NEW YORK -- It may turn out to be a fleeting moment of glory for the New York Mets and their fans, but you take what you can get when you're staring at a very early exit from the National League Championship Series.
The Mets rallied to score two runs in the bottom of the eighth inning last night to score a 3-2 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 4, and survived to play another game at rowdy Shea Stadium. Better than that, they did it with New York's newest nemesis, Braves closer John Rocker, on the mound.
Rocker came on to try to protect a one-run lead in the eighth, but he almost didn't get to the mound. He was nearly brained by a large piece of refuse from the stands as he sprinted in from the bullpen, which might have been preferable to what happened when he got the ball.
Mets base runners Roger Cedeno and Melvin Mora caught him by surprise with a double steal and veteran first baseman John Olerud slapped a bouncer off the glove of substitute shortstop Ozzie Guillen to drive home the tying and go-ahead runs.
"It was a big win for us," said Olerud. "To get the lead, then fall behind and get it again, and to get a couple runs off of Rocker, who we haven't done much of anything against, it's a good feeling."
The Braves still hold a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, but they clearly wanted to break open the champagne last night, especially with rain in the forecast tonight.
"You get long odds on a sweep it's tough to do," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, "but we were four outs away from doing it."
The sellout crowd of 55,872 shook the stadium to the rafters. Rocker has been thumbing his nose at Mets fans for the past three days, returning their taunts and inflaming a rivalry that has been growing in magnitude for the past couple of years.
He even predicted before the game that he would be drenched in champagne later in the evening, the first brash words he has had to eat since his first verbal volley in Atlanta, but he remained unrepentant.
"It was a three-hop ground ball," Rocker said. "If it was a double off the wall or a solid hit, I'd say they beat me. I'm not saying that. They were shading him to the left. The ball just got through."
Olerud accounted for all of the Mets' offense with a bases-empty home run and the two eighth-inning RBIs. The second hit barely made it out of the infield, but it assured that the sun would come up again for the wild-card Mets.
Cox would have to answer for a double-switch that removed starting shortstop Walt Weiss from the game just before the pivotal play, but he didn't second-guess the decision to put Guillen in the game.
"I don't think any of our shortstops gets that ball," Cox said. "We were shading [Olerud] too much the other way."
The game ended in a relative flurry of offensive activity after both batting orders had been stifled for most of the evening. Braves veteran John Smoltz and Mets right-hander Rick Reed locked up in a scoreless pitching duel until Olerud broke through with a line drive over the right-field fence in the sixth.
Even after Olerud's two-run single, the Braves nearly tied the game on a near-miss foul ball by Guillen in the ninth, but former Orioles reliever Armando Benitez got the final three outs to save the game for winning pitcher Turk Wendell.
"You know what was really gratifying was to see Guillen's ball miss the foul pole," said Mets manager Bobby Valentine, "because those things haven't been going our way. I didn't get up to look, and I just said, 'It's foul.' And then I watched the look on [coach] Bruce Benedict's face when he said, 'By an inch.' "
The Game 4 pitching matchup was the first that statistically favored the Mets. Smoltz has built a reputation for pitching very tough in the postseason, but his head-to-head numbers against the Mets (0-1, 5.40 ERA) were the worst of any member of the Atlanta rotation.
Conversely, Reed is the one pitcher in the Mets' rotation to have strong numbers against the Braves, giving up just two runs in 12 1/3 innings (1.46 ERA) in two regular-season starts.
Reed was better than advertised. He pitched to the minimum number of batters through the seventh inning -- giving up just one single -- before Brian Jordan and Ryan Klesko woke up the Braves' offense with back-to-back home runs to open the eighth.
Smoltz did what John Smoltz has done in the postseason throughout the decade. He pitched another masterful game, giving up just a sixth-inning home run to Olerud and the tying run in the eighth on the way to a hard-luck no-decision.
The Braves put him in position to win with the lightning comeback in the eighth and Cox sought to protect the decision by pulling him out of the game with one out in the bottom of the same inning -- after Cedeno led off with his third hit of the game and shortstop Rey Ordonez popped up a sacrifice bunt attempt.
Cue the Braves bullpen, which has become the focus of the fierce rivalry that has developed between the two National League East powers. Setup man Mike Remlinger came on to strike out pinch hitter Benny Agbayani, then walked rookie Mora and gave way to Rocker.
That's when Cox made a strategic decision that may have cost him the game, pulling the double-switch that replaced Weiss with Guillen -- which is not a defensive substitution he would make under any other conditions.
That's also when Valentine decided to force the action and pulled the double steal to put the go-ahead run in scoring decision. Olerud made it all worthwhile.
"John's been a big hitter all his career," said Valentine. "He's a talented guy and goes unnoticed. I know he hit a grand slam to get us a win here in the last series and he got two big hits today."