The Mets spent a small, embarrassing portion of their last homestand pretending to play on Mercury. When they began their next road trip in Chicago on July 30, conditions felt an awful lot like a planet much closer to the sun. The Windy City was experiencing a brutal heatwave, with temperatures so dangerously high they knocked out traffic lights outside Wrigley Field and felled TV cameras for the local broadcast.
Masato Yoshii melted in the opener, knocked out after allowing seven consecutive Cubs hits in the second inning, but reliever Pat Mahomes braved the heat with 4 2/3 innings of one-run ball while also contributing an RBI double to the cause. The Mets slowly chipped away to tie, then overtake the Cubs. They carried a lead into the ninth when Armando Benitez allowed a two-out rally to cut the Mets' advantage down to one run. With the tying run at third base, disaster nearly struck as Benitez induced a grounder that caromed off his leg, but thanks to some helpful screaming and pointing from Mike Piazza, the closer was able to locate the ball and throw out the runner by a hair for the final out of an ugly 10-9 win. "Just thank god there wasn't Astroturf," Piazza said after the game came to its brutal conclusion, "or they would have been taking corpses off the field."
The following afternoon, with the heat index pushing up to 114, rookie Octavio Dotel was tagged for seven runs in the first inning and gave up nine overall before being yanked. The Mets fought all the way back to tie the game at 9, with six of those runs driven in by Robin Ventura, but the Cubs responded with an eight-run bloodbath against the Mets' usually ironclad bullpen. Jason Isringhausen received the worst treatment, roughed up for five runs in three-plus innings, as New York endured a 17-10 defeat.
As if the elevated temperatures weren't enough, the Mets had the added distraction of the July 31 trade deadline, which coincided with their second game in the Friendly Confines. Fans disappointed by the acquisition of Kenny Rogers hoped the team would trade for a "real" ace, but general manager Steve Phillips had already moved on to other concerns. The relief corps had taken a hit with the injury to John Franco and was showing some wear and tear from a summer of overuse. Phillips acknowledged publicly that he wanted to shore up both the bullpen and the bench; beyond Matt Franco, the Mets were thin in the reserve bat department, particularly from the left side of the plate.
Relief help was found at the expense of a newly minted reliever. Phillips snagged Billy Taylor, Oakland's sidearming closer, in exchange for Jason Isringhausen and a minor leaguer. A mere month earlier, Izzy had reluctantly converted himself into a reliever, only to find himself used exclusively in garbage time. The Mets never seemed to trust him, and in retrospect his relief conversion project seemed calculated to make the righty more attractive for a future deal.
When Isringhausen heard rumors he might be dealt, he insisted he didn't want to go. He'd endured one injury after another, not to mention the humiliation of being declared a charter member of "Generation K." Now he'd finally worked his way back to the bigs with a team that looked headed for the playoffs, only to be traded to Oakland and an unclear future. When the deal went down, Izzy left Chicago without a word, registering his protest with silence.
The same day, Phillips sent Brian McRae (odd man out in the Mets' crowded outfield) along with a few farmhands to Colorado for lefty reliever Chuck McElroy and veteran lefty bat Darryl Hamilton. He padded the bench further by shipping another minor leaguer to St. Louis for Shawon Dunston, Brooklyn native and the Cubs' Shortstop Of The Future circa 1986, now relegated to part-time outfield duty in his dotage.
Though the Mets' GM pulled off a flurry of moves before midnight, all of them proved to be unglamorous acquisitions of veteran filler. Phillips' idea was clearly to pack his team with players who'd been around the block and logged playoff push experience. Fans who'd hoped the team would add an ace had to salve themselves with the fact that virtually no aces had moved. Curt Schilling, David Wells, and Chuck Finley were all rumored to be on the trading block, but all stayed put. The closest thing to a top-line starter who was dealt was Livan Hernandez, shipped from the Marlins to the Giants, and the Mets had beaten Hernandez four times already this season.
The newly constituted Mets won their last game at Wrigley on August 1, though not before suffering through another sweltering slog. Al Leiter fanned 15 Cubs, but Benitez's first pitch of the ninth was clubbed for a game-tying homer. The Mets regained the lead in the top of the tenth, only to watch Benitez and Billy Taylor allow Chicago to tie the score again in the bottom half. Pressed into long relief for the second time in the series, Pat Mahomes batted for himself in the 13th and knocked in the go-ahead run, then secured the last three outs to cap an exhausting 5-4 win.
Though the hellish heat of Chicago was finally in their rearview, the Mets stayed hot when they traveled Milwaukee on August 2. Days earlier, Rick Reed had fretted over rumors he might be traded, but with the deadline come and gone, he looked relaxed while pitching seven strong innings in the opener. His teammates beat up Hideo Nomo, who the Mets released during spring training, as Piazza, Ventura, and Hamilton each went deep in a 7-2 win. Piazza and Ventura homered again the next night against another ex-Met, Bill Pulsiipher, in a 10-3 drubbing. In the finale, Kenny Rogers pitched through hamstring trouble and looked to be in pain while allowing three homers, but the Mets erupted for seven runs in the first three innings to ensure a 9-5 victory.
Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, the Braves dropped their first two games against the Pirates. These losses, combined with the sweep in Milwaukee, meant the Mets would return to Shea in sole possession of first place. It was the latest in the season they'd been atop the division since 1990, the fruit of a summer of sustained winning the franchise had never seen before, or since.