Monday, April 25, 2011

1999 National League Wild Card: Lights-out Leiter

The last thing the Cincinnati Reds were thinking about in 1999 was a wild card berth. For most of the season, the Reds were right up there with the Houston Astros in the Central Division race. It appeared that the Astros had finally held off the Reds when they took a 3.5-game lead on September 21, but the Reds ran off six straight wins to take the division lead. They couldn't hold it, though, and three straight losses late in the year forced them to settle for second place.

The New York Mets were in a tight division race as well, going back and forth with the Atlanta Braves in the East Division race. On September 19, the Mets were only a game back of the Braves, but a seven-game losing streak - including four losses to the Braves - doomed New York to second place. From there, even the Wild Card seemed unlikely, but the Mets swept their season-ending series against Pittsburgh to tie the Reds and force a one-game tiebreaker playoff game in Cincinnati.

The Game
At first glance, the pitching matchup in the tiebreaker game seemed fairly close. The Mets were sending their de facto ace, Al Leiter, to the mound - de facto as he was their declared ace, but only had a 12-12 record that year. Meanwhile, the Reds were sending their second-best starter, Steve Parris, to the hill. While both teams were likely fully confident in their pitchers, there was a big difference between the two. Though he was 31, Parris was only in his second year as a Major League starter and had never pitched in a game anywhere near as important as this one. Leiter, meanwhile, was a three-time World Series winner, a man the Mets brought in specifically for games like these.

In reality, the game was over before Leiter even took the hill, as a Rickey Henderson leadoff single was followed by a home run by Edgardo Alfonzo, giving the Mets a 2-0 lead. Leiter took over from there. He gave up a single with one out in the second, and then held the Reds hitless until a leadoff double in the ninth. By that point, the Mets had driven Parris out of the game and increased their lead to 5-0, helped by a Henderson home run and another RBI hit by Alfonzo. Leiter shut the door in the ninth, and the Mets were off to the postseason.

The Mets continued the momentum from their win over Cincinnati, beating Arizona 3 games to 1 in the NLDS in a series punctuated by Todd Pratt's game-ending home run in Game 4. Waiting for the Mets in the NLCS were the Braves. The Braves won the first three games of the series before the Mets won the next two at home, both in dramatic, late-inning fashion. Game 5 was especially dramatic, as Robin Ventura won the game in the bottom of the 15th inning on a walk-off grand slam, only to have the hit reverted to a single as his teammates mobbed him between first and second base. In Game 6, the Braves scored five first-inning runs off Leiter, but the Mets fought back to send the game into extra innings. New York took a 10th-inning lead before blowing the save, then watched as their season ended on a bases-loaded walk in the bottom of the 11th.

For the Reds, the close call became especially painful over the next decade, as they plunged toward the bottom of the NL Central. After seeing Leiter shut the door on their chances in 1999, it took until 2010 for the Reds to make the postseason again.

The Rundown

28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

No comments:

Post a Comment