The Mets played a brief three-game set against the Phillies beginning on September 17 and won two of these matchups even though their attentions were firmly fixed elsewhere. (Save for Rey Ordoñez, who belted a grand slam on September 18 for his annual home run.) All summer and well into the fall, the Mets had played out of their minds against all opponents except one: The Braves, who they hadn't seen since early July. Now, the two teams would face off six times in the next week, beginning with a huge series in Atlanta.
While the Mets wrapped up their last west coast trip and disposed of the Phillies, the Braves suddenly stumbled and lost five of eight. Thus, New York would travel to Turner Field one slim game out of first place, a division title almost in their grasp. Wanting to leave nothing to chance, Bobby Valentine backed down from the six-man rotation he'd been employing and demoted rookie Octavio Dotel to the bullpen. Mindful of Dotel's shaky major league debut in Atlanta, Valentine chose to rely on the veteran arms of Rick Reed, Orel Hershiser, and Al Leiter for this crucial series.
Reed had pitched poorly since returning from the disabled list but shrugged that off in the series opener on September 21, scattering six hits over six innings of work while fanning six batters. He did, however, allow a solo shot to Chipper Jones that gave the Braves an early lead. His teammates scratched out their own run against John Smoltz in the third, but could otherwise do nothing against the Atlanta pitcher. At least the Braves said this was John Smoltz. The pitcher had drastically altered his delivery to pitch through elbow pain (the alternative was a trip to Dr. James Andrews) and looked nothing like the Smoltz they saw back in July.
With the score still tied in the bottom of the eighth, Valentine chose to bring in lefty Dennis Cook to face Chipper, who was reputed to be weaker when batting right handed. The manager was unaware that Chipper had been tearing the cover off the ball from both sides of the plate all season. The third baseman clubbed a Cook fastball into the left field seats, putting the Braves up, 2-1. John Rocker preserved that score by striking out the side on 11 pitches. It was the first managerial misstep from Valentine in the series, and it would not be the last.
The next game bore an eerie resemblance to the first. Orel Hershiser proved tough against every Braves hitter not named Chipper, who reached him for a two-run blast in the first inning. His opposite number, Tom Glavine, was equally tough but allowed his own two-run homer to Mike Piazza. Hershiser held serve until the bottom of the seventh, when a pair of singles and a sac fly gave Atlanta the lead. When the Mets attempted their own rally with two singles against Glavine to start the top of the eighth, it set in motion a series of changes that made the proceedings look less like a baseball game and more like a litany of Biblical genealogy.
Bobby Cox replaced a tiring Glavine with reliever Mike Remlinger. Bobby Valentine countered with rookie Melvin Mora, who bunted the runners into scoring position. When Shawon Dunston was sent to pinch hit. Cox responded by bringing in a righty, Russ Springer, whereupon Valentine subbed Dunston with Matt Franco. The Braves intentionally walked Franco (who was then replaced by pinch runner Jay Payton) before calling on Terry Mulholland to take the mound. Valentine tried to neutralize the lefty by pinch hitting with Bobby Bonilla, but the maligned outfielder struck out. The final replacement, Todd Pratt, grounded out to second.
This half inning required 10 substitutions and 40 minutes to complete. The end result: Zero runs scored.
Further drama was prevented once Octavio Dotel took the mound for his first relief appearance—another strange choice by Valentine, who appeared deathly afraid of letting Dotel start a game in Atlanta, yet had no qualms about bringing him out of the bullpen for the first time in his major league career. Dotel walked the first two batters he faced and John Franco allowed both to score. John Rocker shut the door again in the ninth, capping a 5-2 defeat.
The series finale began with promise for the Mets, then quickly deflated. The visitors took a 2-1 lead on an RBI single from Ordoñez in the top of the second, but failed to score any more runs against Greg Maddux in the inning despite having the bases loaded with no outs. They were thwarted further in the fifth when Rickey Henderson inexplicably tried to score on an Edgardo Alfonzo double and was thrown out at the plate by a mile.
In the bottom half, everything fell apart. It began when Al Leiter nearly picked off a runner at first, only to see the ball get stuck in John Olerud's glove. One bloop single later, Chipper strode to the plate. With two men on base and only one out, Leiter was wary of walking anyone, even Chipper. He tried to sneak a slider past him, but Chipper—again batting from his supposedly weaker right side—blasted it for a three-run homer.
The carnage of this inning continued when Andruw Jones managed to score from second on a foul out, thanks to a throwing error from Olerud and the Mets' failure to back up the play at third. A Piazza solo shot in the top of the sixth gave the Mets a sliver of hope. Turk Wendell gave it right back in the bottom of the seventh by throwing away a comebacker, thus converting an inning-ending double play into another run-scoring error.
The Mets teased a comeback against Rocker in the ninth by working two walks, and Rocker even threw them a bone by uncorking a wild pitch, but that was as close as they got. The 6-3 loss pushed New York four games out of first place with nine left to play. The Braves made a show of packing champagne for their upcoming road trip to Montreal, since their sweep of the Mets had all but guaranteed they'd have cause to pop it in a few days' time.
The Mets stumbled out of town in a daze, wondering if anyone had gotten the license of the truck that just hit them. Some suspected chicanery, grumbling that the Braves must have been stealing signs for Chipper to abuse their pitchers so badly. (Such charges ignored the fact that Chipper had been abusing every pitcher of late.) A beleaguered Valentine seemed to give credence to this conspiracy theory by calling Chipper's abilities against the Mets "uncanny," a word choice he immediately regretted.
If the division title seemed out of reach, the Mets comforted themselves with the fact that the wild card berth was still theirs for the taking, and that their next stop would be Philadelphia. Surely, the injured, demoralized Phillies wouldn't put up much of a fight, would they?