This article was written by Seth Moland-Kovash
As September 1999 ended, Bobby Valentine’s New York Mets saw themselves looking up at a very high hill. Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves were too far ahead to catch in the National League Eastern Division, at eight games ahead of the second-place Mets with three games to play. But the wild card was still a possibility — a narrow possibility, but a possibility. As the final weekend of the season began, the Mets at 93-66 were looking up not only at the far-distant Braves (101-58) but also at a tie situation atop the NL Central featuring the Cincinnati Reds, led by Jack McKeon, and Larry Dierker’s Houston Astros for the National League wild card. Both the Reds and Astros sat at 95-64. At the end of play on September 30, the Reds and Astros had a two-game lead on the Mets for that final postseason spot with each team having only three games remaining. It would take a miracle for the Mets to play on.
That weekend, the Mets were set to close out the season at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates (78-80) who were led by Gene Lamont. Meanwhile the Reds were in Milwaukee to face Jim Lefebvre’s 72-86 Brewers and the Astros were to play host to the 76-83 Los Angeles Dodgers, who were led by Davey Johnson. On Friday and Saturday, the Mets went 2-0, the Astros went 1-1, and the Reds were 0-2. Heading into Sunday, the Mets created a tie with the Cincinnati Reds for the NL wild card.
The Mets were led by All-Star catcher and eventual Hall of Famer Mike Piazza along with third baseman Robin Ventura, second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, and first baseman John Olerud. The Mets threw in veterans like aging future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson and Bobby Bonilla along with many others to fill out the outfield. On the pitching side, the staff was led by ace Al Leiter and closer Armando Benitez.
For Sunday’s finale, the Mets were going out behind veteran starter Orel Hershiser. Hershiser, at 40 years old and in his only season with the Mets, posted a fielding independent pitching (FIP) rate of 4.63. This was respectable, but nowhere near the dominance of the 1980s Dodgers’ Hershiser. Meanwhile the Pirates took the field behind 24-year-old rookie Kris Benson, who posted a FIP of 4.14 in his first year, good enough for fourth place in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
The game started at 1:40 in front of 50,111 spectators1 on a lovely early fall day in New York with scattered clouds and a warmer-than-average game time temperature of 70 degrees. The Reds game in Milwaukee was being delayed because of rain.
The Pirates played small ball in the top of the first inning, which began with a five-pitch walk to left fielder Al Martin. After a sacrifice and a nonproductive groundout, Martin found himself on second base with two outs with cleanup hitter Kevin Young coming to the plate. Young, with a 1999 OPS of .908 and 105 RBIs coming into the game, was a threat to cash in the opportunity. Martin helped him out by stealing third on the second pitch of the at-bat. Young did not disappoint, lining the ball into center field for an RBI single. But that was all the Pirates could produce in the first.
The pitchers settled in and traded scoreless innings through the top of the fourth. In the bottom of the fourth, the Mets got something going thanks to an error by Kevin Young at first base allowing John Olerud to reach. Olerud would later score on a double by center fielder Darryl Hamilton,2 and the game was tied. The middle innings continued with no further damage.
In the top of the sixth inning, Valentine began to pull the managerial strings. After Hershiser gave up a one-out double to Al Martin, lefty Dennis Cook came in to face the switch-hitting Abraham Nunez and lefty Brant Brown. After Nunez struck out, Pirates skipper Lamont swapped switch-hitting Adrian Brown in for Brant Brown. Adrian Brown earned a walk and Valentine came back out. This time he went to Pat Mahomes with the tough assignment of facing Kevin Young with men on first and second to keep the game tied. In a six-pitch at-bat, Mahomes won out, getting Young to swing and miss for the final out of the top of the sixth and preserve the tie.
Benson faced his own trouble in the bottom of the sixth, loading the bases on two singles (by Ventura and Hamilton) and a walk to Rey Ordonez. Utilityman Matt Franco pinch-hit for the pitchers’ spot with the bases loaded and two outs. Franco popped out in foul territory to Pirates third baseman Aramis Ramirez to end the inning.
Both pitching staffs kept things quiet through the top of the ninth with no more major scoring chances. The Pirates would lean on Benson through seven innings and Jason Christiansen for a mostly quiet Mets eighth inning. The Mets, on the other hand, followed Mahomes with Turk Wendell for the seventh and eighth innings and to start the top of the ninth. After a two-out double switch brought Armando Benitez in to pitch for the Mets and Shane Halter to play right field, Benitez struck out Ramirez, ending a ninth-inning threat.
The bottom of the ninth opened with Greg Hansell being brought on to face the 9-1-2 places in the Mets’ batting order. Bobby Bonilla, the 36-year-old former All-Star, pinch-hit for Halter to start the inning. Bonilla had had only 140 plate appearances thus far and had only a .584 OPS. Bonilla grounded out to first base and Melvin Mora3 came to the plate. Mora got something started with a single to right field. Alfonzo followed with another single and Mora took third base on the ball hit to right. The Pirates put the still-dangerous John Olerud on first base intentionally. The bases were now loaded with one out for Mike Piazza. Despite Piazza’s 0-for-4 so far, things would seem to be looking good for the Mets, with their All-Star leader at the plate with the opportunity to win the game.
Pirates manager Lamont brought in bullpen regular Brad Clontz4 to face Piazza. Clontz, a side-armer, had a good career track record against Piazza, with Piazza entering the plate appearance 1-for-6 lifetime. With his first pitch to Piazza, Clontz uncorked a wild pitch! He threw a slider that cut way too much for catcher Joe Oliver to handle. The ball sailed “nearly into the Mets’ dugout,”5 allowing Mora to score from third and the Mets to win in one of the more bizarre walk-off wins in team history.
After the celebration, attention turned to Milwaukee, where the Reds also won, finishing off the Brewers, 7-1, in a game marked by a rain delay of nearly six hours.6
Thus the 1999 season ended with the Mets and Reds tied at 96-66. The Mets beat the Reds the next day, 5-0, with Leiter going the distance and giving up only two hits. They would then go on to beat the Arizona Diamondbacks three games to one in the National League Division Series before succumbing to the Atlanta Braves in six games in the National League Championship Series. All those extra games were able to happen because of the persistence of that Mets team, the legs of Melvin Mora, and a wild one thrown by Brad Clontz.
This article was published in “Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History“ (SABR, 2018), edited by Brian Wright and Bill Nowlin. To read more articles from this book at the SABR Games Project, click here.
In addition to the sources cited in notes, the author also used Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org.
1 This was the Mets’ 10th biggest crowd of the year.
2 Hamilton had come over from the Colorado Rockies as the centerpiece of a July 31 five-player deal and had paid off for the Mets, hitting for a .339/.410/.488 slash line.
3 Mora had come into the game in the seventh inning as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement for the future Hall of Fame speedster Rickey Henderson. Henderson injured his knee in the seventh legging out a single to right. Mora was a rookie speedster who would have some very good years later in his career for the Baltimore Orioles. His introduction to the big leagues had been rough, however, as he had an on-base percentage of just .278 in his 39 plate appearances in 1999.
4 Clontz had appeared in 55 games up to this point for the Pirates, with only 49⅓ innings pitched as he was often used in specialized roles. In that time, he had been quite effective, earning a 4.74 FIP and an ERA+ of 170.
5 Wallace Mathews, “Mets’ Wild Ending Gets Piazza Off the Hot Seat,” New York Post, October 4, 1999.
6 Kevin Kernan, “Soggy Reds Slosh Way to Playoff,” New York Post, October 4, 1999.