See, the New York Mets can hold a lead over Cincinnati. It just took them an extra game to reach the postseason for the first time since 1988.
Baseball's final postseason spot came down to a one-game playoff for the second straight year because the Mets couldn't put away the Reds, losing seven in a row after opening a four-game lead on Sept. 19.
It was Leiter who stopped that skid last Wednesday in Atlanta, and it was Leiter again who let the Mets wash away the bitter taste with a champagne spray after his first complete game in more than a year.
"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."
The Mets now travel to Arizona to open the best-of-5 first round Tuesday night against Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson.
The win put the Mets and Yankees in the postseason together for the first time the Yankees take on Texas in the AL.
It was vindication, of sorts, for Valentine, blamed for last year's collapse, when the Mets lost their final five games and a chance at the playoffs.
This year, New York entered the final weekend trailing by two games in the wild-card race. The Mets swept three from Pittsburgh while the Reds went 1-2 at Milwaukee.
"It feels great," Valentine said. "t's been a long time coming."
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) 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.
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."
Instead of Ohio fans dreaming about an I-71 series with Cleveland, the New Yorkers can go back to speculating about that Subway Series with the Yankees.
"Last week we were at the bottom of the barrel, the bottom of the hill," said Mets reliever John Franco, in the playoffs for the first time in his 16-year career. "Now we have a second life."
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.
|Rickey Henderson showed his postseason experience Monday night.|
The Mets jumped and pumped their fists as they headed for the dugout railing as Alfonzo rounded the bases, sensing that the franchise's first playoff berth in 11 years was back in their control.
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 to right 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.
Henderson pumped his fist when the yellow screen shook upon impact, jogged around the bases, then nearly came to a halt before walking the last few yards to the plate.
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.
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