The 1999 Mets could best be described as resilient, and no player better fit that description than Al Leiter.
A two-time World Champion with the Toronto Blue Jays and Florida Marlins, the left-handed starting pitcher from Toms River, New Jersey was acquired by New York in an offseason trade with the Marlins before the 1998 season. During his tenure in Queens, Leiter went 95-67 over the course of seven years.
While 1998 was a strong beginning (17-6, 2.47 ERA), the 1999 campaign was a struggle. Leiter led the club in innings pitched with 213, but he also was tops in runs allowed with 107. A 9-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves on September 29 got Leiter's record to the .500 mark at 12-12, but the Mets were two games back of the National League Wild Card lead with just four to play.
They lost to Atlanta the next night at Shea Stadium and were put in a more precarious situation: two down with three regular season games remaining.
New York had to get a sweep of Pittsburgh at home, and they did. They won the series finale in the last of the ninth when Mike Piazza saw a pitch from Brad Clontz that skipped wildly to the backstop and Melvin Mora scampered home. The Reds, who the Mets had been chasing, also won that day, forcing a sudden-death showdown for the Wild Card at Cinergy Field.
Leiter was tabbed as the starter by manager Bobby Valentine, and he didn't disappoint. His counterpart was Steve Paris, who received a jolt right from the outset. In a June match-up with the Reds, also in the Queen City, New York belted six home runs en route to an 11-3 victory. In this winner-take-all on October 4, the Mets started in similar fashion.
After a Rickey Henderson single, Edgardo Alfonzo launched one over the center field wall. That gave Leiter an early cushion and relaxed the southpaw before he stepped foot on the mound.
Not taking any chances, though, Leiter proved worthy of this significant contest, as he allowed just three baserunners over seven innings. A leadoff walk to Pokey Reese in the first, a single by Jeffery Hammonds in the second, and a walk to Barry Larkin in the third never amounted to any significant threat for Cincinnati. In fact, none of those Reds would get past first base. Meanwhile, the Mets were adding to their lead. They plated single runs in the third, fifth and sixth innings to boost their lead to 5-0.
Now over the 100-pitch plateau heading into the ninth, Valentine let Leiter try to go the distance. The final frame started with a double by Reese. But a ground out by Larkin and a strikeout of Sean Casey all but ended any hopes of a Reds rally. To officially finish the masterpiece, Leiter got Demitri Young to line out to Alfonzo at second base, and the Mets were off to Arizona to face the Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series.
Leiter's line on the night: two hits, no runs, four walks on 135 pitches.
Although the Mets' playoff run ended with a loss to the Braves in the National League Championship Series, it certainly had a string of memories to add to the franchise history, most notably with Todd Pratt's NLDS-winning home run and Robin Ventura's "grand slam single."
Leiter had his share of great games in a Mets uniform, including a tough 2000 World Series Game 5 loss in which he went into the ninth inning, but the complete game outing in Cincinnati that got New York back into postseason play will forever be his best.