October 5: When Bobby Valentine opted for Mike Hampton in game one, he insisted there was no particular rhyme or reason to the decision. As far as he was concerned, he had two ace left handers going in the first two games in San Francisco, regardless of order.
If you refuse to believe him and want to search for a motive, Valentine may have decided to pitch Hampton first because he had more confidence in Leiter. For one thing, it gave Leiter--a pitcher who thrived with extra time off--nine days of rest. His 3.20 ERA was the fifth best in the majors, and in 31 starts, he'd gone five innings or more 30 times. Whenever the Mets had a must-win game in 1999, Leiter had risen to the occasion (with one unfortunate exception), and he'd done the same in 2000. He seemed to rise to a challenge and actually thrive under pressure, and regardless of the game one result, he would be the ideal pitcher to have on the mound in game two.
As it happened, the Mets were down 0-1, making this, for all intents and purposes, a must-win game. Only two teams had ever come back from losing the first two games of the five-game division series (the 1995 Mariners and the 1999 Red Sox), and it would be much easier to go back to Shea tied 1-1 than to try to become the third.
For his part, Leiter insisted the order made no difference to him. "People think I'm supposed to be upset," he said before the series began. "I'm gonna pitch in a lot of games before this year is out. It doesn't matter to me who pitches first
Leiter would be opposed by Shawn Estes, another southpaw who was tough on lefties (though not quite to Leiter's extreme). His best weapon was a wicked curveball, but he didn't have the best control (108 free passes during the season, second most in the majors). Both the FOX TV crew (Bob Brenly and Thom Brennaman) and the WFAN radio announcers (Gary Cohen and Bob Murphy) advised the Mets to be patient if they wanted to come out on top in this game.
To neutralize Estes, Valentine made a few adjustments to his lineup. Edgardo Alfonzo moved up to the second spot (where he'd only batted once during the regular season), Todd Zeile became the cleanup hitter, and Benny Agbayani, who led off in game one, dropped all the way to sixth. Taking Agbayani's place at the top of the lineup: Timo Perez, who played right field in place of the injured Derek Bell.
The Giants were susceptible to lefties, and Leiter had limited left-handed batters to a .118 average on the year. He'd only given up three home runs to left handed hitters all year (Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr., and Shawn Green). So San Franciso would load up on right handed hitters against him. Marvin Benard and J.T. Snow rested as Calvin Murray and Ramon Martinez took their respective places, and Jeff Kent moved to first base to accommodate the moves. Barry Bonds was the only left handed hitter in the Giants' starting lineup.
The game began 5pm local time, and in the autumn afternoon, shadows covered most of the field while the sun glared off the outfield stands and the scoreboard in center field. Stadium lights were turned on to compensate, but as Cohen noted during the radio broadcast, "the shadows are going to be a problem for the hitters."
Each pitcher breezed through the first inning--Shawn Estes handled the Mets in the top half, save for a two-out walk to Mike Piazza, while Al Leiter dispatched the Giants 1-2-3 in the bottom half. But Estes got wild in the top of the second, resulting in a rather odd rally for the Mets. Robin Ventura led off and took first when he was grazed by a fastball, then Benny Agbayani walked on four pitches. After a Jay Payton grounder forced Agbayani at second, Mike Bordick received the second four-pitch walk of the inning to load the bases.
Unfortunately, this loaded the bases for Al Leiter, an infamously awful hitter. Bob Murphy wondered if Leiter might try a squeeze bunt, but Cohen noted, "he's not that good a bunter." Leiter must have thought otherwise, because he did try a bunt, which was grabbed by a charging Jeff Kent and fired to the catcher, easily forcing the slow-footed Ventura out at home (though Ventura managed a good, hard slide that prevented catcher Bobby Estalella from throwing to first). The best that could be said about the move was at least it didn't result in a double play.
That brought up Timo Perez for a second time. He'd struck out looking to start the game, bailing out on an Estes curveball in embarrassing fashion. This was only his tenth major league at bat against a lefthander. But when Estes fell behind 0-1, he tried to fool Timo with another curve, and it didn't work. Perez crouched down to make contact, in a stance reminiscent of Rickey Henderson, and smacked a line drive into center field, Payton and Bordick scored, and the Mets had their first lead of the series, 2-0.
The Giants came right back in the bottom half. Jeff Kent blooped a single into shallow right field, smiling as he reached first ("When was the last time you saw Jeff Kent smile during a baseball game?" Cohen wondered), and soon stole second. Ellis Burks followed with a double just fair down the left field line to drive him home, and it appeared the Giants were poised for a big inning. But Leiter bore down, setting down the next three in order to maintain the Mets' slim 2-1 lead.
Piazza and Agbayani singled in the top of the third, but the Mets could not score either of them. The Giants took another turn threatening in the bottom half, but dreams of taking the lead soon turned into a nightmare.
It began disastrously for Leiter when he walked Estes on four pitches. (For Cohen, it immediately brought to mind a game in Montreal when Leiter gave up two huge hits to Javier Vazquez.) After a Calvin Murray strikeout, Bill Mueller sent a chopper deep into the hole at shortstop. Mike Bordick grabbed it and desperately tried to spin around, Derek Jeter-style, and get the force at second, but Estes beat the throw.
The crowd erupted, then immediately went quiet, because as soon as Shawn Estes was called safe, he came off the second base bag, hobbling. As he did so, Edgardo Alfonzo slapped a tag on him for the second out. Estes had rolled over his left ankle when he unwisely ran into second standing, and was either unaware he'd been called safe or was in so much pain he couldn't care. He limped off the field, and before he was in the dugout, action began in the Giants bullpen. Barry Bonds flew out to end the inning, but nobody seemed to notice. Estes was done for the game, and possibly the series.
Kirk Rueter, the Giants' fifth starter, relieved Estes. He would turn in an excellent emergency performance, scattering three hits over 4 1/3 innings. The closest thing to a Mets threat against him came in the top of the sixth, when Mike Bordick hit a one-out single. Al Leiter tried to bunt him into scoring position, but the ball was knocked too close to the plate, and it quickly became an inning-ending double play. When ex-Met Doug Henry relieved Rueter in the top of the eighth, he left to a standing ovation from the Pac Bell crowd for his yeomanlike work. Henry walked Benny Agbayani, then induced his own double play from Jay Payton to end the inning.
As good as Rueter was, Leiter was even better. In a performance reminiscent of the 1999 wild card play-in game, he completely stifled the Giants through eighth innings. The only blemishes came when he inexplicably walked Rueter in the bottom of the fifth, and a leadoff walk to Ellis Burks in the bottom of the seventh.
After a force out and a fly out, Leiter battled Bobby Estalella--who Bob Murphy remembered from his Phillies days as "something of a Mets killer"--in an epic at bat. On the ninth pitch, the Giants catcher just barely missed a double down the third base line that would have tied the game. Cohen noted the tension of the moment and wondered what Leiter must be thinking, "knowing that any bad pitch could put them behind in the game, and knowing that could put them in an untenable position, down 2-0 in the series." On pitch number ten, Estalella finally popped out to Ventura to end the inning.
In the bottom of the eighth, Leiter gave up his first hit since the third inning, a one-out Calvin Murray single. Bobby Jones and John Franco got up in the bullpen, but Leiter would not need them, as he induced a grounder up the middle for an inning-ending double play from Bill Mueller.
"There might be nothing like watching Al Leiter at his best," marveled Cohen. In the TV booth, Thom Brennaman said, "Al Leiter has had better games statistically than what we've seen here tonight, but I'm not sure his stuff has been any better than it is so far tonight." As way of explanation, Leiter later said, "Maybe it's because I've, you know, pitched in some big games."
In the top of the ninth, Doug Henry gave way to Felix Rodriguez, who'd squashed one of the Mets' few scoring chances in game one. Here, he struck out Mike Bordick and Al Leiter with little trouble. (The fact that Leiter was batting for himself with a one-run lead in such a huge game showed just how dominant he was.) Timo Perez was next, and he put a capper on his evening by working the count full, fighting off a few pitches, and flaring an opposite field single, his third hit of the game. While noting that Derek Bell made many contributions over the season, and being careful to wish no ill will to anyone, Gary Cohen said, "it may be that the best thing to happen to the Mets so far in this postseason is Derek Bell getting hurt."
Rodriguez paid a lot of attention to the speedy Perez at first, but he should have paid more attention to Edgardo Alfonzo. The second baseman clubbed a 1-0 pitch deep into the stands in left-center field to give the Mets a 4-1 lead. On the bench, Al Leiter leaped to his feet and raised his arms. Finally, he had some breathing room. "Boy, does 4-1 feel a lot better than 2-1!" Cohen exclaimed.
The Mets had a three-run cushion, but they would have to run the Giants' most fearsome gauntlet in the ninth. First, Barry Bonds, who rifled Leiter's 1-0 pitch into the right-center gap for a leadoff double. That made him the first Giant to reach second base since the second inning. With Jeff Kent to follow, Bobby Valentine relieved Leiter with Armando Benitez. The Mets' closer had an outstanding 106 strikeouts in 76 innings in 2000. If he had any weakness, Gary Cohen noted, it was the longball. But that did not seem to be much of a concern within the cavernous confines of Pac Bell Park.
Benitez got ahead of Jeff Kent 0-2, but Kent zipped a ball deep in the shortstop hole. Mike Bordick fielded it and tried to nail the runner at first, but Kent just beat it out (while unwisely sliding headfirst into the first base bag). That brought the tying run to the plate in the person of Ellis Burks, who hit a huge three-run shot in game one, but he did Benitez an enormous favor by swinging at the first pitch and flying out to shallow right field. In the radio booth, Cohen and Murphy breathed a sigh of relief. "The batters to follow are not nearly the home run threat that Burks is," Cohen noted.
The next batter was supposed to be Ramon Martinez, but Dusty Baker sent up his usual first baseman, J.T. Snow, to pinch hit. Benitez fell behind 2-1, then Snow hit a high arcing shot down the right field line. If it went a foot to the right, it would've been a foul ball. If fell an inch lower, it would've clanged off of the 25-foot wall in right field and stayed play. But it didn't do any of these things. What it did do was land just high enough and just fair enough to be a game-tying home run. It was 309 feet to the right field foul pole. If there was any such thing as a cheap home run at Pac Bell Park, J.T. Snow had just found it.
The ball slipped off the top of the outfield wall and fell straight down, right at the feet of Timo Perez, who'd run out hoping to catch it. As the stands went berzerk and Snow ran the bases with his fist raised, the cameras took note of Al Leiter, who looked absolutely crestfallen. His marvelous effort had been all for nought. Bobby Valentine ran out to the mound to take Benitez's temperature, something he only did in emergency situations. Benitez retired the next two batters, but the crowd was so insane, they barely noticed. The damage was long done.
"The home run ball jumps up and bites Benitez again," Cohen sighed. He recalled the series-changing home run Benitez had given up to Marquis Grissom in the 1997 ALCS. "It was that home run that convinced the Orioles he was never going to be a big time pitcher...This was a crushing shot."
It was indeed a crushing shot, the kind that teams simply don't recover from. Except that the Mets did.
As the team trudged back to the dugout, pinch hitter Lenny Harris implored his teammates to "stay amazin!" In the top of the tenth, Jeff Kent moved back to his regular position at second base, and J.T. Snow remained in the game at first. Also remaining in the game: Felix Rodriguez, who now had a chance to atone for giving up a big home run to Edgardo Alfonzo. The first two batters were set down on great plays: Kent ranged well to his left to snag a Todd Zeile grounder, and Barry Bonds ran a long way down the left field line to grab a Robin Ventura flyout, his momentum taking him on top of the tarp along the wall, to the delight of the fans.
The Pac Bell crowd could not have been more pumped up, but neither could Darryl Hamilton. With two out, he came up to pinch hit for Joe McEwing, to the tune of some confused DAR-RYL chants from the Pac Bell crowd. Hamilton was still smarting from the night before, when Rodriguez struck him out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning, then "danced" off the mound. "Tonight was the most intense I've ever been going to the plate," Hamilton said later. "I sat on the side and said, 'C'mon, you gotta get this guy after what he did yesterday. You gotta find a way to get a hit off this guy'." With the count 0-1, Hamilton lined a shot to the right-center field gap. Centerfielder Calvin Murray had been playing him toward left field, which allowed Hamilton just enough time to leg out a double.
Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti jogged to the mound to conference with Rodriguez and Bobby Estalella. With the go-ahead run at second base and first base open, they could intentionally walk Jay Payton to face the slumping Mike Bordick. Or they could pitch around the relatively inexperienced Payton, hoping he got anxious and fished at bad offerings. Or they could just stall for time and call on closer Rob Nen to get the last out of the inning.
The Giants did none of these things. Rodriguez remained in the game to take on Payton, and his first pitch was right down the middle, a get-me-over fastball. The rookie smacked it just over Rodriguez's glove and into center field. Hamilton gave no thought of stopping at third. The ball was almost hit too hard for him to score, but Hamilton beat Calvin Murray's throw to the plate, and the Mets were back on top, 5-4.
Like Rodriguez, Armando Benitez would get a chance to redeem himself with a second opportunity to save the game, but he could not take advantage. After getting ahead 1-2 on pinch hitter Armando Rios, he just missed strike three on a blazing fastball, threw another pitch well out of the zone, then gave up a line drive single to right field. In frustration, Benitez picked up the rosin bag and chucked it across the infield.
Unlike Dusty Baker, Bobby Valentine was not going to give his reliever any more chances. He brought in lefty John Franco, the former closer who'd ceded that role to Benitez in 1999, for his first postseason save opportunity. Most of the Giants' remaining bench players were left handed batters, and now that the first hitter reached base, the game could very well come down to Franco versus another lefty: Barry Bonds.
The Giants sent up another pinch hitter, Marvin Benard, who laid down a sac bunt toward the mound. Franco might have had a chance to get Rios at second, but didn't even glance in that direction, opting for the easy putout at first. The tying run was now in scoring position, and the crowd was regaining the life it lost when the Mets recaptured the lead. With first base open, Cohen and Murphy already wondered which matchup Franco would prefer, Bonds or Jeff Kent. Despite the right/lefty issue, "Jeff Kent has never had a hit off of Franco, and Bonds has had some big ones," Cohen noted.
Before the issue of Bonds vs. Kent could be decided, Franco had to face Bill Mueller. After getting ahead 1-0, Mueller hit a sharp grounder to shortstop. Though the ball was hit in front of him, Armando Rios inexplicably tried to advance to third and was thrown out by a mile. In Cohen's words, it was "a bonehead play,"and in the TV booth, Thom Brennaman was scratching his head. "You have to wonder what in the world Armando Rios was thinking on that play." Bob Brenly called trying to take third on a ball hit in front of you "one of the cardinal sins of baseball."
The Mets had gotten a huge break, and the Giants were down to their final out. "But a confrontation," Cohen said, "about to ensue."
Barry Bonds stepped to the plate as San Francisco's last hope. He had two key hits in game one, and belted the leadoff double that eventually led to J.T. Snow's game-tying homer. Franco's history against Bonds was checkered, to say the least. The outfielders retreated as far as they possibly could, anticipating that any ball Bonds hit would be launched very, very far.
Franco's first pitch came up and inside, and his second sailed low and outside, putting him behind 2-0 and sending the crowd into a frenzy. Surely Franco had to throw a strike next, thought everyone in the ballpark--except he didn't. Bonds swung wildly at the next offering, a high and tight fastball, clearly thinking game-winning home run.
Franco's next pitch missed the strike zone by a mile, bringing the count to 3-1 and putting him in a dangerous situation. Walking Bonds meant pushing the tying run into scoring position, putting the winning run on base, and bringing Jeff Kent to the plate with a chance to do some serious damage. Throwing a strike to Bonds might mean game over. "Just as the clock strikes midnight in New York," Cohen said, "John Franco trying to keep the Mets alive."
Somehow, Franco tossed the perfect pitch, a fastball at the knees for strike two. Bonds looked a bit incredulous at the call, rolling his eyes and shaking his head. He fought off the next pitch, one of the few hittable pitches Franco had thrown, and fouled it into the third base stands. It seemed just a matter of time before the 40-year-old lefty either grooved a pitch, or walked Bonds, which might just delay his fate.
Franco's next pitch was the last one of the game, but not in the way everyone anticipated. He fooled Bonds utterly by tossing a changeup and picking off the inside corner by the slimmest of margins. "I've been making a living for 17 years getting people out on my changeup," Franco said later. "What better time to throw it than that time?"
Home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom waited a moment before making his call--no more than half a second in real time, though it felt like an eternity to anyone watching--then punched Bonds out for strike three. The slugger bent backwards in disbelief, and the crowd let out a collective groan. The Mets stormed the field to swarm Franco and congratulate him on his gutsy performance.
"It comes down to a duel with Barry Bonds," said an almost giddy Bob Murphy. "They have battled each other so many times over the years, and Franco wins the war."
For Franco, who'd spent the entire 1990s as a Mets, most of it as their closer, it was his first postseason save--the biggest of his career, he said later. (Thanks to the exigencies of official scoring, Benitez would "earn" a win.) More importantly, it was the Mets' first win in this postseason, and it made dreams advancing through the playoffs much more real.
Snatching a thrilling win out of devastating defeat would power the Mets through the rest of the series, and fit in nicely with their postseason history. In The New York Times, Tyler Kepner wrote, "If Armando Benitez had worked out of the ninth inning without incident, and the Mets had taken a tidy victory back with them to Shea Stadium--well, they would not be the New York Mets."
"We could have rolled over," Mike Piazza said before the Mets took their flight back to New York. "But we took a good punch and we came back."
Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the Braves were not able to bounce back as they Mets had. The Cardinals stunned them for the second straight day, pounding Tom Glavine in a 10-4 win. Atlanta now found themselves in an 0-2 hole. As the Mets and Giants traveled to New York for game three, the Yankees took a 2-1 lead in their series behind another great performance by El Duque, and the Mariners defeated the White Sox 2-1 to complete a three-game sweep. The winning run scored on a bunt single by Carlos Guillen that brought home pinch runner Rickey Henderson, who'd groused his way out of New York early in the 2000 season.