Reds ‘ride of destiny’ hits a dead end

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 5, 1999

The Associated Press

Only four days after they’d been scorned as a team that cracked under pressure, the Mets cracked open the champagne bottles Monday night and celebrated their first postseason berth since 1988.

Tuesday, October 05, 1999

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Only four days after they’d been scorned as a team that cracked under pressure, the Mets cracked open the champagne bottles Monday night and celebrated their first postseason berth since 1988.

Al Leiter pitched a two-hitter and Edgardo Alfonzo homered on the sixth pitch as the Mets beat the Cincinnati Reds 5-0 in a one-game playoff for the NL wild-card spot.

”I’m speechless,” closer John Franco said in a voice raspy from screaming. ”Now I can sleep.”

They hadn’t slept well since blowing a four-game lead over the Reds by losing seven straight games. But after a wild weekend – capped by Sunday’s win over Pittsburgh on a ninth-inning wild pitch – the Mets made it look simple with a calm, efficient victory at Cincinnati.

”I think I’ve always somehow, some way had an ability to block a lot of distractions out,” Leiter said.

It was Leiter who stopped last week’s skid against Atlanta, and it was Leiter again who came up big.

Lost in the spray of champagne were this year’s struggles and the spectre of last season’s collapse when the Mets dropped their final five games and a chance at the playoffs.

Once Alfonzo gave the Mets one more lead with a two-run homer in the first, Leiter made sure there would be no more last-minute stumbles.

”He pitched his best game of the year,” Franco said, his shirt soaked. ”Last week we were at the bottom of the barrel, the bottom of the hill. Now we have a second life.”

The Mets now travel to Arizona to open the best-of-5 first round Tuesday night against Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson.

The win meant New York manager Bobby Valentine’s first trip to the playoffs, and put the Mets and Yankees in the postseason together for the first time – the Yankees take on Texas in the AL.

Valentine won’t have to wear that dugout disguise down the streets of New York, where the hopes for a Subway Series are renewed.

”I’m just wet,” said Valentine, who hadn’t celebrated a championship since his minor league days. ”It feels great. It’s been a long time coming.

”I am drained. I am excited. I am elated. I am thankful. There are a lot of emotions, and I’m not smart enough to tell you all of them.”

The Mets’ victory also settled the other NL series. It will be Houston at Atlanta in Game 1 Tuesday night.

In his most important start since Game 7 of the 1997 World Series for Florida, Leiter (13-12) pitched his first complete game of the year. He did not allow a runner past first base until Pokey Reese doubled to start the ninth. Jeffrey Hammonds singled in the second for the Reds’ other hit.

Leiter struck out seven, walked four and retired 13 consecutive batters during one stretch, giving the Reds no opening for another magical comeback.

”Any game like this, you feel the emotion,” Leiter said. ”We get up 3-0 and in a game like this, I could tell some of their guys were pressing, swinging at bad pitches.”

The left-hander threw 135 pitches and shut the Reds out for the first time since April 30.

”I really wanted to be one of the nine guys left on the field,” Leiter said. ”I’ve always been running in from the dugout or someplace else.”

Cincinnati’s attempt to nickel-and-dime its way into the playoffs with the big-budget teams fell flat in front of the Reds’ second-biggest crowd of the season.

The $35 million Reds won 96 games – their best total since the Big Red Machine was rolling in the mid-’70s – but couldn’t get that one final win.

”No one expected us to be here in a 163rd game,” manager Jack McKeon said. ”I’m proud of our guys. We didn’t run out of gas, we didn’t play too many days in a row. We just got beat by a good pitcher.”

Given a second chance to make the playoffs, the Mets showed up loose and relaxed and quickly muted the capacity crowd of 54,621. The cheers turned into gasps when Rickey Henderson led off the game with a sharp single to left and Alfonzo followed with a long drive to center on Steve Parris’ sixth pitch.

The crowd was buzzing again in the third when McKeon made an uncharacteristically hasty pitching change. The Mets loaded the bases with two outs on Alfonzo’s walk, John Olerud’s soft double and an intentional walk to Mike Piazza.

Parris (11-4) flinched in disappointment and dropped his head when pitching coach Don Gullett came out to make a change, calling on left-hander Denny Neagle to make only his second relief appearance since 1993.

Neagle, who threw 100 pitches Friday in a loss at Milwaukee, walked Robin Ventura on a full-count pitch to make the move backfire.

Henderson led off the fifth inning with his 12th homer off the left-field foul screen, a drive that made every neck crane. Valentine jumped up and tried to wave it fair.

McKeon made another hurried move in the sixth, bringing in closer Danny Graves to start the inning. This, too, backfired – Graves walked Rey Ordonez on four pitches and gave up Alfonzo’s RBI double for a 5-0 lead.

Notes: The temperature at the first pitch was 49 degrees. Both dugouts had heaters. … Neagle’s other relief appearance since 1993 came last September in Atlanta’s 4-0 win over the Mets. … The Reds sold out only two other games all season – opening day and a June 12 game against Cleveland. … It was the Reds’ first home game under new ownership. Marge Schott transferred control of the team to three limited partners on Friday. Schott was at the game but stayed in the background. … Leiter’s previous complete game was Sept. 4, 1998, against Atlanta. … All records from the game count in the regular-season statistics.