The Atlanta Braves, who fancy themselves the team of the decade, were staring at a far uglier legacy tonight. On the verge of a historic collapse in the National League Championship Series, wilting in the face of one last furious comeback from the seemingly immortal New York Mets in Game 6, the Braves tapped into a reserve resolve they might not have known they possessed.
Suddenly the hunters instead of the hunted, a five-run lead having turned into a one-run deficit, the Braves scored a tying run in the bottom of the 10th inning and a single run in the bottom of the 11th to secure a 10-9 victory in front of 52,335 at Turner Field, earning a berth in the World Series, where they will face the New York Yankees.
Braves center fielder Andruw Jones drew a bases-loaded walk from Mets pitcher Kenny Rogers--on a 3-2 change-up--scoring Gerald Williams, who had led off the inning with a double. The Mets intentionally walked Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan to get to Andruw Jones.
Jones touched first base and was engulfed by teammates as fireworks went off above the stadium.
"I swung at one pitch [on 3-1] that I shouldn't have swung at," Jones said. "I stepped back and said, 'Make him throw strikes.' "
The Braves, despite blowing a 5-0 lead after the first inning and a 7-3 lead after the sixth, are back in the World Series for the fifth time this decade, their first since 1996. This Series will be a rematch of that one, in which the Yankees beat the Braves in six games. The Mets' loss ended hopes of the first Subway Series since 1956.
"I'm so stressed out. It was very emotional," said Jordan. "We thought we had it; we didn't. They thought they had it; they didn't. I'm exhausted, beat up, tired."
Even for the Mets--whose suspenseful, back-from-the-dead dramas have gotten progressively more absurd and more delicious--tonight stretched the boundaries of the imagination. Stuck in a five-run hole after one inning, which seemed nearly as insurmountable as the three-games-to-none hole they were in four days ago, the Mets almost lived to see yet another unlikely day.
"I'm going to take some time during the winter to watch these games and try to enjoy them like millions of people got to enjoy them," said Mets Manager Bobby Valentine. "They were fabulous games. . . . We gave everything we had. There's a lot left out on that field."
Mets backup catcher Todd Pratt, who hit a walk-off homer in Game 4 of the Division Series to get the Mets to this point, put the Mets ahead in the top of the 10th with a sacrifice fly off Braves closer John Rocker, scoring rookie reserve outfielder Benny Agbayani. Braves center fielder Andruw Jones made a one-hop throw home, but Braves backup catcher Greg Myers could not hang on to the ball as Agbayani slid past.
But Braves pinch hitter Ozzie Guillen singled home Jones in the bottom of the 10th off Armando Benitez to tie the game again at 9. Only a heads-up play by rookie right fielder Melvin Mora, who gunned down Ryan Klesko trying to go to third on Guillen's hit, prevented the Braves from potentially winning the game in the 10th.
The Braves' victory completed one of the most memorable playoff series in recent baseball history. Five of the six games were decided by one run, and the last two went extra innings. It included a 1-0 Braves win in Game 3; a 15-inning Mets victory in Game 5 that went 5 hours 46 minutes, the longest postseason game in history; and tonight's 11-inning contest.
"It was the best series I've played in in my life," Chipper Jones said.
Had the Braves lost tonight, they likely would have been playing Game 7 with the label of biggest postseason chokers in baseball history hanging over them. No team has lost a best-of-seven series after leading 3-0.
"If we had blown a 3-0 lead in the LCS, it would've been unbearable," Rocker said. "Most of the guys probably wouldn't admit it, but we were thinking about it."
After storming to a 5-0 lead in the first inning, when they knocked out Mets starting pitcher Al Leiter before he could record an out, the Braves watched in horror as the Mets exploded for seven runs in the sixth and seventh innings, tying the game at 7, before Mora stroked the potential game-winning hit, a single to center off Braves lefty Mike Remlinger in the eighth.
Mets catcher Mike Piazza--who had been bruised and battered all series, and violently upended tonight on an angry slide by Jordan in the sixth--smashed a two-run homer to right field in the seventh off John Smoltz, pitching in relief three days after starting Game 4. Smoltz's outing was a disaster--four earned runs in one-third of an inning.
"It doesn't matter now," Smoltz said. "It's on to the World Series."
But Piazza's defensive liabilities also hurt the Mets. A throwing error in the first contributed to the Braves' five-run inning, and another throwing error on a stolen base by Otis Nixon in the eighth allowed Nixon to take third and score on Brian Hunter's single. The Braves were six for si6 on stolen-base attempts in the game.
Nixon was running for catcher Eddie Perez, who got the eighth-inning rally started with a one-out single off John Franco. Perez, named most valuable player of the series, hit homers in Games 1 and 2 that led to Braves victories, and had the big blow, a two-run single, in the Braves' five-run first tonight.
"This," Perez said, "is the biggest thing that has ever happened to me."