The game was tied, the bases were loaded, and the New York Mets had Mike Piazza at the plate with their season in the balance.
With the crowd at a fever pitch, urging their slugger to deliver the game-winning hit against Brad Clontz, Melvin Mora had other ideas as he stood at third base.
"I knew he was going to throw some pitch in the dirt to try to get a double play," Mora said. "[Third base coach] Cookie Rojas told me to be ready for him to throw a pitch in the dirt and he did."
"I was thinking, we win. That's it," said Mora, who was immediately engulfed by a group of jubilant Mets. "We're going to fly somewhere."
Where they went was Cincinnati. The Mets and Reds are set to square off Monday night at 7:05 p.m. EDT at Cinergy Field in just the sixth one-game playoff in baseball history.
That's quite an improbable journey for New York. After blowing a four-game lead with 12 left, the Mets began the final weekend two behind Cincinnati and Houston. But New York swept three from the Pirates while the Reds lost the first two games at Milwaukee before winning 7-1 Sunday night to force the showdown.
The Astros took two of three from Los Angeles to win the NL Central.
Pete Harnisch put the Cincinnati Reds on his ailing shoulder and carried them to the edge of the playoffs.
The Reds outlasted one of the longest rain delays in baseball history and forced a one-game playoff for the NL wild-card spot, beating the Milwaukee Brewers 7-1 late Sunday night on a field soaked by about 10 hours of continuous rain.
"People wrote us off. People have been writing Cincinnati of all year," John Franco said after the Mets arrived at their hotel at 12:40 a.m. EDT, about five minutes after the Reds' game in Milwaukee ended. "Whoever wins, I don't think anybody will have anything to be ashamed of."
Harnisch's shoulder, which will almost certainly need surgery after the season, was in terrible shape even before he was forced to sit around County Stadium for six hours in uncomfortable temperatures. But Cincinnati needed a win, and Harnisch, their winningest starter, threw 5 2-3 superb innings to get it.
"He was pitching on will and guts," first baseman Sean Casey said. "He's just a tough guy, and he saved our hides tonight."
|Cincinnati Reds' slugger Greg Vaughn is greeted by players and fans after hitting a three-run home run.|
But only about 500 die-hard, largely inebriated fans stayed through the constant pounding rain to watch the game. The outfield was a quagmire, and the temperatures dipped to early-winter levels.
After the game, the Reds did no celebrating in their clubhouse. Instead, they calmly made preparations to board their charter flight home, where they will meet the New York Mets in a game beginning at 7:05 p.m. EDT.
New York's charter circled Cincinnati for 30 minutes because of a thunderstorm. Some players ordered pizzas when they got to the hotel lobby. Most grabbed their keys and went straight to their rooms.
The winner goes on to the playoffs. The loser will have rushed to Cincinnati for nothing.
"We're playing Game 163 tomorrow," said manager Bobby Valentine, who has managed 1,703 games without making the playoffs. "No one said it was going to be easy. ... We will be rested and ready for it. Let the games begin."
After losing their final five games last year and falling one game short of a wild-card playoff, the Mets blew their lead this year by losing seven in a row. But by winning four of the last five, they made certain their season would go on for at least another day.
If the Mets win Monday night, they open the playoffs Tuesday night at Arizona; if the Reds win, Cincinnati goes to Atlanta.
Mora, the last player cut in spring training, might not be making the next trip, but he helped make sure this one was possible. A 4-for-30 hitter in his career, Mora blooped a one-out single in the ninth off Greg Hansell (1-3).
With the crowd of 50,111 chanting "Let's go, Mets!" Edgardo Alfonzo sent Mora to third with a sngle. Hansell intentionally walked John Olerud to load the bases for Piazza, who led the NL this year in grounding into double plays.
But that was never a factor when Clontz, who briefly pitched for the Mets last year, threw a low-and-outside pitch that catcher Joe Oliver could not handle, setting off a wild celebration.
"I don't think you're celebrating the win as much as you're celebrating you have another day," Robin Ventura said. "I think that's the emotion everyone was letting out."
After the game, Valentine celebrated with his father-in-law, Ralph Branca, who allowed Bobby Thomson's game-winning homer exactly 48 years ago in the Dodgers-Giants playoff game.
"I was saying Oct. 3 owes this family one," Branca said.
The Reds controlled their playoff fate as recently as Friday afternoon, but 24 hours later, their pitching staff collapsed twice in consecutive losses to the lowly Brewers. Cincinnati needed a big start Sunday - and Harnisch delivered, in spite of the pain.
Harnisch (16-10) said his arm "didn't feel good at all" on Sunday, and the uncertainty of a 5-hour, 47-minute rain delay did nothing for his mechanics or his damaged limb.
The game, scheduled to be the last regular season contest of 1999, finally got underway at 9:52 p.m. EDT. By the time the tarpaulin was removed from the field and the water squeegeed from the outfield grass, the temperature dropped into the mid-40s.
"The cold was a concern," he said. "But it was an important game, and were going to do whatever it took."
Somewhere around the third inning, Harnisch was forced to throw only fastballs - but fastballs that were good enough to baffle the same Brewers hitters that scored 14 runs in the previous two games.
As if that wasn't enough, Harnisch's third-inning single off Milwaukee starter Cal Eldred (2-8) touched off a five-run rally capped by Greg Vaughn's three-run homer.
"Pete got it going, not just on the mound but with his bat," Vaughn said. "We just happened to follow."
Originally, that possible playoff was to begin at 2:05 p.m., but it was pushed back to give the Reds time to get home. The Mets, having beaten Pittsburgh 2-1 much earlier in the afternoon, took a flight to Cincinnati just in case, arriving before the Reds did, whose plane landed shortly before dawn.
This is the second straight year a one-game playoff will decide the NL wild card. Last season, Chicago beat San Francisco 5-3.
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