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1999: The plot sickens

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This week in 1999: The Mets lose their grip on the playoffs as Chipper Jones fires shots.

Ugh, him again
Ugh, him again

In allowing themselves to be swept in Atlanta, the Mets had all but conceded the National League East to the Braves. They still had a grip on the wild card berth, but that grip had shrunk to only two games over the surprising Cincinnati Reds, a little engine that could with few stars.

The Mets hoped a trip to Philadelphia would help them right their ship. The Phillies had played well for a while in 1999 before they lost both Curt Schilling and Scott Rolen to injury and, seemingly, their will to compete along with them. In the month leading up to their series with New York, the Phils had won a grand total of four games. A week earlier at Shea, the Mets won two games against them without breaking a sweat, and it was assumed they'd have little trouble doing the same at Veterans Stadium.

Instead, the Mets' bats were tied in knots in the series opener on September 24 by Joe Grahe, a pitcher making his penultimate major league start. Masato Yoshii was able to protect the slim 2-1 lead he was given, but the bullpen wasn't. In the bottom of the eighth, Bobby Valentine asked Armando Benitez to face Bobby Abreu, one of the Phils' few offensive threats, even though southpaw John Franco was up and ready to face the lefty batter. It was an unsettling echo of the managerial blunders Valentine committed in Atlanta, and had much the same result. Benitez gave up a game-tying double and followed it up with a go-ahead single. The Mets lost, 3-2, with the save recorded by Scott Aldred, who'd never saved a game in his 10-year major league career.

The next evening, Kenny Rogers allowed two solo homers and a pair of bases-loaded walks to put the Mets in 4-0 hole. His teammates cut the lead in half on a John Olerud two-run home run and worked a pair of walks to start the top of the eighth. At that point, Valentine made another curious decision by calling on Darryl Hamilton to bunt against a pitcher who couldn't throw strikes. Hamilton bunted into a force at third, and the next batter, Benny Agbayani, hit a bullet up the middle that went for a line drive double play. The Mets went quietly in the ninth to cap the 4-2 defeat. It was Rogers' first loss since his trade to New York.

In the series finale, the Mets faced off against Paul Byrd. A week earlier in Queens, they tattooed him. This time in Phialdelphia, he limited them to a mere two runs while the Phils scraped together three against Rick Reed. New York still trailed by one run in the ninth when three consecutive walks put the tying run 90 feet away from home with only one out. All Rickey Henderson needed to do was a loft a fly ball to the outfield. Instead, he hit a grounder to second for a game-ending double play.

While the Mets sagged, the Reds surged. At the same time Henderson hit into that twin killing, Cincinnati pulled together a thrilling come-from-behind victory against the Cardinals, a victory that gave them sole possession of the wild card spot. The following day, with the Mets idle, the Reds complicated things further by beating the Astros to tie them for the lead in the NL Central. Not only did the Mets no longer control their own playoff destiny, but they now had to leapfrog two teams to get to October.

Since they last saw the Mets, Atlanta had taken a pleasant trip to Montreal and clinched the NL East there. This should have meant the Braves had little to play for when they came to Queens for a three-game set beginning on September 28. The Braves themselves didn't see things this way, however, and they made no secret of relishing this opportunity to further dim the Mets' postseason hopes. Scouts from playoff-bound teams flocked to Shea, knowing they'd see an Atlanta team out for blood. "This is as good a series as any to watch the Braves, even though they've already clinched," said Gene Michael of the Yankees. "They hate the Mets."

In the series opener, Atlanta's hatred was displayed in dribs and drabs as they strung together a series of bloop hits to hang four runs on Orel Hershiser in just one-third of an inning, one of the worst starts of his career. Tom Glavine stifled the home team, as he had all season. In the midst of an ugly bullpen meltdown, Dennis Cook screamed at the home plate umpire over the strike zone and went nose to nose with him, earning himself an ejection and one-game suspension. It was the only thing Mets fans could cheer all night, and the only fight their team put up in an ugly 9-3 loss.

The bad luck and offensive blackout of the previous week vanished for a moment on the evening of September 29, when the Mets pieced together a rally against Greg Maddux, who'd worked like kryptonite against them all year. The outburst consisted of eight straight hits off of Atlanta's ace, including an unlikely RBI single by Al Leiter, and was capped by a John Olerud grand slam. As he had against the Yankees back in June, Leiter tossed seven stellar innings to halt an awful losing streak. The Mets collected a desperately needed 9-2 win.

The magic lasted well into the next night when Masato Yoshii and Kevin Millwood battled to a stalemate, each pitcher giving up just two runs. John Franco allowed Chipper Jones to drive in the go-ahead run in the top of the eighth, but Edgardo Alfonzo responded with a game-tying solo shot in the bottom half.

But then the game dragged on into extras, where the magic began to fail. Bobby Valentine had employed a flurry of replacements in the late innings in a vain attempt to gain the lead, one of which placed Shawon Dunston in right field. Dunston hadn't played right at Shea since coming to the Mets, and he looked decidedly uncomfortable at the position when Brian Jordan hit a ball his way to start the top of the eleventh. Dunston misjudged the ball and crashed into the outfield fence trying to catch it. By the time he recovered, Jordan was on third. He scored on a sac fly shortly thereafter. The Mets went quietly in their half to conclude a crushing 4-3 defeat.

The loss placed the Mets two full games out of the wild card spot with only three games left to play. Only one team in history had beaten such odds to make it to the playoffs, and the Mets—losers of eight of their last nine games—didn't look like they'd be the second. The situation looked even more hopeless when considering the teams they needed to best would play their final games against inferior opponents: the Reds traveled to Milwaukee to play the lowly Brewers, while the Astros hosted the Dodgers, who'd been phoning it in for months.

Atlanta was so sure they'd seen the last of the Mets this season they felt free to fire off a few parting shots on their way out of town. Nearly everyone in Shea's visiting clubhouse piled on, admitting they delighted in killing the Mets' playoff chances. John Rocker thought the treatment he received from the local fans was beyond the pale and reveled in crushing their dreams. "How many times you gotta beat a team before the fans finally shut up?" puzzled the Braves' closer, the team's second-greatest Met Killer.

Occupier of the top spot, Chipper Jones, made the most incendiary remarks. He too had chafed at Mets fans' taunts, and he too had something say about it, now that he figured he wouldn't see them again until 2000. After declaring the series win at Shea, "the next best thing to a World Series win," Chipper uttered the words that would make him a villain ne plus ultra in Queens for the rest of his career. "Now all the Mets fans can go home and put their Yankees stuff on," he snarled.

It was the kind of heel move that demanded a counterpunch. At the moment, it looked like the Mets and their fans would have no chance to deliver one until the next millennium.