National League Championship Preview
How they got here
Braves: Beat the Astros (what else is new), and looked really solid doing it. Lost the first game, but bounced back, with some help from pathetic Astro clutch hitting and questionable bullpen moves by Dierker -- although Wagner may have been hurting. Chipper wasn't that big a factor but that was because the Astros kept walking him. Which produced the big moment of the series, Brian Jordan's three run HR to beat Mike Hampton. Jordan looks like his power is back, which could be the key to this series. Cox's bold use of his starters in relief was the high point of the series for me, as he (and Maddox and Millwood) refused to be pigeonholed by predetermined roles.
Mets: Beat Arizona without Piazza. We all expected that, right? Smacked around Randy Johnson, got some terrific pitching from Leiter and Reed, and the bullpen came through. And then there was Todd Pratt. As a Met fan, I was thrilled by the win, but even more thrilled by the way we got it. Todd Pratt is a great example of the stupidity of "baseball men". This guy is a very decent hitting catcher and a solid defensive player. He's not going to be an all-star, but he certainly had no business being out of baseball for a year. Even the Mets couldn't wait to send him down at the beginning of '98. John Franco got the win in that game, and that was wonderful. You've heard about how many games he was in without being in a post-season game. More important, he is the heart and soul of the Mets. He's the one who calls free agents to convince them to come to the Mets. He's the one who gave up his uniform number to Mike Piazza, without even being asked, so he could feel at home. It was a great moment.
What will happen
If you read my last column, you know that it's my job to explain how my beloved Mets will win. I do not pretend neutrality. I'm not getting paid for this, so I can be a fan. First, I want to be a historian.
Let's go back to 1988. The Mets were the best team in the league, having won 100 games in a pre-expansion era. They led the lead in runs scored and fewest runs allowed. The margin between the two was a terrific +171, the next best was +84. They faced the Dodgers in the NLCS. The Dodgers had ridden Orel Hershiser's record-setting run to the West pennant. During the season, the Mets won 10 of 11 from the Dodgers. Not only that, Gooden, Cone, Darling, and Fernandez each had awesome histories against the Dodgers. But anything can happen in a short series and when Dwight Gooden gave up a homer to Mike Scoscia and Sid Fernandez gave up a rare HR to a lefty (Kirk Gibson, of limping around the bases fame), the Mets lost, 4 games to 3.
You can't count on anything. With two weeks to go, the Mets and Braves were separated by 1 game, with the Mets primed to prove they belonged. A week later the Braves had gone 5-1 against them, clinched the division, and left the Mets for dead. Chipper Jones said of Met fans, contempt oozing from his voice "Now they can go home and put on their Yankee caps." Lo and behold, the Mets are back. The silent bats have revived, the bullpen looks sharp, Reed and Leiter are on top of their game and this is a team to be reckoned with. I must admit, I think Bobby Valentine is an idiot. Not just obnoxious, as everyone thinks, but an idiot. Starting his fourth best starter in game 1 is a perfect example. Billy Cox is known for odd moves, which sometimes payoff. He handles his pitchers well, which gives him an edge.
Look, there's no good reason to pick the Mets. They never win in Atlanta, can't hit the Braves pitchers, will probably be satisfied with their year even if they lose this. Yet these series have proven to be very unpredictable and the Braves have not had a lot of luck in recent NLCS play. Once a decade the Mets get to the World Series. They are owed this one from 1988, I'll call it Mets in 7 and prepare for the abuse to come.