Monday, January 12, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Dave Mlicki

Some players have careers that are so nondescript, it's fairly simple to find their greatest moment on a baseball diamond.  For Chicago Cubs rookie Jimmy Qualls, it was his clean single to left field that ended Tom Seaver's bid for a perfect game in 1969.  The safety was Qualls' 12th hit in the big leagues.  He would have just 19 more over a major league career that lasted parts of three seasons.

Qualls' career was quite brief, as he played in only 63 total games with the Cubs, Expos and White Sox.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the hit off Seaver would be the one he'd always be remembered for.

Sometimes, players who have just one defining moment can play in the majors for a decade or longer and never do anything else remotely worth remembering.  Their lengthy careers would be instantly forgotten if not for that one shining moment.  One such player played for the Mets in the mostly forgettable mid-1990s.  But no one will ever forget what he did on a late spring night in the Bronx.

Arguably the most memorable end-of-game reaction by a Mets pitcher since Jesse Orosco.  (Getty Images)

David John Mlicki was as average as average could be.  And that's probably giving him too much credit.  Mlicki pitched in the power-happy 1990s and early 2000s, spending a total of ten seasons in the big leagues.  In seven of those ten years, he made at least ten starts.  His ERA was 4.00 or higher in all seven of those seasons.  Mlicki also never had a season in which he finished more than two games above .500 and was within two games of the break-even point in seven of his ten campaigns.

In addition, Mlicki made 193 starts and pitched 69 games in relief, posting a 4.72 ERA in those 252 appearances.  That made Mlicki one of just eight pitchers in the long history of baseball to make that many starts and that many relief appearances with an ERA of at least 4.72.  Needless to say, Mlicki was lucky to have lasted in the big leagues as long as he did.

Mlicki made seven starts for the Cleveland Indians in 1992 and 1993.  He won none of them.  But that didn't discourage the Mets when Cleveland packaged him with two other pitchers - Paul Byrd and Jerry Dipoto - in exchange for Dallas Green doghouse resident Jeromy Burnitz.  The former 30/30 player in the minor leagues had incensed Mets manager Green with his poor plate discipline and perceived lack of hustle, making himself expendable.

Burnitz went on to become an All-Star and MVP candidate after the trade, while Byrd and Dipoto joined Burnitz as former Mets following the 1996 season.  Entering the 1997 campaign, Mlicki was the only player remaining from the ill-fated Burnitz trade.  Splitting time between the starting rotation and the bullpen, Mlicki had gone 15-14 with a 3.91 ERA and 1.36 WHIP in his first two years with the Mets, numbers that were fairly average but slightly better than the team's cumulative 4.06 ERA and 1.37 WHIP.

Under new manager Bobby Valentine, Mlicki became a full-time starter in 1997.  But while fellow starting pitchers Rick Reed and Bobby Jones were off to All-Star caliber starts, Mlicki regressed.  The Mets got off to a disappointing 8-14 start under Valentine, but the team then went on a roll, winning 20 of the next 29 contests from April 27 to May 28.  Mlicki did not receive credit for any of those 20 wins, going 0-2 with three no-decisions and an eye-popping 5.61 ERA during his team's unexpected hot streak.

By mid-June, Mlicki had won just two of his 13 starts, and his spot in the rotation was potentially in jeopardy.  But Valentine stuck with his beleaguered starter, putting him under the spotlight for the highly anticipated first-ever regular season matchup between the Mets and Yankees on June 16.  It was a decision that would be remembered well past the end of the 1997 season.

"I give Dave Mlicki a 50/50 chance at beating the Yankees on June 16."

The Yankees were the defending World Series champions, and by winning their first title in 18 years, had taken over the city much like the Mets had done so a decade earlier.  The Mets, on the other hand, had completed their sixth consecutive losing season in 1996.  But they were off to an impressive start in 1997 and were poised to claim bragging rights in the first regular season game played between two New York teams since the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants squared off against each other on September 8, 1957.

Before a raucous Yankee Stadium crowd, the Mets got off to a quick start, scoring three runs in the top of the first.  Lance Johnson led off the game by grounding out, but over the next 16 pitches, the Mets produced two doubles, a walk, a single and a steal of home by the normally slow-footed Todd Hundley.  The unlikely theft occurred when Butch Huskey appeared to be picked off first base by Yankee starter Andy Pettitte.  Huskey stayed in the rundown long enough to allow Hundley to scamper home with the third tally of the inning.  The botched rundown gave Mlicki a comfortable lead before he had thrown his first pitch.

That first pitch by Mlicki, a single by Jeter - who reached second base on an error by center fielder Johnson - immediately gave the Yankees a chance to erase some of the momentum generated by the Mets in the top half of the inning.  But in a portent of things to come, Mlicki induced a groundout by Pat Kelly, followed by back-to-back strikeouts of Paul O'Neill and Cecil Fielder.  The Yankees had just gone 0-for-3 with runners in scoring position, and Mlicki wasn't done stranding base runners.

In the third inning, Yankee catcher Joe Girardi hit an one-out, opposite-field double.  He was stranded at second after Mlicki struck out the next two batters.  An inning later, it was Fielder's turn to hit a one-out double to the opposite field.  But yet again, the Yankees couldn't score the run, as Mlicki got Tino Martinez to ground out and Charlie Hayes to line out to end the inning.

The fifth inning saw the Yankees put another runner in scoring position, this time with two outs.  But Derek Jeter could not produce a clutch hit, and the score remained 3-0.  The Mets, however, were having no problems producing with runners in scoring position.

With two outs and runners on first and second in the top of the seventh, Bernard Gilkey drew a four-pitch walk to load the bases.  Gilkey's free pass was followed by an opposite-field single by John Olerud, which scored two runs.  Two innings later, it was Gilkey who drove in a runner in scoring position, lifting a sacrifice fly to left to make it 6-0.

Armed with a 6-0 lead, Mlicki continued to mow Yankee hitters down.  (Photo by Linda Cataffo/Daily News)

By then, it had become a foregone conclusion that the Mets were going to win the game.  The only thing left to be seen was whether Mlicki could finish off the Yankees without allowing any runs to score.  Mlicki appeared to struggle in the eighth when he allowed back-to-back one-out hits to Kelly and O'Neill.  But just as he had done in the earlier innings, he retired the next two batters, stranding both runners.

With a six-run lead going to the bottom of the ninth, Valentine could have pulled Mlicki from the game.  After all, Mlicki had already thrown 106 pitches and had far surpassed what the Mets expected from him in the game.  But Mlicki had never pitched a shutout in five seasons in the majors, nor had he ever pitched a complete game.  He had the opportunity to do both by getting three more outs against the defending world champions.

He was not coming out of that game.

Charlie Hayes led off the ninth with a single but was thrown out at second trying to take the extra base.  Mark Whiten followed with another single.

He was not coming out of that game.

After Chad Curtis grounded into a fielder's choice, Girardi followed with his third hit of the game.  Mlicki had allowed hits to three of the the first four batters to face him in the ninth inning.  He had thrown 114 pitches.  He was about to face Derek Jeter with two runners on base.  It was the Yankees' 11th at-bat of the game with a runner in scoring position.

He was NOT coming out of that game.

Mlicki alternated balls and strikes with Jeter at the plate.  Finally, on a 2-2 pitch and with thousands of Mets fans in attendance loudly cheering on every pitch, Mlicki froze Jeter, throwing strike three past the Yankee shortstop.  After 119 pitches, Mlicki could finally walk off the mound and into the waiting arms of catcher Todd Hundley, but not before he let out a celebratory whoop as he pumped his fists in victory.

27 outs, no runs.  Dave went where no Mlicki had gone before.  (Photo by Linda Cataffo/Daily News)

For one night, the Mets had taken over New York from the Yankees, and it was the most unlikely candidate who plastered the Mets all over the front and back pages of the following day's New York papers.

Dave Mlicki had never pitched a shutout or a complete game in his first 47 starts in the big leagues.  After holding the Yankees scoreless for nine innings on June 16, 1997, Mlicki started another 145 games until his retirement in 2002, completing just five of those contests and tossing one more shutout.

The win against the Yankees was one of only 24 victories posted by Mlicki in the three and a half years he played with the Mets.  It was also his only shutout as a Met.  In a year the Mets surprised all of baseball by going 88-74 and competing for the wild card until the final week of the season, Mlicki won just eight of 20 decisions.  But it was his third victory of the season that became the biggest of his career.

Since the Mets came into the league in 1962, they've shared the city with the Yankees.  They've also shared the city's baseball fans - supporters who have declared their loyalty to one team and strong dislike for the other.  But prior to 1997, Mets and Yankees fans could only watch the two teams face each other in Grapefruit League action and the Mayor's Trophy exhibition game.

When Dave Mlicki took the mound against Andy Pettitte on a late spring night at Yankee Stadium, it certainly wasn't an exhibition game.  The only thing being exhibited that night was Mlicki's finest performance as a Met.  In a ten-year career that saw Mlicki post a 66-80 won-loss record, it was his 18th career win that stood out above all others.

The Mets and Yankees had shared the spotlight in the city for 35 years.  But no one was going to share the spotlight with Dave Mlicki on the night of June 16, 1997.  Because of that one special moment in time, Mlicki will never be shut out from the minds and hearts of Mets fans.

Charles Wenzelburg/NY Post

"I felt like it was a World Series game.  I still have people who tell me I'm their hero because of that one game.  It's kind of cool."

Note:  One Mo-MET In Time is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who will forever be known for a single moment, game or event, regardless of whatever else they accomplished during their tenure with the Mets.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 5, 2015: Mookie Wilson 

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