PHILADELPHIA -- With his teammates' bags and emotions long since packed away for the winter, David Cone yesterday provided the New York Mets one last reason to care about baseball. In a sublime end to a ridiculous season, he tied the National League record for a nine-inning game with 19 strikeouts in a 7-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
"It's kind of tough to get excited for the last game of the season," said Cone, who walked one and allowed only three hits, "but this is something I'll never forget."
Nor will the other Mets, who spent the first part of the weekend worrying mostly about plane reservations and football scores. Minutes after the final out, Frank Viola stormed up the runway from the dugout in street clothes and headed for the nearest exit.
"I wanted to leave in the sixth inning," Viola said, "but he had 15 punch-outs. I said, 'I ain't goin' nowhere.' "
It was that kind of afternoon at cold and dreary Veterans Stadium. It took a tiny bit of the sting out of the Mets' 77-84 record, their worst since 1983. They finished fifth in the National League East, a half-game behind the Chicago Cubs, after seven consecutive seasons in first or second.
"It's been a disappointing year; we're all to blame," Cone said. "Hopefully, this will carry over [to 1992]."
Cone tied the league record held by Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals against the Mets on Sept. 15, 1969, and the Mets' Tom Seaver against the San Diego Padres on April 22, 1970. He had an opportunity to match the major-league record for nine innings that Roger Clemens set when he struck out 20 Seattle Mariners in April 1986, but Dale Murphy grounded out to shortstop on a 2-and-1 count with two men out in the ninth.
"I wasn't too happy seeing him come up for the 20th," Cone said of Murphy.
"He just threw me another good curveball; [he] broke my bat," Murphy said. "He was tough, obviously. He had good everything, with control."
Cone consistently was ahead in the count, and once he established his fastball, he was able to retire numerous Phillies flailing at low, outside sliders. Only one of his 19 strikeout victims was caught looking, and every starter except pitcher Andy Ashby (1-5) struck out at least once.
"They were swinging at a lot of balls off the plate," catcher Charlie O'Brien said. "That kind of helped us out."
Facing a mixture of regulars, semi-regulars and late-season irregulars, Cone struck out the side in the first, second, fourth and sixth innings and had 15 strikeouts through six, surpassing his career high by two.
He may have lost his chance to reach Clemens' record in the seventh, when, with a 5-0 lead, third-base coach Tom Spencer sent him home as Phillies center fielder Braulio Castillo bobbled a ball hit by Keith Miller. Cone was tagged out easily and twisted his right leg. He failed to record a strikeout that inning.
He struck out two in the eighth to reach 17, topping Nolan Ryan's 1991 major-league high by one, then struck out Kim Batiste (for the fourth time) and Mickey Morandini to start the ninth. Wes Chamberlain hit an 0-and-1 pitch for a double, and Murphy followed with his ground-out.
Cone finished with 241 strikeouts, tying Clemens for the major-league lead. Still, his 14-14 record and mystifying slump during the depths of the Mets' August swoon made it a day of mixed emotions.
"It doesn't make up for [the rest of the season]," said Cone, who had a 7.29 ERA, "but it certainly gives you something to build on."