You could spend weeks trying to unravel the many tangled threads of today's classic Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and still discover another loose end--some important pitch that was made over the course of 15 sublime innings, or some seemingly obvious move that wasn't--if you kept looking closely.
But in the end, the New York Mets' dramatic, historic 4-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves came down to something simple and basic: Robin Ventura, the Mets' slumping, injured third baseman, launching a rocket deep into the black, raining sky to redeem himself and keep the Mets' improbable season alive.
It will go down in the books as a bases-loaded single instead of the grand slam it literally was. Ventura's blast in the bottom of the 15th inning off rookie pitcher Kevin McGlinchy--the Braves' last reliever--cleared the fence in right-center and ended the longest game (5 hours 46 minutes) in major league postseason history.
Ventura never made it to second base, swarmed instead by teammates after making the turn at first. Only the lead run that came home from third base counts officially. "As long as I touched first," Ventura said, "we won the game."
As the Mets mobbed Ventura in the infield, an ecstatic crowd of 55,723 shook Shea Stadium until it felt like it was about to crumble.
The Mets still may trail the Braves three games to two in this best-of-seven series--and still must face Kevin Millwood Tuesday and, if there is a Game 7, Tom Glavine Wednesday in Atlanta--but by every other measure, the Mets are in command. Al Leiter will start Game 6 for the Mets on three days' rest.
"This was an amazing game," said Mets pitcher Orel Hershiser, who pitched 3 1/3 innings of relief some four hours before the game ended. "If we come back and win, this will go down as the most amazing game in Mets history."
No team in baseball history has come back to win a series after falling behind 3-0, and only one other team--last year's Braves--had even forced a Game 6.
"I'm drained, and I only pitched for a couple of hours," said Braves starter Greg Maddux, who gave up two runs in the first inning, the only runs the Mets would score until the bottom of the 15th. "I still feel good about our chances. We've been down this road before."
For the Mets, this victory was an absurdist extension of their remarkable season. It was the 19th time they won a game in their last at-bat, including four times in the postseason.
The Mets trailed in the wild-card race by two games with three to play, won their season finale on a wild pitch as Cincinnati endured a five-hour rain delay before winning to force a one-game playoff. The Mets flew to Cincinnati and won the playoff, then topped Arizona in the first-round series on a game-winning homer by backup catcher Todd Pratt, who played a large role again today.
"This is a team that obviously doesn't quit," Ventura said. "It just seems this team responds to dire situations."
Today's game began in sunshine and ended under a heavy rain. Both teams used every position player and every reliever on their rosters. The game seemed to turn every half-inning on head-spinning managerial moves and spectacular pitching--three straight bases-loaded situations that yielded no runs, Maddux failing to get a bunt down on a suicide squeeze in the sixth, the Mets issuing intentional walks in four straight innings.
The Braves also can blame their offense, which was 3 for 18 with runners in scoring position in the game. They stranded a total of 19 runners and had the potential winning run gunned down by 30 feet at the plate in the top of the 13th when third-base coach Ned Yost waved home Keith Lockhart on a double by Chipper Jones.
Finally, after the teams traded scoreless frames for five extra innings, the Braves took a 3-2 lead in the top of the 15th when second baseman Lockhart tripled past Shawon Dunston, playing out of position in center field, scoring Walt Weiss.
But Dunston redeemed himself by lashing a single at the end of a 12-pitch duel with McGlinchy, who had never pitched above Class A before this season. Cox could have used Millwood or Glavine in the 15th, but stuck with McGlinchy.
"We're up in the series," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "If we're down in the series, of course, we'd put one of our starters out there. If we're up, not necessarily."
McGlinchy walked pinch hitter Matt Franco, yielded a sacrifice bunt by Edgardo Alfonzo, then walked John Olerud intentionally to load the bases. That brought up Pratt, who walked to force in the tying run.
Next was Ventura, who was battling a sore left knee and who had been 0 for 16 in the series until a single in the 11th inning. It was a 91 mph fastball on a 2-1 count that Ventura smoked over the fence.
"I'm really disgusted with myself," McGlinchy said. "I was the last guy standing. It was going to be up to me to close it out. We had nobody left."
"I can't put it into words," said Mets Manager Bobby Valentine. "The guys were believing the entire time. . . . The guys are getting used to this. And God bless them, they're fabulous."