The late 90’s Mets, despite featuring some talented teams led by Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, were defined by their inability to beat the Braves. Atlanta was in the middle of their streak of winning 14 straight division titles and had claimed the NL East every year since MLB split to three divisions and added the Wild Card beginning in 1995. The addition of the Wild Card proved fortuitous for the Mets, as it gave them an in to a postseason amid Atlanta’s ceaseless dominance.
The Mets entered 1999 looking to finish what they couldn’t in 1998, when they collapsed over their final five regular season games and finished one game out of a playoff spot. The final three defeats came at the hands of the Braves, which was an especially cruel ending for a team that had an otherwise-commendable 88-win season. That winter, the Mets brought back Piazza and Al Leiter and were looking like a force to be reckoned with. They were tremendous through the first five-and-a-half months of 1999, but losses in eight of nine games in late-September—five of those eight defeats came to Atlanta—had the Mets fighting for their playoff lives. In all, the Mets fell in nine of 12 to the Braves in 1999.
It took a sweep in the weekend’s final series against the Pirates and a Game-163 victory against the Reds on the road in order to carry them into the playoffs. Despite 97 wins—their most since 1988—they still finished second and started the NLDS on the road. In their first postseason series since their 1988 loss to the Dodgers, they topped the Diamondbacks 3-1, winning the final game on a Todd Pratt walk-off home run. The Braves, meanwhile, breezed by the Astros to set up a heavyweight matchup in the NLCS. If the Mets wanted to prove they were the best in the National League, they had to top the team that had become a nightmare for them.
Turner Field was essentially a House of Horrors for the Mets, and would remain that way until it was finally torn down and replaced with SunTrust Park/Truist Park in 2017. The path to the World Series started there for New York, as they sent Masato Yoshii to the hill against future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux. The right-hander held his own despite a tough assignment, allowing two runs on five hits over 4.2 innings. Maddux, unsurprisingly, was better, allowing one run over seven innings.
Atlanta jumped ahead two batters into the game, as Gerald Williams singled and stole second, and came around to score on a Brett Boone single. Maddux stymied the Mets in the first three frames, but New York’s big bats helped the break through in the fourth. Edgardo Alfonzo doubled and reached third on a John Olerud single. Piazza drove Fonzie home with a ground out to knot the score. A Williams single in the fifth put Atlanta ahead for good, and they added runs in the sixth and eighth to build a 4-1 cushion. Pratt provided a run-scoring single off nemesis John Rocker in the ninth to plate Shawon Dunston, who reached on an error earlier in the frame, but the rally would end there.
The Mets looked to rebound with Kenny Rogers taking the mound in Game 2 against Kevin Millwood. New York took its first lead of the NLCS in the second when Roger Cedeno singled home Robin Ventura. The Mets doubled their lead in the fifth on a Melvin Mora solo home run. For a while, things were looking good for the Orange and Blue. On the mound, Rogers was cruising, scattering six hits and two walks over the first five frames.
But things fell apart for the left-hander in the sixth. After Boone grounded out to start the inning, long-time Met tormenter Chipper Jones walked and Brian Jordan homered to even up the score at two. An Andruw Jones single and an Eddie Perez homer put Atlanta ahead by two, a lead they would not relinquish. The Perez homer was the final pitch Rogers threw on the evening, as he was pulled for Turk Wendell. The Mets climbed to within one with an Alfonzo double to score Mora, which knocked Millwood out of the game. However, Rocker and John Smoltz combined for the final five outs to give the Braves a two-game series lead.
The Mets returned to Shea Stadium looking to turn their series around with ace Leiter on the mound. Atlanta countered with Tom Glavine, setting up a must-watch lefty pitcher’s duel, and the game did not disappoint for the general baseball fan with no rooting interest. For the Mets, the disappointment was all too familiar against the Braves.
Atlanta took a lead four batters into the game without the benefit of a hit. After issuing a leadoff walk to Williams, Leiter threw away a Boone ground ball for an error that put runners on first and second. After retiring Larry on a pop up, Piazza committed a throwing error on a double steal, which brought Williams home. The Mets escaped further damage when Jordan flew out to Mora, who threw out Boone trying to score for a double play.
That was it. From there, neither team would score again in the game. Leiter was divine, tossing seven innings of three-hit ball. He only allowed the one unearned run and walked three while striking out five. He matched Glavine every step of the way, but Glavine’s defense did not fail him. The future Met gave up seven hits, walked one, struck out eight, and kept New York off the board. Mike Remlinger and Rocker pitched perfect eighth and ninth innings, respectively, as the Mets fell into a 3-0 hole in the series.
Through the first three games, the Mets were outscored by a measly four runs, but credit is not awarded for effort or for close scores, and they still entered Game 4 facing a herculean task. In MLB history to that point, 23 teams had trailed 3-0 in a best-of-7 series, including four in the League Championship Series and 19 in the World Series. None had come back from the deficit, and only one had so much as forced a Game 6 (the Braves, in the previous year’s NLCS against the Padres). The Mets were vying to be the first to accomplish the feat.
A capacity crowd of 55,872 showed up to see the Mets attempt the comeback. What they witnessed was another crisp game between two evenly-matched teams, a contest which would end in just two hours and 20 minutes. The Mets started Rick Reed, who tossed seven strong innings against Smoltz, who turned in 7.2 stellar innings of his own. The game was scoreless into the sixth, when Olerud homered to give the Mets a 1-0 lead.
That’s where things remained until the eighth, when Atlanta’s Jordan and Ryan Klesko blasted back-to-back homers to chase Reed from the game and put the Braves six outs away from an NL Pennant. With their backs against the walls, the Mets mounted their comeback in the bottom of the eighth. Cedeno singled off Smoltz, who stayed in for one more batter and was then lifted for Remlinger. The left-hander struck out Benny Agbayani but walked Mora to put two runners on base. The Braves turned to their closer Rocker, who was appearing in his fourth straight postseason game. After both Cedeno and Mora stole, Olerud drove them both home on a single to put New York back on top. Armando Benitez shut the door in the ninth with a 1-2-3 inning to give the Mets some life.
The Mets were still breathing heading into the fifth game, but they still had a long road ahead of them if they wanted to reach the World Series for the first time since 1986. Game 5 featured a Game 1 rematch between Yoshii and Maddux. First pitch was at 4:09pm Eastern Time. When it was all over, it was 9:47pm Eastern Time. Every Mets fan remembers where they were when the events unfolded. I was 10, at my cousin’s baptism, sitting outside the church listening to the game on the radio, and then again outside the Hall as the game refused to end. When it finally reached its conclusion, a throng of Mets fans had gathered under a covering to avoid the rain, cheering together as Ventura’s now-iconic blast cleared the wall.
Olerud, picking up right where he left off in Game 4, unloaded on a Maddux offering in the first and launched a two-run homer to give the Mets the lead. The Braves would get it back with two runs in the fourth on a C. Jones run-scoring single and a Jordan RBI single. That is where things would remain for the next 10 innings.
As the game progressed, the rain became steady and would remain until the very end. The Braves squandered countless opportunities to put the game away, while the Mets failed to get much of anything going against Atlanta’s pitching. The Braves would end the game 3-for-18 with RISP while leaving 19 runners on base. The Mets went 1-for-7 with 12 LOB. The Mets had burned through all their available pitchers except for Leiter and Reed.
As the 15th started, Octavio Dotel was commencing his third inning of work. He surrendered a Walt Weiss single, and the shortstop swiped second one batter later. After two outs, Atlanta finally cashed in on a scoring opportunity with a Keith Lockhart triple. The Braves once again had the NL pennant within their grasp, now standing only three outs away from their fourth trip to the World Series in the decade.
Atlanta stuck with reliever Kevin McGlinchy, who had gotten the final two outs of the 14th, for the inning. Mid-season acquisition Dunston singled to start the 15th for New York, and he wasted no time stealing second. Matt Franco, as he was so good at in those days, worked a walk to put two runners on base. Alfonzo bunted the runners over, and the scorching-hot Olerud was intentionally walked to load the bases. Pratt picked up the team’s third walk of the inning to tie the score at three.
Ventura stepped to the plate and cemented his place in Mets history with what has come to become known as the “Grand Slam Single”. The ball cleared the wall, but his teammates didn’t allow him to touch second base, keeping him from registering the grand slam and holding it instead to a single. Tired, wet, and victorious, the Mets were on their way back to Turner Field and confident they could pull off the comeback.
It’s worth pointing out that, for a unique and comprehensive recounting of this moment, check out Tim Britton’s oral history of the “Grand Slam Single”.
The Mets turned to Leiter on short rest for Game 6, and after pitching them into the playoffs with his Game-163 magic and his incredible effort in Game 3, he gave New York nothing. He failed to record a single out. When all was said and done, he exited the game with his team down by four runs. Pat Mahomes would give up a fifth run charged to Leiter, and the improbable comeback attempt was now seemingly impossible.
The Mets got to Millwood in the sixth with a Piazza sacrifice fly followed by a Darryl Hamilton single which drove home Olerud and Ventura. The Braves turned to Terry Mulholland, who escaped the inning. Atlanta would get two runs back in the bottom half of the frame. After Wendell loaded the bases, Dennis Cook came in and gave up a two-run single to Jose Hernandez to make it 7-3.
The Mets evened up the score in the top of the seventh against Smoltz. Franco and Ricky Henderson started the frame with back-to-back doubles and, after Alfonzo advanced Henderson to third on a fly out, Olerud singled him home. Piazza strode to the plate and deposited a Smoltz pitch into the right field stands for a two-run homer. They would take their first lead of the game one winning later, when pinch hitter Mora singled home Agbayani to make it 8-7.
The lead was short-lived, as John Franco coughed it up in the bottom half of the eighth on a Brian Hunter single to chase home pinch runner Otis Nixon. After Rocker and Benitez provided their teams with scoreless ninth innings, the rivals entered extras for the second straight contest. The Mets struck first in the top of the tenth against Rocker on a Pratt sacrifice fly. The Mets were now three outs away from becoming the first team to force a Game 7 after trailing 3-0 in a best-of-7. Unfortunately, Benitez could not hold the lead, and Ozzie Guillen singled home the tying run in the tenth.
The Mets went quietly against Russ Springer in the eleventh, setting the stage for Atlanta’s pennant-clinching moment in the bottom of that same inning against Rogers, the starter who was working his second consecutive game. Williams doubled to lead off the inning and was bunted over to third. Bobby Valentine had his pitcher intentionally walk C. Jones and Jordan to set up a potential double play, which also eliminated any room for error. The move proved costly, as A. Jones worked a walk to bring home the series-deciding run.
The Mets fell two wins short of an NL Pennant, but the 1999 Mets were the best team of the decade, and for any Mets fan born post-1986, the best team of our lifetimes. Even though the 2000 Mets were the ones who made it to the Fall Classic, the ‘99 squad are considered by many, including some who played on both clubs, to be the best Mets team of that era. Their 97 wins put them fifth all-time, trailing the 1986, 1988, 1969, and 1985 teams, a number the 2006 Mets would later match. While the NLCS didn’t go the way the team or its fans desired, it still provided one of the most memorable moments in franchise history.