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1999: Robin is bat man, Mets hurt Curt

In our latest look back at 1999, Robin Ventura collects two grand salamis and the Mets pull off a dramatic ninth inning comeback.

Salamis for all!
Salamis for all!

After an exhausting road trip that bruised an already damaged pitching staff, the Mets returned to Shea on May 17 for a seven-game homestand. The hope was they could get back on track against their first opponent, the thoroughly mediocre Brewers, but Milwaukee doused those hopes by putting up a fight for most of their four games in Queens.

First, the Brew Crew roughed up Bobby Jones in the opener, hanging seven runs on his ledger in 5 2/3 innings, despite Jones having received an extra day of rest in deference to an as-yet undiagnosed ailment. The Mets made a comeback bid, but the game ended in a 7-6 defeat on a called third strike to Allensworth, a borderline (at best) pitch that sent Bobby Valentine into a postgame rant about the home plate umpire's "inconsistent" strike zone. "This was a zone where balls off the plate were called strikes sometimes," he grumbled to the press. "They were getting ‘em. What did we have, five called strikes?"

The next night, Rick Reed turned in his best outing of the year, limiting Milwaukee to one run over seven innings. He pitched so well, in fact, that Brewers manager Phil Garner demanded the umps examine his glove for foreign substances. "If the guy thinks I’m cheating," Reed growled after the game, "he’s getting the wrong stats because I had a seven-and-a-fucking-half ERA coming in." However, the umpires did not accede to every managerial request. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the arbiters refused to consider Bobby Valentine's pleas that a Mets runner was interfered with during a rundown play, and also refused to honor Valentine's wishes to play the game under protest due to their refusal of his first demand.

An incensed Valentine was ejected, though he may have been less angry with the umps than with what happened in the top of the eighth, when Armando Benitez allowed a three-run homer to Marquis Grissom that transformed a slim 2-1 lead into an eventual 4-2 loss.

A rainout necessitated a day-night double header on May 20, which also allowed Robin Ventura to attain a curious baseball milestone. He hit a grand slam in each half of the twinbill, making him the first player in MLB history to do so. In his years with the White Sox, Ventura had an uncanny knack for hitting homers with the bases juiced. These marked the first instances of him doing so in a Mets uniform.

Other than Ventura's blasts, however, neither game was all that pretty to watch. In the first contest, the Mets jumped out to an early lead on the strength of Ventura's first grand slam off of Jim Abbott, only to see Al Leiter cough up that advantage and then some. Two homers by Benny Agbayani and Mike Piazza gave the Mets a seemingly comfortable 11-6 lead, but the bullpen made things very uncomfortable when reliever Allen Watson served up a three-run homer to Jeff Cirillo.

John Franco came on the for the save in the ninth and nearly blew it by putting the tying runs on base. With victory one out away, a rare error by Edgardo Alfonzo compounded Franco's failures. Fonzie's miscue allowed one run to score, and the tying run would have come home as well, if only Mets farmhand Alex Ochoa hadn't lost a cleat on the basepaths. Ambling toward the plate half-shoeless, Ochoa could not slide and was tagged out standing up at home, bringing the 11-10 win to a suitably ugly end. In the nightcap, Ventura's second grand slam of the day capped a six-run fourth inning, and the Mets cruised to a 10-1 victory.

The Phillies came to town next, and the Mets took the first game, 7-5, as John Olerud finished a triple short of the cycle, Mike Piazza homered yet again, and the bullpen fought off a late charge. The bats were silent the next day, however, quieted by former Met Paul Byrd in a damaging 9-3 loss that saw Bobby Jones leave the game early (he finally admitted to suffering from shoulder fatigue) and Benny Agbayani get carted off the field after smashing his knee against a retaining wall.

The series finale on Sunday, May 23 was preceded by a two-hour rain delay. The Mets continued to rest once it began, as they could do nothing against Philly's ace, Curt Schilling. The New York papers were filled with glowing profiles of Schilling, praising him for pitching deep into games and for pressuring his miserly team to spend on free agents, lest he demand a trade him to a team that would. Despite the fact that Schilling's pitching was one of the biggest reason the Phillies were a surprise contender early in the season, it was assumed a trade was almost certain to happen, due to Schilling's high value, large contract, and inability to keep his mouth shut.

Schilling held a 4-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth and clearly had his eye on the finish line. But suddenly the Mets awoke, starting their rally with a two-run Ventura homer to cut the deficit in half. One out later, Matt Franco singled, Luis Lopez was hit by a pitch, and Jermaine Allensworth hit an RBI single to bring the Mets within a run. There was no hint of action in the Philly bullpen, however. "Regardless of who was available, that was his game," manager Terry Francona said later, with a clear aim of blaming what transpired solely on his pitcher.

The righty nearly wriggled off the hook by getting Roger Cedeño to hit a grounder to short, but the speedy runner beat the relay throw to first, and Cedeño promptly stole second without a throw. Schilling went right after the next batter, Edgardo Alfonzo, and backed him into an 1-2 hole, only to hit him with a pitch and load the bases. His very next pitch was belted into left field by John Olerud. Lopez scored easily, and Cedeño came charging right behind him. The throw to the plate was late by just a hair, handing the Mets an improbable 5-4 walkoff win against one of the best pitchers in the game.

"We sit around for an hour," Valentine later opined in the hopped up clubhouse, "and some people started saying: ‘Should we even play this game? We should issue an executive edict and miss Schilling, and maybe he’ll be in the American League the next time we meet them’. There was a lot of that going around. And if we didn’t win that game, there would have been a lot of second guessing."

On the subject of second guessing, Valentine needn't worry. There would be plenty to go around very soon.