Marathon Mets don't quit

Grand-slam single in 15th again leaves Braves outs shy of flag

Ventura mobbed rounding 1st 4-3 Game 5 win in 5: 46 longest playoff ever

October 18, 1999|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The New York Mets refused to let go of their 1999 season, even after day turned to night and the Shea Stadium public address system celebrated the 14th-inning stretch with a second rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

They played through a steady rain. They arm-wrestled with the Atlanta Braves until a national television audience had to decide between the longest game in postseason history and the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees on another channel.

They played until the pitching staffs were depleted and the benches were empty, and then -- only then -- did third baseman Robin Ventura launch a shot over the right-field fence in the 15th inning to carry them to a 4-3 victory and force the National League Championship Series to return to Atlanta for Game 6 tomorrow.

You heard that right. The game was decided by one run even though Ventura hit his one-out shot over the fence with the bases loaded against Braves rookie Kevin McGlinchy.

It should have been a grand slam and a 7-3 win, but Ventura was mobbed by his teammates after he rounded first base and Shawon Dunston, the man on third, crossed home plate with the tie-breaking run. Ventura could have fought through them and finished his circuit around the bases, but what was the point? He was credited with an RBI single and the Mets survived a five-hour, 46-minute marathon to play another day.

"It went over the fence?" asked an incredulous manager Bobby Valentine. "I just saw him hit it and knew it was going to be enough [for a sacrifice fly]. That's a grand slam then, right?"

"No, just a single," replied a National League official.

"I'll be doggone," Valentine replied.

The Mets don't do anything the easy way. They held the Braves in check for 10 innings after the game almost blew up in the face of starting pitcher Masato Yoshii, only to fall behind in the 15th on a two-out triple by Atlanta utility player Keith Lockhart. But Dunston had a leadoff single, stole second and set the wheels in motion for another amazing Mets comeback.

They still trail in the series, three games to two, and remain on the threshold of elimination in the best-of-seven series, but they are halfway to the greatest comeback in postseason history. No team has ever recovered from a 3-0 deficit in the playoffs or World Series.

"My feeling is total appreciation to a group of guys who got down by a run in the 15th and came in the dugout and said, `We're going to do this,' " Valentine said.

McGlinchy seemed rattled after Dunston fought off several two-strike pitches and punched a sharp grounder through the middle. He walked pinch hitter Matt Franco and -- after Edgardo Alfonzo moved the runners up with a sacrifice -- intentionally walked early-inning hero John Olerud to load the bases.

The game probably came down to the next at-bat. McGlinchy fell behind reserve catcher Todd Pratt before walking him on a wide 3-1 pitch to tie the game and bring Ventura to the plate. Ahead in the count, he scorched the line drive to right-center and sent what remained of the sellout crowd into complete hysterics.

"I saw it go out," said Ventura. "I just rounded first and saw Todd Pratt running back at me. As long as I touched first base, it was all right with me."

Valentine called it "poetic justice" for a player who has been hobbling on a bad knee throughout the postseason.

"Robin Ventura was basically playing on one leg all night, and we were playing on wet grounds," said Valentine. "I didn't know if he would come off the field after an inning and say he couldn't go any longer."

Braves manager Bobby Cox was down to his last relief pitcher, but he wasn't willing to tap into the rested portion of his starting rotation, not with his team holding a two-game lead in the series and the field conditions deteriorating in the steady drizzle.

"Everybody was out of pitching, out of players, basically," Cox said, "and yeah, both teams were wearing down and we couldn't throw strikes in the last inning. The mound was getting tacky and the shoes were getting tacky. It was hard to release the ball.

"No excuses. You still have to throw strikes. It was an unbelievable ballgame."

He could have brought on Game 6 starter Kevin Millwood, but left the ball in the hand of the 22-year-old McGlinchy.

""He [McGlinchy] is a big-leaguer," Cox said. "He should be able to throw strikes and get them out. We thought he would."

By that time, it had long since become the longest postseason game ever, eclipsing a five-hour, 13-minute marathon between the Yankees and Seattle in 1995.

It had been a night of quiet heroics until the 15th inning.

The soft-spoken Olerud -- who pushed the Mets into Game 5 with a two-run, eighth-inning single on Saturday night -- hit a two-run homer off Braves starter Greg Maddux in the first inning, no doubt unaware that those two runs would have to last the club for nearly five hours.

Veteran right-hander Orel Hershiser bailed Yoshii out of a fourth-inning jam and pitched 3 1/3 innings of one-hit relief.

Rookie right fielder Melvin Mora cut off a potential extra-base hit by Chipper Jones in the 13th and teamed up with Alfonzo to gun out the potential go-ahead run at the plate.

The fourth Mets starter to appear in the game -- Octavio Dotel -- ended up with the victory.

Valentine managed to save his two top starting pitchers for Games 6 and possibly 7 at Turner Field. Al Leiter and Rick Reed have pitched well enough this postseason to give Mets fans hope that their club can pull off an unprecedented comeback.

It's still a long shot, but the possibilities seemed endless last night as the Mets hoisted Ventura and celebrated one of the most unlikely playoff wins in baseball history.

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