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1999: Sons of the desert

This week in 1999: Finally in the playoffs, the Mets continue an improbable run by going deep against The Big Unit.

Fonzie tells Randy Johnson to sit on it.
Fonzie tells Randy Johnson to sit on it.

Within the span of 48 hours, the Mets executed a walkoff win in their last scheduled game of the season, flew to Cincinnati for a winner-take-all contest to determine the National League wild card winner, beat the Reds behind an shutout performance from Al Leiter, and hopped another plane to Phoenix to being their first postseason series in 11 years. It was all a bit too much, even by the franchise's own insane standards. "Do they know what time zone they're in," ESPN's Chris Berman wondered at the start of that series, "and do they care?"

Some time between the brief champagne-spraying celebration and the flight to the desert, Bobby Valentine whittled down his playoff roster. Surprise inclusions were Melvin Mora, rookie with only 31 major league at bats, and Bobby Bonilla, professional clubhouse cancer who'd been injured most of the season. Bobby Jones did not make it, despite working his way back from shoulder issues by the end of the season. Billy Taylor and Chuck McElroy, two relievers acquired at the deadline to provide some relief to an overworked bullpen, were also left off the playoff roster after proving themselves all but useless.

The Mets' next challenge came against a team that hadn't even existed the last time they made the playoffs. The Arizona Diamondbacks were in their sophomore year, but—like many teams with deep pockets in the late 90s—were able to spend their way into contention in a hurry. For 1999, they traded for speedy leadoff man Tony Womack, signed Gold Glove center fielder Steve Finley, and bolstered their starting rotation with Todd Stottlemyre.

Arizona also received sizable contributions from unlikely sources. Second baseman Jay Bell was a capable veteran, but no one foresaw him belting 38 homers in 1999. Even less was expected of outfielder Luis Gonzalez, who'd done little of note in nine seasons with the Astros, Cubs, and Tigers. He proceeded to lead the NL with 206 hits and drive in 111 runs. Along with All Star third baseman Matt Williams (35 homers, 142 RBIs), Gonzalez, Bell, and Finley made for a fearsome heart of the Diamondbacks lineup.

Arizona's biggest free agent pickup, in every sense, was Randy Johnson, the 6'10" lefty who mercilessly mowed down batters with a triple-digit fastball and unhittable slider. In his first full season in the National League, the Big Unit led the senior circuit in ERA, innings pitched, complete games, and strikeouts. In the modern era, only Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan had racked up more Ks in a season than Johnson's 364 in 1999.

Unlike the Mets, the Diamondbacks earned their playoff spot well in advance of the end of the regular season, reeling off 100 wins to take the NL West by 14 games. That allowed them to throw a well-rested Johnson in game one, while the Mets went with Masato Yoshii simply because it was his turn to start.

Two full playoff games had been played to their conclusion—the Astros shocking Greg Maddux in Atlanta, the Yankees pummeling the Rangers per usual—by the time the first pitch was thrown at Bank One Ballpark, 11:09pm on New York clocks. The late start led to many Won't somebody please think of the children? editorials in the local sports press.

Those able to stay up saw the Mets once again jump out to an early lead thanks to Edgardo Alfonzo, who stunned Johnson by taking him deep to straightaway center in the top of the first. Johnson was stunned further in the top of the third inning, when John Olerud clubbed a two-run shot into the right field bleachers, the first home run he'd given up to a lefty on over two years. Arizona scratched out a run against Yoshii in the bottom half, but the Mets got it right back in the fourth when Robin Ventura doubled (something else a lefty batter was not supposed to do against Randy Johnson), moved to third on a Shawon Dunston infield single, and scored on a safety squeeze.

That stretched New York's lead to 4-1, but just when it looked like the Mets might cruise to a win for once, the Diamondbacks began to pummel Masato Yoshii. An Erubiel Durazo solo shot cut into their lead in the bottom of the fourth, and a two-run 452-foot moonshot off the bat of Luis Gonzalez in the sixth made that lead disappear completely.

The Mets' bullpen halted the scoring there and kept the score tied in the seventh and eighth innings. This relief work was crucial because Randy Johnson knuckled down after his rough start, throwing up zeroes through the eighth inning and racking up 11 Ks. He'd lost five consecutive playoff games for Seattle and Houston (most of those L's coming through hard luck circumstance) and appeared bound and determined to not lose another one.

Johnson entered the top of the ninth with 120 pitches under his belt and the mien of a man possessed, but his evening took a turn for the worse in the blink of an eye. Robin Ventura hit a leadoff single, and Rey Ordoñez snuck his own one-out single through the infield. A Melvin Mora walk loaded the bases, put the go-ahead run one sac fly away, and finally ended Johnson's outing.

Arizona's closer, Matt Mantei, was up and throwing in the bullpen. He'd been acquired at the trade deadline for occasions such as this. But rather than go with his best reliever, manager Buck Showalter turned instead to Bobby Chouinard, a righty who'd made the playoff roster by the skin of his teeth.

Showalter was almost saved by Matt Williams, who flashed leather on a sharp grounder by the first batter Chouinard faced, Rickey Henderson. The third baseman went to his knees, speared the ball, and shot up in time to throw home for a force out. It was an amazing play that sent the crowd into a frenzy and preserved the tie—for roughly 30 seconds.

Chouinard fell behind 3-1 to Edgardo Alfonzo, which left him little choice but to offer this dangerous batter a fat fastball. Fonzie clubbed it into the second deck in left field for a backbreaking grand slam. Diamondbacks fans immediately began filing for the exits, unwilling to watch Armando Benitez put a bow on an 8-4 Mets win.

It was a ridiculous outcome, besting Randy Johnson on the road in a late-night playoff game, but no less ridiculous than anything else the Mets had done in the last week.

In game one, everything broke the Mets' way. In game two, nothing did. This sudden reversal of fortune was attributed to starting pitcher Kenny Rogers, infamous for his ugly postseason performances with the Yankees.

The Mets threatened several times in the early innings against D-Backs pitcher Todd Stottlemyre, who was on the mound despite a 70 percent rotator cuff tear (he opted to compensate for the injury by strengthening his upper body rather than undergo the risk of shoulder surgery). However, an RBI groundout in the top of the third would be the extent of the damage they'd inflict on him.

Rogers held Arizona in check until the bottom of that inning, when he allowed them to mount a costly rally. After retiring the first two batters, he loaded the bases on a hit batter and two singles, walked Greg Colbrunn to force in a run,and followed that by giving up a two-run hit to Steve Finley. Replays showed the second runner was probably tagged out before he touched the plate, but the umps saw things differently.

In the top of the fourth, the Mets made some noise when Robin Ventura worked a leadoff walk and Darryl Hamilton reached on an error. But when Roger Cedeño missed a sac bunt attempt, Ventura was picked off of second. At least he was according to the umpires. Replays indicated he made it back to the bag safely, but replays counted for little in 1999.

So many close calls had favored the Mets of late (see: John Franco's called strike three against the Pirates), it was simply their turn to draw the short straw. They would not threaten again, while Arizona ran away with things. In the fifth, Rogers and Pat Mahomes conspired to allow two more runs, both scoring on another Finley hit. Rookie Octavio Dotel pitched like the nervous kid he surely was and allowed two more runs in the seventh. The Diamondbacks went on to win, 7-1.

The Mets proclaimed themselves happy to leave Arizona with a split, a reasonable point of view that infuriated sports scribes who wanted the team to exhibit more of a killer instinct. "Is there any sense of urgency," grumbled one, "or do they see anything from this point on as gravy?"

It remained for the Mets to prove otherwise when they returned to Queens, to play the first postseason games at Shea since 1988. And for good measure, they'd have to do so while hurdling the sudden loss of their biggest bat.