After the Mets lost eight of nine games in September—including five of six to the NL East rival Braves—the Mets seemed unlikely to make the playoffs, two games out of the wild card lead with three games to play.
Following the Mets' most recent defeat in this stretch, an eleven-inning loss to Atlanta at Shea Stadium, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones was quoted as saying, "Now all the Mets fans can go home and put on their Yankees stuff." Braves closer John Rocker was also quoted as saying he hated the Mets, and "How many times do we have to beat them before their fans will shut up?" Thinking they had buried the Mets, the Braves had closed out their season with another division title and were poised to enter the playoffs and leave the Mets behind.
However, the Mets swept their season-ending three-game series with the Pittsburgh Pirates at Shea Stadium, while the wild-card-leading Cincinnati Reds lost two out of three to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Mets and Reds had the same record at 95–66 heading into an eventful final day of the season. That Sunday saw the Mets win their game, 2–1, on a wild pitch in the bottom of the ninth; the Reds avoided the sweep in Milwaukee following a seven-hour rain delay. Both teams finished even with records of 96–66 after 162 games.
Per MLB rules, the one game wild card playoff was held the next day, October 4, at Cincinnati's Cinergy Field. Al Leiter shut down the Reds with a two-hit shutout in a 5–0 Mets victory, sending New York to its first playoff berth since 1988 (as the wild card team, the Mets would be scheduled to play the division winner with the best record. However, since that team came from their own division—the 103–59 Braves—New York faced the team with the second best record, the 100–62 Arizona Diamondbacks).
In the National League Division Series, both the Mets and Braves would advance in four games. The Mets would defeat the Arizona Diamondbacks, with the series ending on a walk-off home run by seldom-used backup catcher Todd Pratt, only playing due to a thumb injury to star catcher Mike Piazza. The Braves would vanquish the Houston Astros in four games, with Brian Jordan and eventual National League MVP Chipper Jones leading the way. And that would set up a National League Championship Series that was anticipated by many, pitting two bitter rivals against each other on the national stage. This marked the Braves' record eighth-straight appearance in the NLCS, while the Mets advanced to the league championship for the first time since 1988. This would be the second time that the Braves and Mets met in the NLCS. The two teams met in the very first National League Championship Series in 1969, with the Mets sweeping the best-of-five set.
Prior to Game 1, Mets Manager Bobby Valentine chided the Braves, saying that "They better be ready to play some ghosts, because we were dead and buried two weeks ago," in reference to earlier statements by Chipper Jones. When the series shifted to Shea Stadium in New York, raucous Mets fans would continually jeer Jones, chanting "LARRY!" (his given name) in derision every time he stepped to the plate. John Rocker also riled up fans, as he would often pretend to toss baseballs into the stands, and got into several arguments.
Atlanta won the series, 4–2.
Tuesday, October 12, 1999, at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia
The Braves began their eighth consecutive NLCS with a 4–2 victory over the Mets, defeating a team they left for dead two weeks earlier. Greg Maddux tossed seven solid innings, future NLCS MVP Eddie Pérez homered and light-hitting shortstop Walt Weiss went 3-for-4 with a run scored and RBI for the Braves.
John Rocker recorded the final four outs for the save, his second of the postseason, to seal Atlanta's fourth straight win.
Wednesday, October 13, 1999, at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia
Brian Jordan and eventual series MVP Eddie Pérez each hit two-run homers off Mets starter Kenny Rogers in the sixth inning as the Braves edged the Mets, 4–3, and took a 2–0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Kevin Millwood held the Mets in check to win his second straight postseason start, allowing three runs—two earned—over 7 1⁄3 innings.
John Rocker worked out of a jam in the eighth by striking out two, but after pitching 1 1⁄3 innings in Game 1, manager Bobby Cox turned to Game 4 starter John Smoltz for the ninth.
Friday, October 15, 1999, at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York
Tom Glavine pitched seven shutout innings and the Braves edged the Mets, 1–0, to take a commanding three-games-to-none lead in the NLCS. The only run of the game scored in the first inning without the need for a base hit. The lead-off runner was walked, and two throwing errors by Al Leiter and Mike Piazza allowed the lead-off runner to score.
In 1996, the Braves won the first two games of the World Series against the Yankees. In Game 3, the Yankees rallied to beat Glavine and took the series in six games. With a superb effort from its two-time Cy Young Award winner, Atlanta avoided that fate here, setting up the possibility of its fifth World Series in the 1990s with a win in Game 4.
After Mike Remlinger worked a perfect eighth, Shea Stadium villain John Rocker perfectly played the part with a scoreless ninth. After Benny Agbayani reached on an error, the animated left-hander struck out pinch-hitter Todd Pratt, got Melvin Mora on a deep fly to right-center field and Rey Ordóñez on a weak force play.
The Mets faced an obstacle that no team in baseball history had overcome: rally from a 3–0 deficit to win a playoff series (the Boston Red Sox would become the first team ever to do it in the 2004 ALCS).
Saturday, October 16, 1999, at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York
Carrying the hopes and hatred of an entire city, John Olerud finally got back at John Rocker. Olerud's two-run single off Rocker in the bottom of the eighth inning allowed the Mets to stay alive in the NLCS with a 3–2 victory over the Braves.
The Braves were four outs away from a series sweep and their fifth trip to the World Series in the 1990s when they called on Rocker, who had treated the Mets and their fans with similar disdain this season. The left-handed closer saved five games against New York during the regular season and two in this series. During the season, he said he hated the Mets and prior to this showdown wondered how many times the Braves would have to beat them before their fans would "shut up."
Sunday, October 17, 1999, at Shea Stadium in Queens, New York
Robin Ventura's bases-loaded blast off Kevin McGlinchy with one out in the bottom of the fifteenth inning kept the Mets' season alive with a 4–3 victory over the Braves in Game 5 of the NLCS. Ventura never made it home because he was mobbed by his teammates between first and second. Official scorer Red Foley ruled the hit (which was recently ranked the third Greatest Moment in Mets history, behind only the team's two World Series Championships) was a single.
The game began shortly after 4 p.m. with Greg Maddux pitching for Atlanta and Masato Yoshii starting for the Mets. The Mets took an early 2–0 lead in the bottom of the first inning as John Olerud hit his second home run in as many days with Rickey Henderson on first. The lead lasted into the fourth inning, when Atlanta struck back with consecutive doubles by Bret Boone and Chipper Jones, eventually knotting the score at 2–2 when Brian Jordan singled home Jones. Mets Manager Bobby Valentine was immediately prompted to remove Yoshii from the game in favor of Orel Hershiser, which began a run on pitching changes that resulted in the Mets emptying their bullpen by game's end, relying on starter Kenny Rogers and rookie Octavio Dotel for key innings, and might have gone to Game 4's starter Rick Reed had the game progressed past the fifteenth inning. In all, the Mets used a postseason record nine pitchers in this game.
The game continued on well into the night, accompanied by a steady rainfall which did not delay the game. Although both teams mounted some threats as the game continued, neither team was able to break through for the tie-breaking run. Atlanta eventually set a mark for futility, stranding a record nineteen men on base over the course of the game. A most notable failure occurred in the thirteenth inning, with two out and Keith Lockhart on first base and Chipper Jones at the plate. With Lockhart running, Jones laced an offering from Octavio Dotel into the right field corner. But the ball was cut off by Melvin Mora before it reached the wall, and Mora's strong relay throw, via Edgardo Alfonzo, cut down Lockhart at the plate and ended the inning.
Pitching on his 25th birthday, local villain John Rocker entered the game in the bottom of the thirteenth inning to a loud chorus of boos and several projectiles hurled in his direction. He retired four batters over 1 1⁄3 innings, including a strikeout of the ailing Mike Piazza. Upon being removed from the game, Rocker mocked the Shea Stadium fans by pretending to boo, and yelled at fans sitting around the Atlanta dugout as he left the field.
The Mets' season appeared over after Keith Lockhart tripled home a run in the top of the fifteenth off Octavio Dotel to put the Braves ahead 3–2. However, McGlinchy could not hold the lead. Shawon Dunston, who misplayed Lockhart's triple, atoned with a leadoff single after fouling off several pitches with a full count. With pinch-hitter Matt Franco batting, Dunston stole second base. Franco eventually worked out a walk, which was followed by Edgardo Alfonzo laying down a sacrifice bunt to move Dunston to third. John Olerud—whose homer in the first was now a distant memory—was intentionally walked to load the bases.
Todd Pratt, again thrust into the spotlight with Mike Piazza nursing several injuries, hit next. McGlinchy walked Todd Pratt on five pitches and fell behind the slumping Ventura. At 9:47 p.m., McGlinchy grooved a fastball on a 2–1 count, and Ventura launched it through the steady rain and over the right-field fence. Although Ventura had seen the ball clear the wall, and was waving Todd Pratt around the bases, Pratt tackled Ventura between first and second base, and most of the Mets team ran out on the field and mobbed Ventura in a wild scene.
Mets manager Bobby Valentine said following the game
Valentine was speaking in reference to a calf injury that had been bothering Ventura during the postseason, and had led to his entering this game without a hit in the series.
NBC's Bob Costas gushed on the air following Ventura's blast,
At the time, the game was the longest in terms of elapsed time in postseason history, clocking in at 5 hours, 46 minutes. It was surpassed in 2004 by Game 5 of the American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, and again in 2005 in Game 4 of the National League Division Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves, and once more in 2014 in Game 2 the NLDS between the San Francisco Giants and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park.
This Mets victory marked just the second time in baseball history that a team had come back from a three games to none deficit in a best-of-seven series to make it to a Game 6. Coincidentally, the Braves from the previous year's NLCS were the first.
Tuesday, October 19, 1999, at Turner Field in Atlanta, Georgia
Although few thought this game likely after Atlanta took a 3–0 lead in the series, the Mets' grit and determination made it possible. Kevin Millwood started for Atlanta, while Al Leiter took the start on only three days' rest for the Mets.
Leiter, unaccustomed to throwing on short rest, was tattooed in the first inning. He hit two batters (including the leadoff man), issued one walk and gave up two hits without retiring a batter. By the time he was removed from the game in favor of Pat Mahomes, Atlanta held a 4–0 lead, which they increased to 5–0 before the inning ended. With Millwood looking sharp and the Mets bats quiet, it appeared through the early innings to be an Atlanta cakewalk.
Once again, the Mets had other thoughts in mind.
Millwood began to tire in the sixth, and the Mets touched him up for three runs to put themselves back in the game. Edgardo Alfonzo and Robin Ventura knocked key doubles, and Darryl Hamilton added a two-run single.
Atlanta scraped back for two runs in their half of the sixth, courtesy of a José Hernández two-run single off Dennis Cook. The score stood at 7–3 Atlanta entering the seventh.
John Smoltz entered the game in relief for Atlanta, and the Mets attacked him immediately. Matt Franco and Rickey Henderson hit back-to-back doubles, and John Olerud singled home another run to make the score 7–5. This brought up Mike Piazza, who had played out the entire series with several injuries which had forced him to miss two games in the Division Series, the last innings of Game 5 and would eventually force him out of this game following the ninth inning. However, this would not be before he blasted a long home run to right off Smoltz to tie the score at 7–7.
Bob Costas said as Piazza capped the Mets incredible comeback, "Tied at seven, hoping for Game 7!"
With the game now tied and in the hands of two completely exhausted bullpens, the game became a test of wills. The Mets took an 8–7 lead in the eighth, as rookie Melvin Mora, a virtual unknown but a standout in this series, singled home Benny Agbayani. But then, with all the momentum going the Mets' way, the Braves rallied back against John Franco in the bottom of the eighth. With one out, Eddie Perez singled. Otis Nixon pinch-ran for Perez, and took the momentum back by stealing second base and going to third when Piazza's throw went into center field. Brian Hunter singled home the tying run.
In the tenth inning, the Mets once again regained the lead, and again Mora was in the center of things. His one-out single off John Rocker put Agbayani in position to score on Todd Pratt's sacrifice fly, but, again, Atlanta rallied to tie in the last of the tenth, with Ozzie Guillén singling home Andruw Jones off Armando Benítez to re-knot the game at 9–9.
Finally, in the eleventh, the Mets' magic ran out. Kenny Rogers entered the game (although most had speculated that it would be rookie Octavio Dotel) and gave up a leadoff double to Gerald Williams. A Bret Boone sacrifice bunt moved Williams to third with one out. Following intentional walks to Chipper Jones and Brian Jordan, Rogers walked Andruw Jones on a 3–2 pitch to score Williams and win the pennant for Atlanta.
1999 NLCS (4–2): Atlanta Braves over New York Mets
Although Atlanta would move on to the World Series, their joy would be short lived. Physically and emotionally spent following this series, the Braves didn't put up much of a fight as they lost in four games to the other New York City team, the Yankees, making it the second time in 1999 that a New York City team had swept an Atlanta team out of a playoffs; the Knicks had swept the Hawks in the second round of the NBA Playoffs during their Cinderella run to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the San Antonio Spurs. (By a twist of fate, the Mets won a game in Atlanta on the same night the Spurs won the NBA championship against the Knicks.)
The Mets had created as much of a stir from losing as one possibly could imagine. Much of the post-series spotlight ended up focusing on the Mets. Manager Bobby Valentine, who was seen smashing the dugout railing, screaming "NO! NO! NO!" as Rogers walked Jones, said in a postgame press conference,
Mets General Manager Steve Phillips summed up the harrowing four weeks the Mets had been through saying that "we had destiny in our own hands, we lost destiny, we got it back in our own hands...We didn't choke. We didn't fold. We won."
Bob Costas would close out his NBC telecast by saying,
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that The New York Times printed a Delta Air Lines advertisement lauding the Mets for their postseason run. The ad said, "Thanks for giving the fans something to cheer about this season. It was great to hear the crowd at Shea roar louder than our planes." It ran beneath a softball-sized reproduction of the Mets logo. A spokesperson at Delta Air Lines said that "at Delta, we are good sports, and we admire good competition. We have a major presence in New York, and we are the official airline of the New York Mets as well as the Atlanta Braves."
This series would prove to be a harbinger of many events that would shape the 2000 baseball season. Rocker would go on to make several controversial remarks in a Sports Illustrated article. Jones, and many other members of this Braves team, most notably Andruw Jones and Brian Jordan, would continue to be heckled mercilessly at Shea Stadium, which still continues at the current time. The Mets would post a remarkable ten-run rally to defeat Atlanta 11–8 in a game they once trailed 8–1, on June 30, 2000. Regardless, the Braves would again win the NL East and relegate the Mets to the Wild Card. The Mets, however, were the ones who ended up in the World Series, in which they fell to the Yankees. With the Braves being swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS, it made the Mets' path to the World Series much easier.
The Braves also avenged their loss from the first ever NLCS 30 years before, losing to the Miracle Mets, who were underdogs despite the fact that the Braves had a weaker record (93–69 compared to the Mets' 100–62). In addition, Atlanta teams had avenged their losses to New York City teams in a playoffs in 1999; following the Knicks sweep of the Hawks (see above).