The Atlanta Braves were four outs from the World Series. The New York Mets were four outs from oblivion. It was familiar territory for both. But the Braves also are familiar with postseason stumbles, and the Mets with improbable survival.
And so it was that John Rocker blew a save, John Olerud saved a season and the hard-to-kill Mets rallied for a dramatic 3-2 victory in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, staving off elimination for yet another day. The Mets still trail three games to one, with Masato Yoshii facing the Braves' Greg Maddux Sunday at 4 p.m.
"It doesn't look too good," Mets catcher Mike Piazza said. "But you hope it's a momentum-change. We're still in a tough position, but we're not rolling over and dying. We're going to battle. That's the way we've played all year."
Tonight's classic game of masterful pitching, risky managerial moves and dramatic home runs turned on a chopper over the mound by Olerud, the Mets' first baseman, in the eighth inning against New York's Public Enemy No. 1--Braves closer Rocker.
"That was one of the cheapest hits I've given up the entire year," said Rocker, who had pitched flawlessly in the first three games of the series. "It's not like it was a double off the wall. . . . They still have to beat us three more times, and they've only beaten us four times all year. I'm pretty confident."
The eighth inning tonight was a microcosm of this series--tense, taut, full of strategy, intrigue and drama. In the top half, Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko hit back-to-back homers off Mets starter Rick Reed, who was in the midst of pitching the game of his career, to give the Braves a 2-1 lead and put the Mets' season on life support yet again.
Rocker was jeered loudly by the crowd of 55,872 at Shea Stadium as he sprinted into the game from the bullpen with two outs in the eighth, dodging plastic bottles and cups thrown from the stands. The matchup was perfect for the Braves: Olerud was 0 for 9 with five strikeouts in his career against the left-handed Rocker.
But Olerud, who earlier in the game had broken a scoreless tie with a homer off starter John Smoltz, hit a chopper over the mound that barely eluded the reach of shortstop Ozzie Guillen, scoring Roger Cedeno and Melvin Mora with the winning runs.
Guillen had just been inserted into the game in place of Walt Weiss, as part of a double-switch pulled by Braves Manager Bobby Cox when Rocker entered the game. Weiss is considered one of the steadiest defensive shortstops in the game and possesses better range than Guillen.
Just seconds before Olerud's hit, Cedeno and Mora pulled off an embarrassingly easy double steal, even though Cox said the Braves knew it was coming.
"I have a terrible pick-off move," Rocker explained. "What was I going to do?"
As Rocker left the game after finishing off the eighth, he was greeted by more projectiles and more venom. Rocker answered with a hand signal--a three and a zero, to designate the Braves' lead in the series. But after Mets reliever Armando Benitez closed out the game with a perfect ninth, it was 3-1.
"He got everything that was coming to him," Mets reliever Turk Wendell said. "That was very pleasurable to see. It's too bad we didn't leave him standing on the field. That would have been the ultimate."
Olerud broke a scoreless tie with two outs in the sixth. His towering homer off Smoltz gave the Mets a 1-0 lead and snapped a string of 15 2/3 scoreless innings for the Mets.
"That," Mets Manager Bobby Valentine said, "might have been [Smoltz's] only mistake of the night."
Reed faced the minimum 21 batters through the first seven innings, giving up only a single up the middle to Bret Boone with one out in the fourth. Boone was promptly thrown out trying to steal second by Piazza. Reed didn't face a three-ball count until going 3-2 to Chipper Jones with two outs in the seventh. Jones struck out on the next pitch.
This being New York and these being the Mets, the game was not without controversy. Valentine, looking to protect the 1-0 lead, decided to replace left fielder Rickey Henderson with the rookie Mora, a superior fielder. However, Henderson had already made it to his place in left before Valentine sent Mora into the game.
Henderson stood incredulously in place for a few seconds before jogging into the dugout, immediately disappearing into the tunnel. Valentine tried to apologize for mistakenly allowing Henderson to take the field, but Henderson waved him off.
Thus, when the leadoff spot in the Mets' order came up in the bottom of the eighth, with the Mets now trailing by a run, it was the rookie Mora, and not Henderson who came to the plate with two outs and the potential tying run on first.
And typical of the Mets' remarkable, resilient season, the move wound up benefiting the Mets. Mora drew a walk and scored the winning run on Olerud's game-winning hit.
"It's been a special season for the team and the fans," Valentine said. "And the people who have watched it all year have had a great ride, and they want to hold on."