Once Todd Pratt's unlikely heroics wrapped up the division series in the four games, the Mets faced a completely new challenge: Two full days off. After playing for their lives for weeks on end, they could stand anything but time to themselves.
The Mets spent most that time lashing out against their upcoming NLCS opponents, the Braves, who'd buried them at the end of September and danced on their graves. They were eager for payback against all the Braves and particularly relished the opportunity to get back at Chipper Jones, who, after Atlanta took five of six games against them at the end of the season, exhorted Mets fans to "go put on their Yankees' stuff."
Many Mets fired shots at the Braves prior to the first game of the NLCS. To the shock of no one, Bobby Valentine said the most and spoke the loudest. He proclaimed that Chipper's words would come back to haunt him because he'd hear it from the fans he'd insulted when he returned to Shea Stadium.
"I'm the one with the big mouth," he said, "but they're the one playing ghosts."
It was unclear if the Braves were genuinely unnerved by the thought of playing "ghosts" or simply choosing to take the high road, because most didn't respond to the Mets' chirping. Refusing to serve as a lightning rod or furnish any new bulletin board material, Chipper Jones refused all media queries in the days before the series began. When asked about the shots fired by his counterpart in a pregame interview for NBC, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox pretended he hadn't heard them at all.
Game one of the NLCS unfolded in front of a Turner Field crowd 6,000 paying customers short of a sellout on October 12. Atlanta's starter, Greg Maddux, struggled in 1999 for the first time in ages but showed little of those struggles whenever he faced the Mets. This contest proved no exception as he scattered five hits over seven innings and allowed just a single run on a fourth inning sac fly by Mike Piazza (back in action following his thumb injury). The Mets had a few chances to score more against Maddux but were turned aside each time, when they weren't working against their own cause. A botched a suicide squeeze attempt by Masato Yoshii was the ugliest example of this, and perhaps the costliest.
Yoshii—game one pitcher by virtue of being the most rested starter in the Mets' staff at the moment—put New York in an immediate hole by allowing an RBI single to the second batter he faced. In a disastrous fifth inning, he turned an ankle while attempting to field a bunt and gave up another run shortly thereafter. Removed mid-frame, he threw a chair-throwing fit in the visiting clubhouse.
Atlanta tacked on with a solo homer from Eddie Perez in the sixth. When the Mets threatened in the top of the eighth, John Rocker was called on for a four-out save, and he made short of work of John Olerud for the last out of the inning. The Braves then logged an insurance run in the bottom half, all but ensuring a Braves win. Though the Mets scratched out an unearned run against Rocker in the ninth, it was mere window dressing on a 4-2 defeat.
The following evening, in front of another Atlanta crowd that fell well short of capacity, Kenny Rogers was given another chance to reverse his awful postseason rep. He'd done little in his first chance to do so in game two of the division series, the only game the Mets lost to Arizona. This time, he benefited from an early lead on the strength of a Roger Cedeño RBI single and solo homer by Melvin Mora. Rogers also spooked the Braves by picking off two runners at first base. Andruw Jones was so scared of getting caught a second time that he stood on the bag like a runner's block, refusing to budge until a pitch left The Gambler's hand.
But for the second night in a row, the Mets threw away opportunities to score more against an Atlanta starter who looked like he might be on the ropes (Kevin Millwood this time), while Rogers's control over the situation vanished in the blink of an eye in the bottom of the sixth. First, he gave up a game-tying two-run homer to Brian Jordan, second only to Chipper in the pantheon of Mets Killers in 1999. Bobby Valentine stuck with Rogers after he gave up a single to Andruw Jones, even though he had relievers warming up to take his place. The indecision proved costly when the next batter, Eddie Perez, hammered his first pitch into the left field stands to give the Braves the lead.
Milwood began to falter in the top of the eighth and allowed a run-scoring double to Edgardo Alfonzo, but Bobby Cox had a quicker trigger finger than his adversary. First, he used John Rocker to easily dispose of John Olerud and Robin Ventura, thus ending the eighth. Then he shocked everyone in the ninth by entrusting a one-run lead to starting pitcher John Smoltz, who'd never relieved at the big league level before. Smoltz took well to on-the-job training and set the Mets down in order to preserve the 4-3 Atlanta win.
It was hoped the Mets would do better with a large, friendly crowd behind them and their best pitcher, Al Leiter, on the mound in game three at Shea on October 15. Those hopes were soon dashed by an ugly first inning the proved a microcosm of the entire series.
It began with a walk to leadoff batter Gerald Williams, not known for his patience. Leiter induced a comebacker from the next batter, Bret Boone, but dithered over whether he should throw to second or fist base and wound up recording no outs. Then, as the runners attempted a double steal, Mike Piazza began to throw to second base but slipped on home plate. The ball flew into the outfield while Williams scampered home.
Leiter negotiated the rest of the inning with no further trouble and pitched brilliantly, allowing just three hits and no earned runs through seven innings of work. His counterpart, Tom Glavine, gave up seven hits. But all were singles, and all were harmless. His replacements were just as stingy, with Mike Remlinger throwing a perfect eighth and John Rocker—who'd riled up the locals on his off day by calling Mets fans "a bunch of stupid asses"—saved the game in the ninth.
Of the three defeats, the 1-0 loss in game three was the most galling and the most telling of their fortunes in the NLCS so far. Both Al Leiter and the Mets' infield defense had been unimpeachable for most of the season. At the season's most important moment, both had failed them. That failure had lasted but a moment, but it was just long enough to doom them. Each of the three games hinged on one singular moment in which New York had failed to act or failed to execute.
The Mets went into this series vowing revenge. Now, they were one loss away from hitting the golf course. They'd been in this position often, and each time they'd found a way to rebound. But no team had ever pulled itself out of an 0-3 hole in baseball history, and the Mets gave little indication they might be the first.