild-card) status."
In the Daily News, T.J. Quinn observed, "The Mets have spent years and tens of millions of dollars trying to catch the Yankees and the Atlanta Braves. Yesterday, in the terrible beauty that is Pac Bell Stadium, they fell right into line--just another expensive Game 1 loser in the 2000 division series."
The players mumbled the usual platitudes, but there was no denying the pressure on them now. Win game two, or go home in a nearly insurmountable 0-2 hole. Benny Agbayani tried to stay optimistic. "The big hits are going to come; we just have to keep battling. There's no time to be looking back."
Later that night, in a similar must-win situation, the Yankees blanked the A's 4-0 behind the pitching of Andy Pettite, who went 7 2/3 innings in the effort. Earlier, the Mariners beat the White Sox 5-2 to take a commanding 2-0 lead in their series. And the Cardinals enjoyed an off day after shocking the Braves by beating Greg Maddux, 7-5. St. Louis starter Rick Ankiel earned a dubious record by becoming the first pitcher to uncork five wild pitches in an inning.