Thirty years after the Miracle Mets won the World Series, the club is making another remarkable run. After defeating the Arizona Diamondbacks here Tuesday night, 8-4, in Game 1 of the National League first-round series, the Mets have rebounded from what looked like one of the biggest late-season collapses in recent baseball history.
New York held a four-game lead over Cincinnati on Sept. 19 for the National League wild-card berth and continued to maintain pressure on first-place Atlanta in the NL East.
But then the Mets lost seven in a row, being swept by the Braves and Phillies. Manager Bobby Valentine, who shouldered much of the blame last year when the club lost its last five games and a chance at the playoffs, said he should be fired if the team did not reach the postseason this year.
The Mets recovered to sweep three from the Pirates at home last weekend, then defeated the Reds in a one-game playoff in Cincinnati before arriving here late Monday night.
"We were written off as dead," catcher Mike Piazza said. "But we changed our attitude, got some breaks and here we are. Maybe we should feel tired, but I feel like we're just catching our second wind."
The second-year Diamondbacks, who improved a major league-record 35 games from their inaugural season, seemed to hold all of the advantages heading into this series. They were the hottest team in baseball during the second half, clinching the National League West on Sept. 24 and had spent the last week of the season at home. Randy Johnson, the game's most intimidating pitcher, was assigned to start Game 1. The Mets, having used ace Al Leiter against Cincinnati, started Masato Yoshii, who was making his first postseason appearance.
Johnson had allowed just nine hits to left-handed batters all season. But unlike many National League managers, Valentine did not make sweeping changes to his lineup, opting to start left-handed hitting first baseman John Olerud and third baseman Robin Ventura.
Olerud delivered a two-run homer in the third inning, the first Johnson had surrendered to a left-handed hitter in more than two years. Ventura provided two hits, including a double to lead off the fourth inning.
"You don't have a lot of time to read his pitches," Olerud said. "You have to swing a lot earlier than with most guys."
Second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo delivered the decisive blows. After Rickey Henderson flew out to center field to begin the game, Alfonzo launched an 0-2 pitch an estimated 422 feet into the left-center field seats.
Alfonzo blossomed this season after moving from third base to second base, hitting .304 with 27 home runs and 108 RBI and anchoring a Mets infield that ranks among the all-time best defensively. Alfonzo provided a two-run homer in the first inning Monday night against Cincinnati. Then, after Johnson was replaced with Bobby Chouinard with the bases loaded in the ninth Tuesday night, Alfonzo hit a towering drive into the left field seats.
"It's tough when you lose seven in a row," Alfonzo said. "It was frustrating, but I've just tried to stay patient at the plate. At no point did anyone on this team give up."
Johnson enjoyed perhaps his best season this year, recording 364 strikeouts. Before Tuesday's game, he had a career 3.10 earned run average in 51 1/3 postseason innings with Seattle and Houston, but lost for the sixth consecutive time in the playoffs.
"This time of year, it's all about winning," Johnson said. "Anything less is usually scrutinized. There's not too much pressure, I just didn't finish up very well."
Diamondbacks Manager Buck Showalter has tentatively slotted Brian Anderson to start the fourth game of the series if necessary, although Johnson could pitch on three days' rest Saturday in New York.
"He's tough, no question," said reliever Turk Wendell, the winning pitcher in Game 1. "But I think this game shows that if we face him again we have the confidence level to beat him."