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1999: No Piazza, no problem

This week in 1999: The Mets lose Mike Piazza to a freak injury but keep on rolling, with some from an understudy.

After a week-plus of emotional rollercoastering, the Mets couldn't wait to get back home from Phoenix, but Mike Piazza was more anxious than most. He was suffering from the accumulated weight of a season's worth of injuries, and a sore left thumb. He'd caught a backswing on his glove hand while behind the plate during a series against the Phillies in late September and the thing hadn't felt right since. On the off day between games two and three, he received a cortisone shot to make the pain and swelling go down.

He woke the next day to find his thumb had swollen to cartoonish proportions, the result of an allergic reaction. Piazza rushed to Shea to get medical attention from his trainers, but the best they could do was swaddle the thing in gauze. The swelling should go down in 48-72 hours, he was told. It was cold comfort for him or his team, who would have to play their first home playoff game in 11 years without him. During pregame player introductions, he greeted the crowd in a jacket, his entire left hand wrapped like a mummy.

To lose your biggest bat in the middle of a playoff series should have been a disaster for the Mets, but they'd already weathered a few disasters that season. Game three turned out to be their most drama-free game of October, as the team accumulated an early lead and allowed the opposition few chances at a comeback.

New York cobbled together three quick runs in the early going against Diamondbacks starter Omar Daal. On the mound for the first time since his amazing performance against Pittsburgh, Rick Reed briefly made things interesting by giving up a pinch-hit two-run homer to Turner Ward in the top of the fifth that cut the Mets' lead down to one run. Then his teammates exploded in the bottom of the sixth for six runs against Arizona's bullpen (with some assistance from some ugly D-Backs defense) to make the rest of the proceedings academic. They cruised to a 9-2 victory.

That win gave the Mets a chance to close things out in game four, which would prevent a trip back to Arizona and tempt fate with another battle against Randy Johnson. Rather than throw The Big Unit on short rest, D-Backs manager started Brian Anderson. The model of a crafty lefty, Anderson kept the Mets off balance until Edgardo Alfonzo reached him for a solo shot in the bottom of the fourth. Al Leiter did the same to Arizona, not allowing a hit until Greg Colbrunn hit a game-tying homer in the top of the fifth.

The score remained knotted at 1 until the bottom of the sixth, when Rickey Henderson led the inning off in quintessential Rickey Henderson fashion, fouling off one fastball after another in a 14-pitch at bat until finally hitting a bloop single. One out later, John Olerud lashed a single and Benny Agbayani belted a double to put the Mets back in front.

The Mets had ample opportunity to expand their lead but failed to score any more in the inning. Leiter was so on his game, however, it hardly seemed to matter. He retired the Diamondbacks in order in the seventh and was on his way to doing the same in the eighth when he issued a two-out walk. The next batter, Tony Womack, smashed a ball that bounced off of Alfonzo's chest. By the time he recovered, the speedy Womack beat the ball out for an infield single.

Bobby Valentine turned to Armando Benitez to record a four-out save. His closer proceeded to give up a booming double to Jay Bell that drove in both runners, giving Arizona the lead and giving the Mets nightmare visions of a flight back to Phoenix. The deficit might have been worse, as Benitez then allowed a single to Luis Gonzalez. Melvin Mora (defensive replacement for Henderson) made an excellent play to field the ball and throw out Bell at the plate.

The Mets mounted a comeback in the bottom half, with some help from the Arizona outfield. Alfonzo led off the eighth by working a walk, and Olerud followed by lofting a fly ball to right-center. It was an eminently catchable ball, but Tony Womack dropped it to put runners second and third. When Roger Cedeño hit his own fly ball, Alfonzo scored while Olerud took advantage of the D-Backs weak outfield arms to tag up and moved to third, putting the go-ahead run 90 feet away with one out.

But once again, the Mets were turned aside. Buck Showalter had been reluctant to use his closer, Matt Mantei, with men on base in game one. Staring elimination in the face, he now had little choice. Mantei was able to do the job, after a fashion.

After an intentional walk of Robin Ventura, Todd Pratt—subbing for the injured Piazza—could manage no more than a comebacker. Darryl Hamilton nearly drove in the go-ahead run with a ball down the left field line that went foul by millimeters. Third base coach Cookie Rojas was so convinced it was fair, he got into a shoving match with umpire Charlie Williams. (He was soon fined and given a five-game suspension for his insolence.) Hamilton eventually walked, putting the bat in the incapable hands of Rey Ordoñez, who struck out.

Benitez and Mantei exchanged scoreless frames in the ninth, and John Franco put up a zero in the top of the tenth. Proving 1999 was a very different age, Showalter had no qualms about sending his closer out for a third inning of work in the bottom half. Ventura obliged him by swinging at the very first pitch of the inning, flying out. The violence and anxiousness of Ventura's swing made it appear he wanted to end the game with one swing. That honor would go to someone else.

The next batter, Todd Pratt, had a rough day at the plate. Three times he'd come up with a runner in scoring position and all three times he'd failed to cash him in. This time, with bases empty, he swung at a fat 1-0 Mantei fastball and sends it rocketing to straightaway center. He performed a perfunctory jog toward first base, looking at the ball's flight just to make sure, not a hint of any real hope the ball might leave the yard.

Center field was the territory of Steve Finley, gold glover and frequent Web Gems featured player. Finley ran back on the ball and made a leap at the fence to catch it, but his jump was awkward, his feet barely leaving the ground. When he came back down to earth, he looked into his glove expecting to see the ball there because the ball was always there when he leaped to make a catch.

This time, though, it had cleared the fence for a game-winning, series-clinching home run. Pratt had no idea what had happened until the stands erupted and the mojo risin'... coda poured from Shea's speakers.

As the dejected Diamondbacks slumped off the field and NYPD poured onto the warning track, the man nicknamed Tank had to barrel over his own teammates just to touch home plate. A few years ago, Pratt was out of baseball altogether and managing a Domino's franchise. Now, he'd launched himself into the pantheon of unlikely October heroes.

It was such an improbable, insanely joyous scene—"Oh, I wish you were here to see this!" exclaimed Bob Murphy on the radio—that it was easy to ignore one sobering fact. Pratt's home run had just bought the Mets another confrontation with the Atlanta Braves.