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The Last Straw

It seems reasonably safe to say that the Atlanta Braves will not be winning the NL East this season and their remarkable run of consecutive seasons with division titles will conclude, perhaps by the weekend.

It has been 16 years since the phrase "The Braves have been eliminated from winning their division" was uttered and chances are that in 1990, it wasn't, as Atlanta was a rather insignificant speck of dust on the baseball universe back then, finishing the campaign in last place in the NL West.

It pleased me to know that on the particular day in early September, I happened to be in the stands with my dad at Shea Stadium, for a game between the Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, which had significant ramifactions in the battle for the NL East lead.

This was one of those games in which you were glad to be the team that batted last, particularly considering that the pitching matchup pitted neophyte Julio Valera against Ken Hill. Todd Zeile's second-inning home run gave the Cardinals a 1-0 edge, but the Mets bettered that in their half of the inning, scoring twice on a double by catcher Charlie O'Brien.

Zeile's fourth-inning double tied the game, but the lower third of the Mets order drove in three runs in the bottom of the frame, with contributions from both O'Brien and Valera.

Bud Harrelson pulled Valera, after a leadoff hit in the 6th, with the Mets up 5-2, and the results were not good. Bob Ojeda allowed Valera's run, then was charged with three of his own, those coming with two outs and putting the Cardinals briefly ahead, 6-5.

The best thing about this game (other than its ending) was that every time the Cardinals scored, the Mets struck back. Kevin McReynolds homered in the bottom of the 6th to tie the score at 6, and then the Mets took the lead with single runs in the 7th and 8th on an RBI double by Tommy Herr and a sacrifice fly from Mackey Sasser.

Ron Darling's two innings of scoreless relief put the Mets in position to close this one out, as John Franco came in with the score 8-6 in the top of the 9th inning. My recollections are of a frustrating, exasperating 9th inning, and those seem to be well-founded. Three straight hits and an RBI groundout from Pedro Guerrero tied the score at 8-8 and I'm pretty sure that Franco was significantly booed as the teams prepped for the last of the 9th.

Lee Smith came on to pitch for the Cardinals and immediately put himself into a tough spot by walking Herr. That put Dave Magadan in the rather awkward position of trying to bunt, something at which he was respectable (24 sacrifices in his MLB career), but not particularly good. There was significant dismay within the crowd of 25,126 when Magadan popped to catcher for the first out.

About a year ago, I wrote a piece on walk-off predictions and referenced what happened next. The gentleman sitting behind us assured us not to be mad at Magadan, because the next batter was going to hit a home run.

That batter happened to be Darryl Strawberry and amazingly enough, he came through. He took one of those majestic swings for which he was so well known and banged the first pitch off the back wall of the right field bullpen for a game-winning two-run home run. The win put the Mets within 3 1/2 games of the first-place Pittsburgh Pirates, who did eventually hold on to win the NL East.

Also of great significance that Tuesday was a 5-3 victory by the Cincinnati Reds over the Astros, concluding at roughly the same time as the Mets game. It pushed the last-place Braves 22 1/2 games off the lead in the NL West, mathematically eliminating them from winning the division title. Atlanta finished the season 65-97 and 26 games from the top of the division, numbers that are good to remember at this particular hour.

Those who have never Met know... The Mets contributed to the Braves efforts in 1990 by winning 8 of the 12 meetings between the two teams. Among them was a walk-off win on April 24. The winning pitcher that day was Julio Machado and the winning run was driven in by Mike Marshall.

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