NEW YORK -- If the 1999 New York Mets go down in history as the team that would not die, then their wet and wild victory in Game 5 at Shea Stadium surely will be remembered as one of the greatest postseason games ever played.
Not that the 5-hour, 46-minute marathon would not stand in its own right, but everything seems a little bigger and brighter in the New York spotlight, and Sunday's long day's journey into night will be remembered longer and more lovingly if the Mets complete the greatest comeback in baseball postseason history.
They are halfway there. Robin Ventura's 400-foot single took care of that. He launched a ball into New York baseball heaven and will forever be remembered as the guy who gave away a grand slam to celebrate with his teammates after rounding first base.
The Mets rallied from a run down in the late innings in each of the past two games against the Atlanta Braves to keep their improbable season alive. If they can do something equally heroic tonight at Turner Field and push the best-of-seven National League Championship Series to the limit, they will win a place in the baseball lore of the Big Apple no matter what the final outcome.
They have proved their resilience, sweeping their final regular-season series to force a one-game playoff with the Cincinnati Reds for the wild-card berth, then winning that game and defeating the NL West champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series.
"No matter what happens from here on out, it's a great feeling," said Mets star Mike Piazza, who had to leave the game in the 14th inning with a strained forearm. "We were down 3-0, and now we have a chance to tie the series. Those guys have been through wars before and now maybe there's a little bit of pressure, and that's something that hopefully we can work to our advantage."
Now, back to reality. The Braves are still the better team on paper, and they will be returning to their home turf, where they won the first two games of the series last week.
Maybe they finally will dust off their dormant attack and end the suspense. They have scored just 14 runs in the first five games of the series, averaging fewer runs (2.8) than Ventura threw away when he was prevented from completing his trip around the bases on Sunday night.
That offensive futility reached all-time proportions in Game 5, when the Braves set a postseason record by leaving 19 runners on base.
"We missed way too many opportunities," said Braves manager Bobby Cox in a classic understatement.
Of course, the Mets haven't exactly ripped the cover off the ball, either. They have scored only 12 runs, not counting the three they left behind on Sunday, and Piazza and outfielder Roger Cedeno are so dinged up that they are questionable for tonight's game.
The Mets may have the mojo, but the Braves have no reason to panic. They have the home-field advantage, the pitching edge and the luxury of needing to win only one of the last two games to reach the World Series for the fifth time in the '90s.
"We still have an excellent chance to win," said Braves Game 5 starter Greg Maddux, whose strong seven-inning performance was all but forgotten by the time the game ended -- about three hours after he iced his arm. "We feel good about our chances to win this."
They should. They'll send their top starter of 1999, fresh 18-game winner Kevin Millwood, in Game 6 tonight. The Mets can only hope that veteran left-hander Al Leiter has something left on three days' rest, and -- if so -- Rick Reed can excel in the same strained situation in Game 7.
The Mets remain a long shot, but the planets have lined up for them so far. Cox removes his starting shortstop in a double switch in Game 4, and the next guy knocks the ball off the glove of substitute Ozzie Guillen to drive in the tying and go-ahead runs. Cox chooses not to go back to one of his veteran starters to protect a long-awaited one-run lead in the 15th on Sunday and rookie Kevin McGlinchy wilts under the playoff pressure.
Maybe Millwood will, too, but he didn't sound like a guy with the weight of the baseball world on his shoulders after Sunday night's game.
"I'm excited," he said. "This is the place that everybody wants to be, pitching in a game like this. I'm pumped. Everyone wants to do it in the postseason. I'm going to do the same thing I've done all year long."
He has been phenomenal this year, ranking among the league leaders in victories (18), winning percentage (18-7, .720), ERA (2.68) and several other categories. He was the best pitcher in the Braves starting rotation during the regular season, which is saying quite a lot when the club's three veteran starters each has won at least one Cy Young Award.
"He knows what he's doing," said Maddux. "He knows how to pitch. I have all the confidence in the world in him."
The only question is whether his teammates will be able to shake off the effects of Sunday night's discouraging defeat and put the wild-card Mets back in their place before this best-of-seven series gets really interesting.
"We have a day off to rest and recuperate, and then we'll all be pumped up for Game 6," Millwood said. "If you're not pumped up now, there's something wrong with you."
NL Championship Series
New York (Leiter, 13-12) at Atlanta (Millwood 18-7), 8: 15 p.m., chs. 11, 4
Pub Date: 10/19/99