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1999: "They should feel like champions"

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This week in 1999: Attempting an NLCS comeback, the Mets play some of the wildest playoff games in history.

NBC's introduction to game four of the 1999 National League Championship Series heaped praise on the Braves, their drive, their determination, their professionalism. Truly this is the team of the 1990s. The Mets were not mentioned until the very end, and only then to note that their time was almost at an end. A crude-even-for-1999 graphic showed a groundskeeper's broom literally sweeping a Mets logo away.

Harsh, perhaps, but the way the Mets played in the first three games of the series hardly warranted less. In each of those games, it was less Atlanta dominance that defeated them than a series of mistakes on the field and in the dugout. The Mets continued to protest they were a better team than they'd showed in the series so far, that they were still the team that had pulled itself from elimination time and time again that season. Their blunders had given them another chance to prove it.

The Mets would place their hopes for extending the series in Rick Reed, who'd taken the mound for another must-win game back on October 2 and pitched the game of his life. In this outing, he was even better through seven innings, facing the minimum over that stretch. The lone baserunner he allowed in the first seven frames, a Bret Boone single, was erased when he was caught stealing. Overanxious Braves managed little more than harmless tappers and lazy fly balls. He recorded 21 outs by expending only 70 pitches, a performance that almost out-Madduxed Greg Maddux.

Reed had to be brilliant, because John Smoltz continued to baffle Mets hitters. New York had gone 16 agonizing innings without scoring a run until two outs in the bottom of the sixth, when John Olerud launched a Smoltz fastball to the base of Shea's scoreboard. This gave the Mets a rare lead in the series. Slim though it was, Rick Reed looked like he could make it stand up.

And then, in the top of the eighth, it all came crashing down in the span of three pitched. Brian Jordan launched the first offering of the inning into the picnic area in left field to tie the game. Two pitches later, while the stunned Shea crowd was still puzzling over what had just happened, Ryan Klesko belted his own home run to right, putting the Braves on top.

Once again down to their last outs of the season, a sign of life emerged in the bottom of the eighth when Roger Cedeño hit a leadoff single, but Rey Ordoñez failed in his sac bunt attempt. When Matt Franco was sent up to pinch hit for the pitcher's spot, lefty Mike Remlinger was brought in to neutralize him. Bobby Valentine countered with Benny Agbayani, but the sometime slugger struck out. Valentine appeared outfoxed by Bobby Cox again.

With Melvin Mora at the plate, an impatient Cedeño stole second. Wary of pitching to Mora, one of very few Mets who'd had any success against Braves pitching during the series, Remlinger walked him. He had no fear of doing so because Olerud was due up next, and Atlanta could dispatch with him easily as soon as they brought John Rocker into the game. Against all Mets, Rocker had been stingy in 1999. Against lefties like Olerud, he'd been unhittable.

The Braves were so confident of Rocker's ability to shut down Olerud that when Cedeño and Mora executed a double steal, the catcher didn't even rise from his crouch to fake a throw. Paying the runners no mind, Rocker backed Olerud into a two-strike count. Then, the first baseman found a way to get around on a fastball, just enough to send the ball squibbing up the middle. It eluded the lunges of shortstop Ozzie Guillen, who'd just been double switched into the game.

Both Cedeño and Mora scored to give the Mets back the lead. A grumbling Rocker, who'd taunted Mets fans all series, was taunted right back as he slithered off to the opposing dugout. Armando Benitez recorded a drama-free perfect ninth to earn the save and cap the Mets' thrilling 3-2 victory.

It was only one win, and barely one at that. But it unfolded in such magical fashion that it dared fans to dream again. When the Mets pulled off another improbable victory in game five, one of the most insane postseason games ever played, it sent the series back to Atlanta and dared fans and media alike to dream again. The Grand Slam Single placed the Mets in the small ranks of teams who'd fought back from an 0-3 hole to force a game six. No team had ever forced a game seven.

Any chance to do so relied on the left arm of Al Leiter, who would throw on short rest for the first time in over five years. He declared himself more than ready—hell, he'd been ready to throw an inning during the game five marathon if it came to that. His performance proved otherwise, as wildness and fielding blunders (some of them by Leiter himself) led to two hit batters, a walk, and five first inning runs. Leiter left the mound without recording an out, serenaded by the Tomahawk Chop chant, his season and the Mets' all but over.

When New York made a stab at a comeback by scoring three runs against Kevin Millwood in the top of the sixth, Atlanta scored two of their own in the bottom half. Wanting to go for the jugular, Bobby Cox called on John Smoltz to shut the door in the seventh. But Smoltz gave up back-to-back doubles to Matt Franco and Rickey Henderson to chase home a run, then an RBI single to John Olerud that brought the tying run to the plate in the form of Mike Piazza.

Mike Piazza had looked awful all series long, suffering from a season's worth of catcher wear-and-tear and still groggy from a concussion he suffered during a home plate collision in game three. But for one moment, he became the fearsome slugger he'd been in the summer months. He rocketed a Smoltz fastball on the outside corner for a typical Piazza blast, sending it to the opposite field for a game-tying two-run homer.

The Turner Field crowd was stunned. They were even more stunned in the eighth when Benny Agbayani singled and came around to score on a Melvin Mora hit, giving the Mets the lead. But John Franco proved incapable of holding the lead, as he allowed a leadoff single Eddie Perez (a backup catcher who'd killed New York all series) and watched pinch-runner Otis Nixon score on a sac fly after a botched pickoff throw allowed him to race to third.

Olerud's "hit" in game four aside, the Mets still had done nothing against John Rocker, but Agbayani worked a walk against him to start the top of the tenth. Benny was caught dead to rights trying to steal second, but he swiped the bag safely when the pickoff throw nailed him in the back. One single and one sac fly later, the Mets were on top yet again, three outs away from forcing game seven.

Armando Benitez had been just effective against the Braves as Rocker had against the Mets, but he found himself unable to record those three outs in the bottom of the tenth. A walk and a pair of singles allowed the Braves to tie the score yet again. Melvin Mora made a brilliant throw to gun down a runner at third base and keep the winning run from scoring, but after squandering two chances to take the game, it appeared the Mets might be finally running out of magic.

The end finally came in the bottom of the eleventh when Kenny Rogers—who'd been maligned for postseason failures as a Yankee—allowed a leadoff double to Gerald Williams. A sac bunt put him on third with only one out. Though Octavio Dotel was warming in the bullpen, Bobby Valentine stuck with the veteran and intentionally loaded the bases, hoping Rogers's propensity for ground balls could give him a play at the plate or a twin killing. The Braves were notoriously impatient as a lineup. Surely the next batter, Andruw Jones, would swing at something and give the Mets yet another chance.

He didn't. Rogers's offerings were so wide that even Jones wasn't tempted. He kept the bat on his shoulder and watched the Gambler toss four well out of the strike zone, forcing in a run to send the Braves to the World Series. An insane season ending in insane fashion.

As the Braves celebrated in their clubhouse, they found themselves having to answer one question after another about the Mets. A sideline reporter's first query to Bobby Cox is, Boy, the Mets wouldn't die, would they?

The New York sports press, which had hounded the team for its endless controversies and streaky nature all season, declared the Mets had proven something special by making it this far. Murray Chass, who couldn't stand Bobby Valentine, called them "as remarkable a team as has ever played a postseason game." George Vecsey advised readers to not bother watching the World Series, or anything else on television. What could possibly compare the show the Mets put on in the past few weeks? The Post compared this game six to the epic pair of game sixes the Mets played in 1986, with the fact that they'd lost this one a seeming afterthought.

Outside the visiting locker room, another NBC reporter  asked Bobby Valentine what he told his team. "I told them they played like champions," he said, "and they should feel like champions." Before leaving the ballpark, many on the team stopped by the video room to get tape of the last two games they'd played, even game six. They knew they'd want to watch them all again.