On the Diamond
Gritty at-bat by Dunston set the stage for Ventura
Posted: Monday October 18, 1999 04:23 AM
By Aimee Crawford, CNN/SI
NEW YORK -- Robin Ventura may have delivered the knockout blow to the Braves in Game 5 of the National League Division Series with his game-winning grand sl ... er, single, but Shawon Dunston set the stage for his heroics with a scrappy at-bat to lead off the bottom of the 15th inning.
"Dunston's at-bat was the impetus," said Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "The balls he fouled off were tough pitches. "
Dunston, who entered the game as a pinch-hitter for Mets pitcher Armando Benitez in the 10th inning, fought off 10 pitches, working the count full and fouling off several more before singling up the middle off rookie pitcher Kevin McGlinchy. Dunston then moved into scoring position by stealing second uncontested. He eventually scored the tying run when McGlinchy's bases-loaded walk to Todd Pratt forced him in.
Dunston, a New York native, joined the Mets in midseason in a deal that sent utilityman Craig Paquette to the Cardinals. In his 15th major league season, Dunston has played for six different teams and now finds himself relegated to a reserve role. His only other previous playoff appearance was in the 1989 NLCS with the Cubs.
Before that fateful plate appearance in Sunday's game, Dunston had gone 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in the '99 National League Championship Series. But his pivotal at-bat and subsequent steal was reminiscent of his days as a schoolboy phenom at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, where he hit .790 his senior year -- and stole 37 bases in 37 tries.
"Dunston is still a very aggressive hitter," said Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He still knows how to hurt you."
Why did Valentine hold off using utilityman Matt Franco until the bottom of the 15th inning?
"I just wanted to keep the guy I thought was my best pinch-hitter for .. an emergency," Valentine said, "but also for a situation where he would be my most versatile guy left."
Franco, who had a record 10 pinch-hit walks during the regular season, has played first base, third base, right field, left field and appeared twice as a designated hitter for the Mets this season. He's also only the second position player in club history to pitch in a game; Franco pitched in the top of the inning of a 16-0 loss to the Braves in July (the other was Bill Pecota, who worked the eight inning on Sept. 26, 1992 at Pittsburgh in a 19-2 Mets loss).
The buzz on the field at batting practice before Game 5 was all about Rickey Henderson. Would he or wouldn't he? Did he or didn't he?
As in would Henderson get the start in Game 5? And did he leave the clubhouse -- and shortly thereafter the stadium -- in a huff Saturday night after being pulled in the eighth inning of from Game 4?
The answer to both questions was yes. Henderson assumed his customary spot in the Mets lineup and a laced a leadoff single. And he did indeed exit the dugout, shower and dress in the clubhouse and exit the stadium within minutes of the Mets' victory last night -- a practice that's apparently commonplace for the veteran superstar.
Valentine admitted second-guessing himself on the manner in which his defensive switch came about -- Henderson had already taken the field in the eighth inning when the manager called him back in and sent Melvin Mora in as a replacement.
"The timing of that was very bad, and in particular for a player of Rickey's stature," Valentine said before the start of Game 5. "I expressed those concerns to him yesterday."
Valentine also said Henderson's reaction didn't surprise, or upset, him.
"When we played the one-game playoff in Cincinnati, he came out for defense," Valentine said, "and he was dressed at the end of the game in the clubhouse. He came out and did the same thing. One of the games against Pittsburgh [the final weekend of the regular season], he came out and did the same thing again.
"I didn't see it as a problem."
His kind of manager
Ozzie Guillen has played for five managers over the course of his 15-year career. He ranks Braves skipper Bobby Cox as the best.
"Like Tom Kelly in Minnesota, Bobby is a player's guy," Guillen said before Game 5. "He lets you know where he stands and doesn't play mind games. He has the same rules for every player."
Cox rarely makes headlines with his comments unlike his counterpart in the Mets dugout, but is adept at handling both the media and the fragile egos in the clubhouse.
Cox inserted Guillen at shortstop in place of starter Walt Weiss as part of double switch in the eighth inning of Game 4. Guillen barely had enough time to get in position before Olerud's single up the middle glanced off his glove and into center field.
When asked after the game if Weiss would have made the play, Cox defended Guillen. "None of our shortstops would have made that play," said Cox. "It was a simple case of positioning."
Guillen believes the Braves, even with their stellar pitching staff and potent lineup, wouldn't be perennial playoff contenders without Cox.
"This lineup wouldn't win 100 games without him," said Guillen. "Bobby is the difference between us being good and us being great."
Out for blood
Nobody here knows better than Brian Jordan how fragile an NLCS lead can be.
The Braves outfielder was part of the St. Louis Cardinals team that squandered a three-games-to-one advantage over Atlanta in the '96 NLCS and ended up allowing the Braves to advance past them to the World Series by losing three straight.
"If you give a team life, you never know what can happen," said Jordan. "We know we are still in a situation to win it all. We have to go in for the kill."
Headed for a fall?
The Braves must be non-symptomatic carriers of some sort of victory-inhibiting agent. Clubs that come in contact with Atlanta in the League Championship Series all seem to fall ill afterward. The Braves' last six NLCS opponents -- San Diego included -- have plummeted in the standings the following season. None have finished higher than third place. In fact, none have even managed a winning record.
"I think we'll buck the trend," says Mets GM Steve Phillips. "It's safe to assume we'll break that trend because we're not going to disassemble our team like [the Marlins and Padres] did."
Call me Al
Snickers rippled through the press box when NBC analyst Joe Morgan referred to Walt Weiss as "Al Weiss" in the sixth inning of Sunday's broadcast. It was the second "appearance" at the NLCS by the former Mets infielder, who played on the Mets' 1969 Championship team. The original lineup distributed to the media Friday night listed "Al Weiss" as the Braves' starter at shortstop.
By the numbers
This epic affair set several LCS records. At five hours, 46 minutes, it was the longest game in major league playoff history, surpassing the five-hour, 13-minute contest between the Yankees and Mariners in Game 2 of the 1995 American League Division Series. Other single-game playoff records: most players used -- 44 by both teams combined; most pitchers used -- 13; most runners stranded -- Braves, with 19.