Monday, March 9, 2015

One Mo-MET In Time: Shawn Estes

The 1999 season marked the first time that both the Mets and Yankees qualified for the postseason in the same year.  Although the two teams failed to meet in the World Series in 1999, they did provide several memorable moments during their regular season matchups, including Matt Franco's game-winning hit against Mariano Rivera on July 10.

But the day before the Franco walk-off, the Mets used a late three-run homer by catcher Mike Piazza off Yankees starter Roger Clemens to break a 2-2 tie in a game the Mets eventually won, 5-2.  It was Piazza's second career homer off Clemens, with the first one coming in the Rocket's previous start against the Mets a month earlier at Yankee Stadium.

One year later, Piazza continued his torrid hitting against Clemens, launching a grand slam to straightaway center field - just the second grand slam allowed by Clemens in 17 seasons - to help the Mets cruise to a 12-2 victory.  A single in his next plate appearance gave Piazza seven hits in 12 at-bats against Clemens, including three homers and nine RBI.   The next time Clemens started a game against the Mets, he hit Piazza in the helmet with a fastball, knocking the Mets catcher out of the game.  General manager Steve Phillips shared his thoughts on the beaning after the game, saying, "I don't know if things are ever over.  Guys have long memories in baseball."

Things weren't over between Clemens and Piazza.  And apparently, the memory of Piazza's ownership of Clemens resonated more with the Rocket than it did with the Mets' All-Star catcher.

When the two teams squared off in the 2000 World Series, Piazza faced Clemens for the first time since he was the target of Clemens's head-seeking missile.  It only took four pitches for Clemens to once again have Piazza in his sights, although this time it was with a broken bat instead of a fastball.  Swinging on a 1-2 pitch, Piazza hit a foul ball that shattered his bat into several pieces, with one of the shards bouncing toward the pitcher's mound.  Instinctively, Clemens fielded the sharp piece of wood, then threw it in the direction of a dumbfounded Piazza, claiming that he thought it was the ball.  Never mind that Clemens's initial reaction was to hop around as if a spear was coming right at him (which it was) instead of a spherical, blunt object (which it wasn't).

The Yankees went on to win the game and the World Series.  Although Clemens was fined $50,000 for his unexpected javelin toss, he could easily afford to pay for it with his World Series-winning share of $294,783.41.  A year later, Clemens didn't have to worry about retaliation by the Mets because Yankees manager Joe Torre went out of his way to ensure that Clemens wouldn't have to pitch at Shea Stadium, where he'd be forced to bat.

By the 2002 season, much had changed for the crosstown rivals.  The Yankees were no longer the defending World Series champions and the Mets were no longer playoff contenders in the National League.  One thing that hadn't changed was that the Mets were still fuming over Roger Clemens and his approach to facing Mike Piazza.  Three years after Piazza took Clemens deep for the first time and two years after Clemens aimed a fastball and a fast bat in the direction of Piazza's body, the stage was set for Clemens to finally step up to the plate as a hitter at Shea Stadium.  And it was up to a new member of the Mets - one who wasn't present for each of the previous incidents - to show Clemens exactly how the Mets felt about him.

Shawn Estes may have missed Roger Clemens with a pitch, but he didn't miss a Roger Clemens pitch.  (Getty Images)

Aaron Shawn Estes was a former first round draft pick who had his share of ups and downs in the big leagues.  In 1997, Estes was an All-Star for San Francisco, going 19-5 with a 3.18 ERA to help the Giants reach the playoffs for just the fifth time in 40 seasons in the Bay Area.  But the '97 campaign was also the first of three seasons that Estes reached triple digits in walks.  Estes was never known for his control, as evidenced by his 521 walks in seven seasons as a Giant, a number that puts him in the team's top 20 in free passes - a team that has been in existence since 1883 and has used 731 pitchers through the 2014 season.

When Mets general manager Steve Phillips wanted to overhaul the team after it barely finished above .500 in 2001, he added several former All-Stars to the roster (Roberto Alomar, Mo Vaughn) and re-acquired players who used to call Flushing home (Jeromy Burnitz, Roger Cedeño).  Phillips also looked to bolster his pitching staff, sending utility infielder Desi Relaford and popular outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo to the Giants in exchange for Estes.

Estes's first win as a Met was a complete-game, one-hit shutout on April 26, a game in which the left-hander didn't allow a base runner until the seventh inning.  Ironically, Estes's masterpiece came against Milwaukee's Glendon Rusch, the pitcher he essentially replaced in New York's starting rotation and the last hurler to start a one-hitter for the Mets.  (Rusch combined with Armando Benitez on a one-hitter in 2001.)

Following his gem against the Brewers, Estes struggled mightily.  The southpaw won just one of his next seven starts, posting a 5.84 ERA and allowing opposing hitters to bat .343 against him.  Not once in those seven starts did Estes pitch into the seventh inning and in five of the seven outings, he failed to pitch more than five innings.  Needless to say, Estes was not winning over many fans in New York, especially after a five-inning, six-run debacle against the Indians on June 9 that brought him into his first Subway Series experience in his next start.  And what a start it would be, as Estes would be facing none other than Roger Clemens in his first Shea Stadium appearance since the 1999 season.

Shawn Estes was toiling a coast away in San Francisco during the 1999 and 2000 seasons when the Clemens-Piazza feud was at its peak.  But it would fall upon Estes to protect his new battery mate by sending a message to Clemens and the Yankees that the Mets were not going to be bullied by anyone.  On an unusually cool mid-June afternoon at Shea Stadium, the tension was palpable.  Estes started the game by striking out four of the first eight Yankee batters to face him.  That brought up Roger Clemens, as Public Enemy No. 1 was also Yankee batter No. 9.

With all eyes in the Shea Stadium crowd focused on the Estes-Clemens matchup, Estes fired his first pitch to the plate.  Naturally, aiming at a particular target - even a six-foot, four inch target - wasn't a strong suit for a pitcher who had walked 100 or more batters in a season three times in his career.  Estes's first pitch went behind Clemens, missing his rear end by about a foot.  Home plate umpire Wally Bell issued warnings to both dugouts and Clemens continued his at-bat against Estes, eventually striking out on a 3-2 pitch.

To most fans at the time, Estes had failed in doing his job, just as he had done in most of his starts during the season's first two months.  Striking out Clemens wasn't what they wanted to see.  Striking him was.  And by not doing so, the two-year wait for retribution lingered on.  After Estes retired the side in order in the top of the third, it was his turn to take a bat in his hands to face Clemens.  Although Estes's sacrifice bunt did allow shortstop Rey Ordoñez to score all the way from second base - the Yankees left home plate unattended - to give the Mets an early lead, it still didn't give fans what they desired.  Two innings later, Estes made up for missing Clemens in the third.  He didn't miss this time.

Shawn Estes hits Roger Clemens in a way no one expected.  (Photo by Steve Crandall/Reuters)

With the Mets clinging to a 1-0 lead in the fifth, Roger Cedeño led off the inning with a double down the left field line.  Rey Ordoñez then swung away at the first pitch he saw, flying out to center fielder Bernie Williams, which left Cedeño at second and brought up Shawn Estes.  Had there been no outs, Estes would have been instructed to bunt the runner to third base.  But with one out, Estes was allowed to swing away - and what a swing it was!

Estes hit a high fly ball down the left field line that cleared the outfield wall for a jaw-dropping two-run homer.  Estes's first hit as a Met - he began the season by going 0-for-18 - was not the first time he had taken an opposing pitcher deep, as he had homered once in 1997 and also hit a grand slam in 2000.  But it was the first time Clemens had ever allowed a long ball to a fellow moundsman in his 19-year career.  (Clemens would allow just one more homer to an opposing pitcher, serving up a two-run shot to Montreal Expos starting pitcher Jon Rauch in 2004.  It was one of only 11 starts made by Rauch in his career and his only home run.)

Clemens would later stroke a double off Estes in the top of the sixth - just the third hit of the Rocket's career - but was left stranded on the bases.  If Clemens thought he had gotten some sort of payback off Estes by banging out an extra-base hit of his own, he was in for a rude awakening when he went back to the mound for the bottom of the sixth when his nemesis, Mike Piazza, stepped into the batter's box to lead off the inning.

Piazza, who claimed that he "never really went to the plate with any ulterior motive",  took Clemens's first offering and deposited it over the wall to give the Mets a 4-0 lead.  Clemens was never allowed to finish the sixth inning, as he was taken out of the game two batters later.  The Mets went on the win the game, 8-0, with Estes picking up his third win of the season.

Estes pitched seven shutout innings against the Yankees, allowing five hits, one walk and matching a career high with 11 strikeouts.  But despite pitching (and hitting) beautifully against the Yankees in June, Estes became a former Met less than two months later.  The southpaw would win just one more game in New York, as he was traded to the Cincinnati Reds in August as part of a package that netted the team long-time middle reliever Pedro Feliciano.

Roger Clemens had been disliked by Mets fans since the 1986 World Series, when he was seen clean-shaven prior to what he thought was going to be a championship-clinching win by his team at the time, the Boston Red Sox.  (Clemens had a five-o'clock shadow during the game, but shaved off his stubble in anticipation of a celebratory post-game interview that never happened.)  More than a decade later, Clemens infuriated fans once again when he took out beloved catcher Mike Piazza with a fastball to the helmet, then tried to do the same with a broken bat in that season's Fall Classic.

The Mets waited patiently for two seasons to get their revenge on Clemens.  The opportunity almost passed them by when Shawn Estes failed to hit Clemens with a pitch on a cool June day in 2002.  But before the day was over, Estes found a different way to hit Clemens, shaming him more than a fastball to the body ever could.  Piazza also exacted a modicum of payback against Clemens by homering off him an inning after Estes took him out of the park.  It turned out to be Piazza's final hit off Clemens after spending the previous half-decade hitting rockets off the Rocket.

''I don't think revenge mattered.  Hopefully today beating the Yankees and doing it the way we did is the key to getting some momentum.  That was really all we were trying to do.''

--Mike Piazza, following the June 15, 2002 game against the Yankees 

Shawn Estes never did bolster the starting rotation as general manager Steve Phillips expected, going 4-9 with a 4.55 ERA in 23 starts.  But he did provide the team and its fans with one magical day at Shea Stadium.  Estes was pitching across the country when the bad blood between Clemens and Piazza started to boil in 1999.  But when the book on the storied feud was closed, it was Estes who provided one of the final chapters, nailing a Roger Clemens pitch just two innings after he failed to nail Clemens at the plate.

A total of 72 players in Mets history (through the 2014 season) finished their careers in New York with just one home run to their credit.  Of those six dozen players, none of them hit a blast that resonated more with Mets fans than the one hit by Shawn Estes on June 15, 2002.

The man who came to New York with a history of being wild around the plate couldn't hit Roger Clemens with a pitch (yet still managed to get fined $750 for his efforts).  However, he did hit Clemens where it hurt the most - his ego - when he did something no pitcher had ever done before against him.  And in doing so, he helped provide closure to one of ugliest pitcher-batter feuds in recent memory.

Shawn Estes couldn't have picked a better time to have his one memorable moment as a Met.

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 
January 12, 2015: Dave Mlicki
January 19, 2015: Steve Henderson 
January 26, 2015: Ron Swoboda
February 2, 2015: Anthony Young
February 9, 2015: Tim Harkness
February 16, 2015: Kenny Rogers, Aaron Heilman, Tom Glavine
February 23, 2015: Mike Vail
March 2, 2015: Matt Franco

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