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1999: Back from the brink

This week in 1999: On the verge of playoff elimination, the Mets sweep the Pirates in the final three games of the season to force a play-in contest against the Reds.

Mathematically, the Mets live....[T]hey would be better off dead. Anyone with the slightest touch of compassion could see that.

Murray Chass of the Times wrote this as the Mets were mired in a horrific losing skid at the end of September, dropping eight of nine. As October dawned, it was hard to argue otherwise. The Mets were two games out of the playoff picture, with only three games left to play. It appeared that the Astros and Reds (then tied for first in the NL Central) would split the division title and the wild card spot, while New York would just split.

Shea Stadium had been packed for three games against the Braves, the series that ended with Chipper Jones commanding local fans to "put their Yankee stuff on." The series opener against the Pirates on October 1 attracted less than 30,000 at the gate, far short of capacity. The national media that had crammed the press box for the Atlanta games was gone, believing the Mets' season was all over but the shouting.

The Pirates played respectably in 1999, mostly on the strength of a young, hard-throwing pitching staff. One such young hard-thrower, Jason Schmidt, tied the Mets' bats in knots in the first game of the series. He did, however, allow solo shots to Robin Ventura and Mike Piazza. Kenny Rogers preserved the lead until the top of the eighth, whenthe Pirates plated a run and threatened to do much worse.

With the bases and two outs, John Franco gave up a slow roller that Edgardo Alfonzo couldn't quite handle, thus scoring the tying run, then fell behind the next batter, Adrian Brown, 3-0. In danger of walking in the go-ahead run, a run that might possibly end the Mets' season once and for all, Franco recovered to strike out Brown looking. The called third strike looked pretty low to the naked eye. It was the first break the Mets were handed in what felt like weeks.

Given an stay of execution, the home team prevailed in the bottom of the eleventh as Shawon Dunston singled and came around to score on a Ventura hit. Meanwhile, the Dodgers had defeated the Astros in Houston and the Brewers had pulled off a shocking walkoff win against the Reds. The Mets were within a game of the wild card spot.

The following afternoon, the Reds lost to the Brewers yet again. By the time the Mets took the field for their evening game, they knew a win would tie them with Cincinnati. Armed with this knowledge, starter Rick Reed pitched one of the best games of his life, going the distance and striking out 12 batters. Reed even slapped a two-run single in the bottom of the eighth to expand a once slim lead. The Mets scored five times in that frame and collected a thrilling 7-0 win.

Somehow, after looking luckless and clueless for more than a week, the Mets controlled their fate once more. Win their game on October 3 and they would live to play another day. They placed their hopes in the 40-year-old arm of Orel Hershiser, a man who'd once dashed their World Series dreams as a Dodger. In front of a raucous near-capacity crowd, Bulldog allowed the Pirates to scratch out a run in the first but otherwise kept Pittsburgh off the board in 5 1/3 innings, while the bullpen did the same the rest of the way.

For much of 1999, one run wouldn't have been enough to beat the Mets, but their offense took a serious nose dive at the end of the season. They had no answer for Pittsburgh's rookie starter, Kris Benson, who dangled opportunities in front of them and yanked them back all afternoon. John Olerud reached on an error in the fourth and came around to score on a Darryl Hamilton double, but the Mets were thwarted at every other turn. Two singles in the first, both stranded. Two more runners unredeemed in the fifth, another pair in the sixth, and a Rickey Henderson single gone to waste in the seventh. New York batters smacked the ball hard all afternoon, and all afternoon their liners landed in Pirate gloves.

The stalemate continued until the bottom of the ninth, when Melvin Mora—inserted in Henderson's place earlier, possessor of five career hits—collected a one-out single. Edgardo Alfonzo followed with his own single that sent Mora to third. With the winning run 90 feet away, the Pirates made the curious move of walking Olerud to face Mike Piazza, loading the bases in the hopes of a double play.

Piazza never got a chance to play hero, because the first pitch from sidearming reliever Brad Clontz flew past the catcher. Mora scampered home on the play while Piazza threw his arms up in the air—not in triumph, but in a gesture of ya gotta be kiddin' me... The Mets stormed the field while Shea shook behind them, fans and team alike ecstatic that against all odds, they would play again in 1999.

When and where, exactly, remained to be seen. The Astros cleared things up a bit by winning their last two games against the Dodgers to capture the NL Central title outright. The Reds were less cooperative. If Cincinnati lost their final game in Milwaukee, the Mets would capture the wild card and advance to the division series. If Cincinnati won that game, they'd host a play-in game against the Mets at Riverfront Stadium (then known as Cinergy Field). The problem was that by the time Melvin Mora was scurrying home, the Reds-Brewers tilt was already delayed by rain. Based on the weather forecast, there was no telling when the two teams might be able to play and complete the last piece of the National League's playoff puzzle.

Rather than wait around and hope the weather cleared up, the Mets decided to fly to Cincinnati and get a good night's sleep there, and thus be prepared for whichever contingency arose. When the Reds finally completed their 7-1 win over the Brewers (near midnight Milwaukee time), the Mets were already snug in their hotel beds. The start time of the play-in game was moved up to 7:05pm to accommodate the groggy home team.

A boisterous crowd showed up at Riverfront hoping to will their tired team into the playoffs. They were quickly disappointed. A leadoff single by Rickey Henderson was followed by a two-run blast to straightaway center from Edgardo Alfonzo. In the blink of an eye, the Mets had jumped out to a lead and taken the wind out of local fans' sails.

Al Leiter—who Bobby Valentine held in abeyance for this game, rather than start him on short rest against the Pirates—gave them no cause to get excited again. He stranded stranded runners in each of the first three innings before retiring 13 Reds batters in a row. Leiter had saved the Mets' season a number of times with ace-like performances, serving as the stopper for his team's disastrous losing streaks. But this start was the greatest one of all. When Orel Hershiser tried to offer Leiter some encouraging pep talk in the early going—you got these guys, you're pitching great—Leiter just smiled. He knew already.

The Mets tacked on along the way and carried a 5-0 lead into the ninth. Leiter seemed to falter for a moment, allowing a leadoff double (Cincinnati's first extra base hit of the night) and a two-out walk. He was also perturbed by several fans running onto the field, interrupting his rhythm. (ESPN cameras showed a furious Bobby Valentine mouthing What the fuck?! over the delay.) He then allowed a line drive off the bat of Dmitri Young, one that could easily have gone into the gap and gotten the Reds right back into the game.

It settled into Alfonzo's glove instead. The Mets had celebrated on the Shea Stadium field after their win against the Pirates, even though they had no idea what they were celebrating. Now, finally, they could pop champagne. They were officially, actually in the playoffs for real, for the first time in 11 years. The wait was longer for John Franco, who'd been pitching in the bigs since 1984 without a trip to the postseason. It was longer still for Bobby Valentine, who'd never made the playoffs at any level in any capacity, as player or manager, as major or minor leaguer, in America or Japan (where he skippered the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1995). "It's a lot of emotions," Valentine said on this occasion. "I don't know if I'm smart enough to tell you all of them."

Now all he had to do was go to Arizona and beat Randy Johnson.