Please forgive the overwrought, third-rate Mike Lupica stylings in this story. It was 16 years ago, back when I was still a not-very-closeted Mets fan, and I like to think I’d write this column in a better and more efficient manner today.
But this game was wild–the craziest regular season baseball game I think I’ve ever seen–and said overwrought prose provides a pretty good glimpse into what the stunning win meant to the Mets and their fans. Plus I looked prescient declaring Piazza would have his number retired by the Mets and that the Mets would finally topple the Braves in the National League. So there. (Coming soon: Many other stories in which I was proven wrong)
The last out of the Mets’ 45th win of the season had just landed in Jay Payton’s glove when the musical strains of victory began roaring out of the Shea Stadium loudspeakers.
But tonight’s 11-8 win over the Braves was special—so special that old familiar standby “L.A. Woman” just wouldn’t do. Instead, the Wallflowers cover of the David Bowie song “Heroes” vibrated in the din of delirium which enveloped Shea Stadium.
We can beat them
Forever and ever
Oh we can be heroes
Just for one day
Just for one day? Not likely.
The Mets made instant history Friday night. Their 10-run eighth inning — in which they scored nine times with two outs — tied the all-time club mark for runs scored in an inning, while the comeback from a seven-run deficit ranks as the second-biggest comeback in team history.
Yet the impact of the unbelievable comeback win over the Braves will be felt for a lot more than one day — months at least, and quite possibly forever.
The idea that the Mets could finally surpass the Braves as the NL’s best team ceased to be improbable long ago. Now, it seems like their destiny. After Friday night, anything at all seems possible.
“I’ve never seen anything like that, to be honest with you,” Todd Zeile said afterward. “I’ve been a part of big innings, but not nine runs with two outs in the eighth inning against that team. I mean, c’mon, That doesn’t happen.”
But it did. When Derek Bell stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the eighth, fans had already begun to depart, the Braves were already calling in the mop-up crew and the writers in the press box had already written their stories—the ones about how the Braves still owned the Mets, the ones about how the Mets committed the same mistakes and suffered the same lapses in luck every year against the Braves and how the Mets were eternal losers, occasionally displaying flashes of brilliance yet always coming up short when it mattered most against the Braves.
“This probably made a lot of people rewrite their story,” Bobby Valentine said.
Rewriting a story is nothing compared to the history the Mets rewrote Friday night The Mets went a long way towards exorcising their tomahawk demons in the eighth inning, and they did it on a night when the Braves couldn’t wait to revel in the Mets’ continued torture.
That’s why Brian Jordan, despised by the Mets for his show-off schtick during last year’s NLCS, did a little Deion Sanders sideways dance as he crossed home plate after his three-run homer gave the Braves an 8-1 lead in the top of the eighth. That’s why the Braves sent out Don Wengert, the poster boy for mop-up men everywhere, to start the bottom of the eighth.
Wengert had two outs and had allowed one run when he gave up back-to-back singles to Todd Zeile and Jay Payton. In came Kerry Lightenberg, who warmed up as the DiamondVision played the Rudy clip in which Dan Devine tells his Notre Dame players that “No one comes into our house and pushes us around!”
It all sounded a little hokey, but at that moment, the Mets, who had been intimidated for the better part of three seasons by the Braves’ vaunted pitching staff, finally stood up for themselves at the plate.
First Benny Agbayani drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch. Then Mark Johnson checked his swing on a 3-2 pitch to bring home Zeile and make the score 8-4. Then Melvin Mora checked his swing on a 3-2 pitch and Payton walked home to make it 8-5.
“We had a game-and-a-half without really good at-bats,” Valentine said. “We had some frustrating at-bats, we swung at some pitches out of the zone early (in the game). And then in the eighth inning, people decided to bear down and give their best, and their best was good enough.”
Lightenberg, who had walked just eight batters in 25 2/3 innings before Friday night, departed as Bobby Cox called on Terry Mulholland. Lightenberg sat in the dugout near tears and Mulholland, 48 hours removed from an 8 1/3-inning stint against the Expos, warmed up on the mound, and it was quite apparent this was no ordinary regular season game. It felt like last Oct. 17 all over again, with Shea Stadium quaking and Braves pitchers unable to throw strikes and the Mets threatening to break through against the Braves once and for all.
Bell strode to the plate and he, too, drew a walk on a 3-2 pitch for the Mets’ fourth consecutive walk. Agbayani scored to make it 8-6 and the stunning loss of control by Team Cool, Calm and Collected was now complete.
“It wasn’t like four balls and walk, it was 3-and-2, foul ball, tough pitch, ball four,” Zeile said. “It was some hard-fought at-bats to go with it, so you’ve got to credit the guys on this team in those situations for not getting overanxious, not trying to do too much with one swing and having the patience to take the walk and just keep it chugging along one at a time.”
Edgardo Alfonzo then stayed alive at 0-2 by barely fouling off a pitch before he laced a single past a diving Keith Lockhart at third base. Pinch-runner Joe McEwing and Mora scored to tie the game at 8-8, and it absolutely felt like Oct. 17 all over again as Shea Stadium rocked and swayed with the joy of 50,000 people.
The Braves had pulled out all the stops and yet the Mets still kept coming. Cox wasn’t going to dip into the bullpen so Mulholland, just like Kevin McGlinchy with Robin Ventura before him, remained out there for the punishment which no doubt awaited him in the form of Mike Piazza.
“Mike gets in certain situations and you can feel that all of a sudden that the pitcher’s the one that’s in trouble and Mike’s not going up defensively,” Zeile said. “When Mike walked to the plate, I think everybody knew that if he didn’t get a hit, it was gonna be something hit hard.”
It was hit hard. Piazza took the first pitch he saw from Mulholland and with one lightning-quick swing of the bat pulled it down the left field line. It might still be going if it didn’t bounce off the fence with the Mets’ retired numbers, a wall Piazza will join someday because of home runs like that.
Piazza jumped and pumped his fist when the ball bounced back on to the field. His three-run homer whipped Shea Stadium into a joyous frenzy and made what was impossible an hour earlier inevitable—the Mets were going to win this game, and appropriately enough, the Mets’ best player had delivered the final swift and brutal blow of the night, the blow which might very well have knocked the Braves out for good.
The Mets sidestepped the possibility that Friday’s win might be the turning point in this rivalry, but unlike last year, when the Braves were stunned by the Mets’ comeback in Game Five of the NLCS but needed to win only one of the next two games at Turner Field to eliminate the Mets, the Braves now have half a season to wonder how it all went wrong on a Friday night in June, to wonder why their best shots don’t even seem to faze the Mets anymore.
Half a season to wonder how the tormentors turned into the tormented. Half a season for the Braves to worry that the Mets’ latest heroic run will last a lot more than one day.
“I don’t know how good I can be,” Valentine said when asked to evaluate what the Mets’ comeback meant. “It happened really quickly…I’m not even gonna try and compare it (to other comebacks). It was terrific.”
At 10:35 p.m., Wally Joyner’s fly ball landed in Payton’s glove—the last gasp of the night for the Braves, maybe the beginning of the last gasp in their dominating run and quite likely the first gasp of something special for the Mets. As the victorious strains of “Heroes” filled the air, the DiamondVision displayed the Mets’ celebratory scene—an instant homage to an instant classic which will be remembered forever.