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1999: How the west was won

This week in 1999: The Mets conquer their final west coast trip of the year and inch closer to the Braves.

The Mets began the last of three late-season westward trips by paying a visit to Los Angeles. Like the Mets, the Dodgers made a ton of deals in the offseason leading up to 1999, hoping to spend their way to relevance, acquiring big names like Kevin Brown and Todd Hundley, but the strategy that had worked in Flushing failed in Tinseltown. LA was nine games under .500 when New York arrived on September 9, and had been locked into playing-out-the-stretch mode since midsummer.

The pain of coulda-been was impressed on them even further in the first of four against the Mets, as ex-Dodgers did most of the damage. Brown kept the visitors at bay until Mike Piazza hit a laser beam two-run homer, while Hero Of '88 Orel Hershiser limited the Dodgers to a Sheffield solo shot over seven innings and Roger Cedeño—who LA sent to New York as a throw-in when they traded for Hundley—robbed their slugger of a game-tying longball at the fence. The Mets held back a late charge and prevailed, 3-1.

The Dodgers won by the same score the following night, but saved most of their countermeasures for the press the following morning, when Jason Reid of the Los Angeles Times reported that Piazza's former team had attempted to reacquire the catcher by trade—twice.

A rational mind would say there was no way on earth the Mets would trade Piazza after giving him a $91 million, seven-year contract the previous winter. But the report seemed intended less to reflect any rational thought than it was to provoke an irrational response from Piazza. The Dodgers had used the Times to snipe at him when the two parties were embroiled in contentious contract extension negotiations in 1998, thus planting the seeds for Piazza's eventual departure. Now that he was gone, the Dodgers used to the paper to attempt to sow mistrust between him and his new team. GM Steve Phillips was forced to privately assure his catcher and publicly declare to the press that he was going nowhere.

Piazza betrayed annoyance at the distraction but said little, preferring to exact revenge on the field. The same day as the trade report surfaced, he went 4-for-4 with a home run and sparked a rally to break a tie in a 6-2 win. The Mets prevailed in the finale as well, though they stumbled often enough for the New York Times to compare them to The Three Stooges. Kenny Rogers tweaked his troublesome hamstring while shagging fly balls and coughed up a 2-0 lead, and his teammates displayed some comically bad baserunning, but were still able to rebound against rookie starter Eric Gagne and bash their way to a 10-3 win.

Leaving sunny LA behind, the Mets next headed for chilly Coors Field, where the biggest news in another disappointing Rockies season was the imminent retirement of Jim Leyland. Colorado's manager had two years left on his contract, but said he preferred to do "something else in the game" over trying to figure out how to win in the Mile High City.

While the Rockies were losing personnel, the Mets were adding it. Bobby Jones was finally reactivated from the DL in time for the series in Denver following a season almost totally lost to shoulder woes. A mainstay of the Mets' rotation for years, Jones took the mound for the home opener and even went deep that day, but he hadn't pitched since May, and his rehab was punctuated by one setback after another. Having already committed himself to a six-man rotation, Bobby Valentine relegates Jones to the bullpen, asking him to be a righty long-man to complement lefty Pat Mahomes, even though the veteran had never pitched in relief before. After pitching for so many lousy Mets teams in the mid-1990s, Jones was just glad to be on the roster for a squad with a shot at the playoffs.

The Mets increased their likelihood of playing in the postseason by taking two of three from Colorado. In the series opener on September 13, the visitors rallied late and scored the go-ahead run on a wild pitch from Dave Veres to eke out a 6-5 win. Octavio Dotel was roughed up the following night in a 7-2 loss, and the Mets fell behind early in the final game in Denver, but Piazza delivered a key run-scoring hit to spark a comeback in a 10-5 victory.

The successful west coast trip had helped the Mets hurdle some psychological barriers. They'd stalled at 88 wins the previous two seasons, but this last win against the Rockies marked their 90th of the season. It was the franchise's highest win total since 1990, back when they were still the toast of the town.

Going 5-2 on the road trip was also important in more material ways. Some costly missteps by the Braves on their own west coast swing meant the Mets would return to Shea only one game out of first place in the NL East. A showdown in Atlanta set for the following week had been circled on their calendar all season. Now, it loomed even larger.