If the Cincinnati Reds somehow end up in the World Series, they may look back and laugh at this nerve-wracking day of channel surfing and card games. They may not mind that they waited out a 5-hour 47-minute rain delay and or that they played their most important game of the season in 45-degree weather with 300 or so fans scattered around a 56,000-seat stadium.
This was not how the Reds intended to spend the scheduled last day of the regular season when they arrived here Friday on the verge of their first playoff appearance in four years. But two straight losses to the Milwaukee Brewers and the three straight victories by the resurgent New York Mets over the Pittsburgh Pirates changed the math.
Almost out of second chances, the Reds kept their season alive tonight by defeating the Brewers, 7-1, and tying the Mets for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. The Mets did their part this afternoon with a 2-1 victory over the Pirates at Shea Stadium.
The Mets and Reds finished with 96-66 records, so the wild-card berth will be decided in a one-game playoff between the two teams at 7:05 p.m. Monday at Cincinnati's Cinergy Field.
"The next game is the one we want," Reds first baseman Sean Casey said, "but we had to win this before he could get a chance to play the next one. We're playing one game with the chance to go to the playoffs. I'll take that every year."
Meantime, the Houston Astros wrapped up a third straight National League Central championship by defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers, 9-4, in the final regular season game at the Astrodome.
If the Reds win the playoff game, they'll open the playoffs Tuesday at Atlanta in the first game of a best-of-five series. If the Mets win, they'll open the playoffs at Arizona on Tuesday. The Astros will play either the Braves or Diamondbacks in the first round.
In the American League, the New York Yankees will begin defense of their championship by playing the Texas Rangers in a best-of-five series beginning Tuesday at Yankee Stadium. Cleveland will host Boston beginning Wednesday in the other American League series.
If nothing else, the Reds proved their mental toughness today by surviving a long day in perhaps the tiniest clubhouse in all of baseball. By the time they arrived at County Stadium, a steady rain was falling.
The rain finally stopped some nine hours later, almost six hours after the game had been scheduled to begin. After the rains began to taper off, groundskeepers needed almost an hour to get the field in shape to play.
They emptied dozens of bags of drying agent, ran squeegees over the outfield and did their best to make conditions acceptable. Reds Manager Jack McKeon surveyed the outfield on three occasions and was seen gesturing at umpiring crew chief Dana DeMuth.
Because of national television commitments, baseball officials desperately wanted to avoid a postponement that might have delayed the start of the National League playoffs until Wednesday.
"I was really hoping we'd play this game," outfielder Greg Vaughn said. "The last thing I wanted to do was go home and sleep on it. It really hasn't hit me yet that we're playing the Mets to go to the playoffs. I'm just trying to get warm and dry. I think it'll hit me in the morning."
Once the game began, the Reds efficiently took care of business. Outfielder Dmitri Young stumbled and splashed to the ground while chasing a ball in the first inning, but otherwise, the game played out normally.
The Reds broke the game open early, scoring five times in the third inning against Milwaukee starter Cal Eldred. Vaughn had the big hit of the inning, a three-run home run that gave the Reds breathing room.
Pete Harnisch pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings before McKeon turned the game over to a bullpen that had been hit hard in this weekend's two losses. This time, he got 3 1/3 innings of one-run work, with the run coming in the ninth.
In one of the quirks of this strange day, the Brewers announced tonight's attendance at 55,992 even though only a few hundred fans waited out the rain delay. Fans had gobbled up the tickets because today was supposed to be the last time the Brewers played at cavernous County Stadium before moving to Miller Park.
But a construction accident has delayed the opening of the new ballpark until the 2001 season, leaving fans with souvenirs tickets that essentially allowed them to see the Reds hand the Brewers their 87th defeat.
"It was a long delay, but both teams had to deal with it," Harnisch said. "Now, it's down to one game. It's a shame because we're two great teams and both deserve to go to the playoffs. Will there be pressure? You're crazy if you don't feel some pressure."
The Mets were today's biggest winners. They entered the final weekend having lost eight of nine games to fall two games behind the Astros and Reds in the race for the National League's final two playoff spots. But they completed a three-game sweep of the Pirates when Melvin Mora raced home on a wild pitch by Pittsburgh's Brad Clontz.
"I guess it's kind of indicative of the season we've had," Mets catcher Mike Piazza said. "Everyone had us buried six feet under."
After a brief clubhouse celebration, the Mets returned to the field to share the moment with the crowd of 50,111. Even before learning that the Reds had won, the Mets flew to Cincinnati to prepare for a possible playoff game.
Mets starter Orel Hershiser allowed one run in 5 1/3 innings, and relievers Dennis Cook, Pat Mahomes, Turk Wendell and Armando Benitez shut out the Pirates over the final 3 2/3 innings.
In Houston, Mike Hampton became the NL's only 22-game winner as the Astros won their division in a season when they hit hard by injuries. Hampton allowed three hits in seven innings and struck out eight, winning for the ninth time in 10 decisions.
"I think we will look back at this season and say it was the finest that we've played," Astros Manager Larry Dierker said. "Last year was exhilarating because we won 102 games and were almost unstoppable. We had a lot of easy victories. This year, everything was hard. We had to rely on pitching, fielding, defense and just enough hitting to get by."
The Astros celebrated a division championship as they played one last regular season game at the Astrodome, which was billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1965. Country music singer Charley Pride sang the national anthem, and an array of former Astros was introduced by longtime Astros play-by-play man Gene Elston in a postseason ceremony.