Monday, January 18, 2016

Best Postseason Win: New York Mets

The Mets of the late '90s worked very, very hard to build a contending team. In 1997, '98 and '99, they brought in John Olerud, Mike Piazza, Rickey Henderson, Robin Ventura, Al Leiter, Orel Hershiser, and Kenny Rogers. The moves largely paid off, as the team won 88 games in '98 (finishing a game out of what would have been a 3-way tie for the Wild Card), then improved to 97 victories the next year.

The trouble was, there was a reason that the Mets felt the need to bring in that many players to become a contender. That reason was the Atlanta Braves, and they remained intact, winning 103 games in '99 and forcing the Mets to settle for the Wild Card (which they won in a single-game playoff). The Mets beat the Diamondbacks in the LDS, and the Braves handled the Astros, and their regular season rivalry was set to resume in the NLCS.

Atlanta appeared to be well on its way to continuing its track record of success against the Mets, taking the first three games of the series. New York clawed out a win in a tense Game 4, but their backs were still firmly pressed to the wall.

Which brings us to 1999 NLCS Game 5: Mets 4, Braves 3 (15). Fighting for their playoff lives, the Mets sent Masato Yoshii, who had come over from Japan before the '98 season and was a slightly-above average starter who'd narrowly qualified for the ERA title in each of his first two major league seasons.

The Braves responded with Greg Maddux, who had won twice as many ERA titles in his career as Yoshii had qualified for.

Yoshii set the Braves down in order in the top of the first. In the bottom of the inning, Rickey Henderson led off with a single; one out later, John Olerud homered, and the Mets were off to about the best start they could have hoped for. Yoshii was also perfect in the second; Maddux allowed a leadoff double to Darryl Hamilton but stranded him at third. Eddie Perez led off the top of the third with a double, but advanced no further.

Maddux worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the third, and Atlanta rallied in the fourth. Bret Boone led off with a double, Chipper Jones doubled him home, and Brian Jordan singled Jones in to tie the game at 2. Ryan Klesko walked, and just like that, Yoshii's day was done. Orel Hershiser relieved and retired the next three hitters to preserve the tie.

Maddux worked around a Hamilton single in the bottom of the fourth. In the top of the fifth, Gerald Williams doubled and Chipper was intentionally walked, but Hershiser allowed nothing else. Maddux worked around an Edgardo Alfonso single in the bottom of the inning.

The sixth inning... the sixth inning was different. Klesko led off the top of the inning by reaching on an error by Olerud. Andruw Jones bunted him to second, and Hershiser intentionally walked Perez, then unintentionally walked Walt Weiss to load the bases for Maddux. And then, Maddux struck out, and Klesko was... caught stealing home? It seems unlikely for that to be an accurate of the play, especially since the scoring is 2-5-1, which reads like a pickoff that led to Klesko breaking for home. But whatever the exact sequence, it was unusual for any game, let alone an elimination contest tied in the top of the sixth. The bottom of the inning was only slightly more ordinary, as Mike Piazza reached on a Klesko error, Melvin Mora singled, and Hamilton reached on another Klesko error (not a good inning for him) to load the bases before Rey Ordonez hit into a double play to extinguish the threat.

Hershiser was pulled after hitting Bret Boone with one out in the seventh. Turk Wendell struck out Chipper, then intentionally walked Jordan after pinch runner Otis Nixon stole second. Pat Mahomes relieved and walked pinch hitter Brian Hunter, then coaxed a flyout from Andruw to end the inning. Maddux worked a spotless bottom of the inning. Weiss doubled with one out in the top of the eighth, leading to a pinch hitter for Maddux; Jose Hernandez struck out, Williams was intentionally passed, and John Franco relieved and drew a groundout from Keith Lockhart to quash the rally.

Terry Mulholland gave up a single to Olerud in the bottom of the eighth, but erased him on a double play. Franco allowed a hit to Jordan in the ninth and left him on, and Mulholland set the Mets down 1-2-3, sending the game to extras. Armando Benitez relieved in the tenth; he allowed Perez to single and pinch runner Howard Battle to steal second, but nothing else. Mike Remlinger retired the Mets in order in the home tenth.

Kenny Rogers took the mound in the top of the eleventh and worked around a Chipper single. Robin Ventura singled in the bottom of the inning, but Remlinger stranded him. In the twelfth, Rogers walked Greg Myers but coaxed a double play ball from Weiss. Benny Agbayani drew a leadoff walk from Russ Springer in the bottom of the twelfth and did not advance past first.

The Braves had a shot in the thirteenth against Octavio Dotel as Lockhart singled and Chipper doubled, but Lockhart was thrown out trying to score from first on the double to end the inning. John Rocker allowed nary a baserunner in the home thirteenth. Dotel walked Andruw but allowed nothing else in the fourteenth; the bottom of the inning saw Kevin McGlinchy relieve with one out and allow a walk and steal to Agbayani before leaving him at second.

Then... came the fifteenth inning. Weiss led off the top of the inning with a single, and stole second after McGlinchy struck out. Williams flied out, but Lockhart followed with a triple, giving the Braves their first lead of the game. Dotel intentionally walked Chipper, then struck out Jordan to end the rally - but Atlanta was now three outs from the World Series.

Shawon Dunston led off the bottom of the inning with a single and stole second. Matt Franco walked, and Alfonzo bunted the runners to second and third. Olerud was intentionally walked to load the bases. Todd Pratt walked as well, forcing in the tying run and bringing Ventura to the plate with the bases still loaded.

Ventura "singled" to center field to end the game. By which I mean he hit the ball over the fence, but gave up the right to a grand slam in order to join his celebrating teammates before completing his circuit around the bases.

The morning after this happened, my dad (who is not the sports fan in the family) told me that it didn't seem fair to deprive Ventura of the credit for his grand slam. I replied in all my lofty not-quite-14-year-old baseball fan wisdom with two arguments:

1. He probably didn't mind because his team had just won a very important game.
2. Regardless of what the box score said, everyone knew he had hit a grand slam.

Twelve years later, Nelson Cruz homered with the bases loaded in the tenth inning of this game, and it was widely declared to be the first walkoff grand slam in postseason history, thereby causing me to lose a minor argument with my dad over a decade after it had occurred.

Massively thrilling or not, the Grand Slam Single Game still only brought the Mets to within 3-2 in the series. The Braves would finish them off the next day in yet another exceptional game, this one ending 10-9 in 11 innings. It would take another year (and the Braves losing in the LDS) to get the Mets over the hump, as they reached the World Series in 2000 - and got steamrolled by the Yankees.

The Mets have one of the best postseason histories of any expansion team - their 51 playoff games won not only lead all of the teams created since 1960, but also put them ahead of nearly half of the original franchises (they're in tenth overall, with the possibility of rising as high as sixth if they defend their NL pennant next year). Even with that impressive track record, though, the number of exciting wins they have is completely out of all proportion - they have three victories in the top 15 all time. The Grand Slam Single Game is #3. The other two are... probably not the ones you would guess.

#10 is 1973 World Series Game 2, which saw the A's rally to tie the score at 6 in the ninth, the Mets mount serious threats in the tenth and eleventh but fail to score, then nearly do the same thing in the twelfth before unloading four runs. You'd think the drama would be over at that point, right? But the A's scored a run in the bottom of the twelfth and loaded the bases with one out, bringing the winning run to the plate before finally going down.

#14 is 2000 NLDS Game 3, in which the Mets tied the score in the eighth with a two-out double, and each subsequent inning saw either the Mets or Giants leave the go-ahead run in scoring position until Benny Agbayani's homer ended it in the thirteenth.

The rather more famous Met games grade out slightly lower; the 16-inning sixth game of the 1986 NLCS is "merely" 31st, while the infamous tenth-inning comeback in the sixth game of the subsequent World Series appears in the 52nd spot. But the team has three 99th percentile wins, and 5 others that are 90th percentile or better. Not bad for a franchise that was initially famous for how much they lost.

The Mets were one of the NL's two original expansion teams. Next time, we'll check in with their counterparts, who are no longer even in the NL at all.

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