Monday, February 27, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: John Franco and Armando Benitez

In New York sports, an athlete has to be great more often than not to be fully loved.  Players like Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza aren't revered just because they have phenomenal statistics; they're beloved because they produced in key spots when the Mets needed them to.

Similarly, a lesser player like Benny Agbayani will always have a special place in the hearts of Mets fans because he was a clutch performer even if his cumulative career numbers don't necessarily say he was one of the top players on the team.

On the other hand, a player who produces in non-pressure situations more often than he does when the stakes are higher will also be remembered by the Flushing faithful, but not in a way he'd like.  And even breaking a franchise record or two can't change the minds of fans with long memories.

The Mets' top two closers, if you go by saves alone.  (Focus on Sport/Getty Images; Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News)

As a child growing up in Brooklyn, John Anthony Franco - the son of a New York City sanitation worker - dreamed of delivering a title to the Mets.  Nearly two thousand miles away, Armando German Benitez was developing his heater in the Dominican town of San Pedro de Macoris, whose primary export was major league shortstops.

Franco attended Lafayette High School, the same school that produced Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax and Mets owner Fred Wilpon.  He then attended St. John's University and was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers after his junior year in 1981.  Two years later, the Dodgers traded Franco to Cincinnati, the team for which he made his major league debut in 1984.  Franco was brilliant as the Reds' closer, posting a 2.49 ERA in six seasons and saving 148 games, including a league-leading 39 saves in 1988.  But after making his third All-Star team in 1989, Franco was awful following the mid-season hiatus, blowing five saves in 15 opportunities and recording a 4.87 ERA.  As a result, the Reds replaced Franco during the off-season, trading him to the Mets for fellow southpaw Randy Myers in a deal that shocked Myers and delighted Franco.

"John had a great first half last season and a not-so-great second half," Mets' vice president Joe McIlvane said.  "We're hoping that a change of scenery will bring him back.  When we called him tonight, he was so happy he was bouncing off the wall."

Franco had a triumphant first season with the Mets, as he led the league in saves with 33 and became an All-Star for the fourth time in his career.  But Myers had greater team success, as he and his fellow Nasty Boys in the Reds' hard-throwing bullpen celebrated a World Series title in 1990.

The 1990 baseball season also saw the professional debut of another flame-throwing reliever, as Armando Benitez was signed as an amateur free agent with the Baltimore Orioles in April.  Four years later, Benitez made his major league debut, allowing one run in ten innings while striking out 14 batters.  While Benitez was blowing hitters away with his fastball, Franco was nibbling his way to success with the Mets.

From 1990 to 1998, Franco posted five years of 30 or more saves, after only one Met (Jesse Orosco) had reached the 30-save plateau in the franchise's first 28 seasons.  Franco's ERA during the nine-year period was a splendid 2.80, but he was constantly pitching in and out of trouble, as evidenced by his 1.346 WHIP and the .255 batting average against him.  Meanwhile, Benitez was practically unhittable as a member of the Orioles through the 1998 season, as he averaged nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings and held opposing hitters to a .197 average.

The Mets failed to qualify for the postseason in 1998, as they coughed up a slim lead in the wild card race during their season-ending five-game losing streak.  Going into the off-season, general manager Steve Phillips was looking to upgrade the bullpen, especially after reliever Mel Rojas posted a 6.05 ERA in 50 games - the highest single-season ERA in club history for a pitcher who made at least 50 appearances.  Phillips filled that hole by acquiring Benitez in a three-team trade in December.

"We feel we've added in Armando Benitez one of the best power pitchers in the game," Phillips said, "and somebody who will give us a completely different look in the bullpen - somebody who will give us someone who can get a strikeout coming out of the bullpen."

(Eliot J. Schecter/Getty Images)
Indeed, with the addition of Benitez, the Mets now had one of the best relief corps in baseball, as Benitez was now part of a bullpen that included closer Franco, as well as the righty-lefty set-up combo of Turk Wendell and Dennis Cook.

The Mets began the 1999 season using Benitez primarily as an eighth-inning pitcher and he was dominant in the role, posting a 1.34 ERA in his first 40 appearances and holding opposing hitters to a microscopic .119 batting average.  But on June 30, Benitez surrendered a walk-off home run to the Marlins' Mark Kotsay.  It would be a portent of things to come for Benitez, who would have a new job with the team two days later, and it had nothing to do with his poor outing against Florida.

On July 2, the Mets hosted the division rival Atlanta Braves in front of 51,979 fans on Fireworks Night at Shea Stadium.  The outcome of the game was decided early, as the Braves pummeled starter Masato Yoshii for eight runs in three innings.  With the Braves leading 12-0 by the time the ninth inning rolled around, Mets manager Bobby Valentine surprisingly brought in his closer to start the final frame.  Franco allowed a double and two walks before he was taken out of the game with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand.  Relieving him was utility man Matt Franco, who promptly allowed a three-run homer to the first batter he faced, causing Valentine to regret his decision immediately.

"I should have had Matty start the ninth, as it turns out," Valentine said.  "I had the wrong Franco start the ninth."

Franco's injury sidelined him for two months, as the lefty didn't pitch again until September 5.  While the former closer was recovering, the new closer was thriving in his new role.  During Franco's absence, Benitez recorded three wins, 13 saves and struck out 38 batters in just 23 innings.  But like Franco before him, Benitez constantly had to pitch his way out of jams he created, as he also walked 16 batters in those 23 frames.

Once Franco returned from the disabled list, Benitez continued to be the Mets' ninth-inning guy while Franco settled into a set-up role.  Both Franco (0.96 ERA in 12 appearances) and Benitez (0.64 ERA in 13 games) had strong Septembers, helping the Mets win the wild card berth to advance to the postseason for the first time since 1988.  It would be the first playoff trip for Franco in his 16-year career, while Benitez was making his third journey to the postseason.  (He was a member of the Orioles' bullpen when they qualified for the playoffs in 1996 and 1997.)

In the Division Series against Arizona, both Franco and Benitez were unscored upon, although Benitez couldn't hold a one-run lead in Game Four, allowing two inherited runners to cross the plate in the eighth inning.  With the Mets needing one win to advance to the National League Championship Series and avoid facing Randy Johnson in a potential fifth and deciding game, Valentine gave the ball to Franco as the game moved into extra innings.  Franco pitched a perfect frame and earned the win when Todd Pratt hit a series-ending home run off Diamondbacks' closer Matt Mantei in the bottom of the tenth.

Ten days after Franco bailed out Benitez, neither pitcher could bail out the Mets.  With the Mets desperately trying to force a seventh game against the Braves in the National League Championship Series, Franco couldn't hold a one-run lead in the eighth inning.  Two innings later, Benitez blew a one-run lead as well, as he allowed light-hitting Ozzie Guillen to drive in the tying run in the bottom of the tenth.  The Braves won the pennant an inning later when Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run.  Franco was one of many Mets who were disappointed by the way the team's storybook season came to a close.

"We had a good feeling about everything," Franco said.  "We just didn't get it done.  It took me 16 years to get here and to come so close, it's hard."

The Mets entered the 2000 season on a mission to play in the World Series, but by mid-May, their mission was just to stay above .500.  After 40 games, the Mets' record stood at 20-20.  The strong bullpen general manager Steve Phillips had constructed was falling apart, as Turk Wendell's slider was sliding off the plate (19 walks in 25⅓ innings) and Dennis Cook's ERA was approaching the Rojasphere.  Franco and Benitez were also not immune to the bullpen blues, as Franco struggled to keep his ERA under 4.00 and Benitez couldn't keep the ball in the park.  In fact, Benitez finished the year allowing ten homers, three of which were grand slams.  And out of the 24 runs he allowed on the season, 17 of them scored on home runs.  Fortunately for the Mets, their explosive offense was able to overcome the underachieving bullpen, as the team recovered from its slow start to win the wild card for a second consecutive season.

Once the 2000 postseason began, Franco was able to put his subpar season behind him.  Benitez, on the other hand, continued to struggle under the spotlight.  After losing Game One of the NLDS to the San Francisco Giants, the Mets were two outs away from knotting the series when Benitez surrendered a game-tying three-run homer to pinch-hitter J.T. Snow.  The Mets then retook the lead in the top of the tenth on a two-out double by Darryl Hamilton and an RBI single by Jay Payton.  Benitez started the bottom of the tenth, but was quickly removed after allowing a leadoff single to pinch-hitter Armando Rios.  Once again, Franco was called upon to bail out the man who took his job the year before.  In a pressure-packed situation, the veteran left-hander retired the first two batters he faced, then froze Barry Bonds on a 3-2 pitch to send the Mets back to Shea Stadium with a series-tying victory.  The Giants wouldn't win another game, as the Mets took Games Three and Four at home to advance to the next round.

Benitez fails, Franco prevails.  (NY Daily News Archives)

The Mets' opponent in the NLCS was the St. Louis Cardinals.  New York won the first game of the series at Busch Stadium, then took a 5-3 lead into the eighth inning of Game Two.  But this time it was Franco who coughed up the lead with a walk, a single and a wild pitch.  The Mets charged back in front an inning later, with Payton once again delivering the go-ahead RBI single.  And this time, Benitez came through, keeping the Cardinals off the scoreboard in the bottom of the ninth to save the game.  The series then shifted back to Shea Stadium, where the Mets would take two out of three to win their first pennant in 14 years and set up New York's first Subway World Series since 1956.

It took Franco seventeen long and sometimes tumultuous seasons in the big leagues, but he was finally going to the World Series.  Benitez was also playing in his first Fall Classic, but by the time Game One was over, Benitez had once again experienced a classic fall.

After seven strong innings by starting pitcher Al Leiter and a scoreless eighth by Franco, Benitez was called upon to shut down the Yankees in the ninth inning.  But the two-time defending world champions would not go down without a fight, as they scratched out a walk, two singles and sacrifice fly to send the game to extra innings, where they won it in the 12th on a bases-loaded single by former Met Jose Vizcaino.  The blown save was the third time in two postseasons that Benitez had coughed up a lead that would have given Leiter a victory.  Leiter never did win a playoff game for the Mets.  Two games later, Franco did what his fellow southpaw couldn't do.

The Mets returned to Shea Stadium for Game Three after dropping the first two games of the series at Yankee Stadium.  With the score tied in the eighth inning, Franco entered the game with no outs and the go-ahead run on first base.  Three pitches later, he coaxed Jorge Posada to ground into a 5-4-3 double play.  Six pitches after that, he got out of the inning.  The Mets then scored twice in the bottom of the eighth and Benitez held down the fort in the ninth inning to give Franco and the Mets a much-needed win.

Unfortunately, that would be the only victory for the Mets in the 2000 World Series, as the Yankees took Games Four and Five to win their third consecutive championship.  Just as the Brooklyn Dodgers would say after each defeat to the Bronx Bombers in the Fall Classic, it was "wait 'till next year" for the Mets.  Unfortunately, next year - and the promises of another postseason run - never came.

After two seasons of ups and downs, featuring both shaky and thrilling performances by Franco and Benitez, the Mets struggled for most of the 2001 campaign.  By mid-August, the Mets appeared to be in need of a defibrillator, as their record stood at 54-68.  Playoffs?  They weren't talking about playoffs, especially when they were 13½ games out of first place and just two games ahead of the cellar-dwelling Montreal Expos in the National League East.  Most teams would have called it a season at that point.  Not the Mets, who remembered how to win when they and the rest of the city needed it the most.

From August 18 to September 9, the Mets won 17 of 22 contests, which allowed them to pull to within two games of .500.  But baseball was forced to put its pennant races on hold after the tragic events of September 11, as the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington postponed all games for a week.  When the Mets returned to action in Pittsburgh on September 17, the country's eyes were focused on New York's National League team.  The Mets did not disappoint.

The week away from the game did nothing to quash the Mets' momentum, as New York defeated Pittsburgh on the strength of a three-run ninth inning.  As important as the victory was for the Mets, Franco knew that the game meant so much more to the people watching back in his home city.

"For three hours, I hope we gave some pleasure to the guys who have been working," Franco said.  "We're not just playing for ourselves, we're playing for the whole city of New York."

(Keith Srakocic/AP)
With the Big Apple clearly on their minds, the Mets brought out the big brooms in Pittsburgh, sweeping the three-game set to move above .500 for the first time since they were 2-1.  Up next was a huge series against Atlanta at Shea Stadium, where another clean sweep would cut the Braves' lead to a mere 2½ games.  The opener would also be the first sporting event held in New York since 9/11.  For seven innings, there was a solemn atmosphere at the ballpark.  But in the bottom of the eighth, Mike Piazza's two-run lead-changing homer off Steve Karsay brought the crowd to its feet in celebration.  Benitez, who had allowed the Braves to take the lead in the top of the eighth on a Brian Jordan double, was taken off the hook by Piazza's long ball.  Two days later, there would be no one to save the Mets' closer.

After taking the first two games of the crucial series to cut the Braves' once insurmountable lead from 13½ games lead to just 3½, the Mets were poised for another sweep, especially after taking a three-run lead into the top of the ninth inning in the series finale.  But once again, Jordan produced another long hit against Benitez, taking him out of the park for a two-run homer - the 12th home run allowed by Benitez in 2001.  With the lead down to a single tally, Valentine left Benitez in, only to watch him surrender a two-out walk and back-to-back singles, the latter of which tied the game.  Two innings later, Jordan hit another home run, this time off reliever Jerrod Riggan, to stun the Mets and push the lead in the division back up to 4½ games.  The loss was just the sixth for the Mets in their last 28 games.

The following weekend, the Mets took on the Braves again, although this time the venue for the showdown was Turner Field.  Incredibly, the Mets had pulled back to within three games of the Braves and were just a sweep away from completing an inspired comeback and moving into a tie for first place.  It took a month for the team to move back into contention.  It only took a one-inning meltdown by Benitez and Franco to fall out of it.

Since becoming teammates in 1999, Benitez and Franco had combined for 130 saves.  There was no save situation for either pitcher in the first game against Atlanta, as Tom Glavine defeated the Mets in the series opener, 5-3.  The second game also went into the ninth inning without a save being at stake, but this time it was because the Mets had a four-run lead entering the final frame.  Starting pitcher Al Leiter had dominated the Braves for eight innings, holding Atlanta to one run on four hits.  That was enough for the manager, as Valentine went with Benitez to start the ninth.

Benitez got two outs, but not before he allowed a run to cut the Mets' lead to 5-2.  He then walked pinch-hitter Keith Lockhart, who was hitting just .228 at the time, and followed that up by surrendering a two-run double to Marcus Giles.  After Benitez issued an intentional walk to Julio Franco - a questionable call since Franco represented the go-ahead run - Valentine brought in John Franco to stop the bleeding.  Instead, he just poured salt into the open wound.

With two men on base, Franco walked pinch-hitter Wes Helms, whose .214 average made Lockhart look like a batting champion.  That loaded the bases for Met killer du jour, Brian Jordan.

A week earlier, Jordan had taken Benitez deep in the ninth inning.  This time, Jordan swung and missed at Franco's first pitch.

Two innings after Jordan tagged Benitez, he blasted an extra-inning long ball against Jerrod Riggan.  This time, Jordan hit nothing but air as he missed Franco's second offering.

John Franco had saved 422 games in his career - the most by a left-handed pitcher in history - and was one strike away from recording No. 423.  More importantly, he was a strike away from pulling the Mets back to within three games of the Braves.  Franco peered in at catcher Mike Piazza's low target and then fired a pitch that was belt-high and on the outside part of the plate.  In other words, it was right in Jordan's wheelhouse.

Just a bit outside.  Just a bit out of the ballpark.  And just a bit out of the playoff race.  ( screen shot)

Jordan's walk-off grand slam capped a seven-run ninth inning and gave the Braves an 8-5 win over the Mets.  For all intents and purposes, it was the night the lights went out in Georgia for the Mets' postseason aspirations.

"We've come back from a lot," a dejected Franco said after the game.  "But I don't know how you get over this."

The Mets never did get over their bullpen's meltdowns against the Braves.  In the two games, Benitez and Franco combined to face 17 batters.  They retired just five of them and allowed ten runs to score.  The second ninth-inning collapse in as many weeks dropped the Mets five games behind the Braves with seven games to play.  Four days later, New York was officially eliminated from the playoff race.

The 2001 campaign was just the second time in Franco's dozen seasons with the Mets that he ended the year with an ERA north of 4.00.  Benitez finished the year with a 3.77 ERA, which was more than a run and a half higher than the 2.22 ERA he posted in his first two years with the team.  Although the Mets posted their fifth consecutive winning season - barely, at 82-80 - the club was clearly in decline.  And they had to play the following year without their longest tenured player.

Franco, who had been named the team's captain in 2001, was forced to drop the anchor on his 2002 season, as an injury to his left elbow required Tommy John surgery.  That left Benitez as the only experienced closer on the team.  It also left him alone as the recipient of the fans' wrath when he once again couldn't keep the ball in the park.

As July turned to August, the Mets were four games over .500 and were within striking distance of the wild card-leading Dodgers.  But in the first game of a doubleheader at Shea Stadium on August 3, Benitez was called upon to protect a one-run lead against the Arizona Diamondbacks and promptly allowed a home run to Craig Counsell, a hitter who had produced just 12 homers in nearly 2,000 career plate appearances before he took Benitez deep.  Counsell's blast was also the fourth home run Benitez had allowed in his last six outings.  The Mets would go on to lose the game to the D-Backs in extra innings.  They then went on to lose every game they played at home in the month of August.

With Franco on the sidelines, the Mets would finish the 2002 campaign in last place with a 75-86 record - their first losing season since 1996.  By the time Franco returned to the mound in late May 2003, the Mets were already buried in the division standings.  The team ended the year in the N.L. East cellar once again, marking the first time in 20 years that the Mets finished in last place in back-to-back seasons.  Franco played one more year in New York, posting a horrid 5.28 ERA in 52 appearances, before signing a free agent contract to pitch for the Houston Astros in 2005.  His 21-year career ended when he was released by the Astros in July, just three months before Houston won its first pennant.

While Franco was closing out his Mets career in 2004, Benitez was closing out the Mets as a member of the division rival Florida Marlins.  Just one year after he played his final game for the Mets, Benitez dominated his former team to the tune of a 0.68 ERA and 0.30 WHIP in 12 appearances, notching an incredible 11 saves against the Mets in 2004 alone.  It took him six years and a change of teams, but Benitez had finally learned how to block out the boos in order to perform well in New York, much to the chagrin of long-suffering Mets fans.

Franco and Benitez saved 436 Mets wins, but couldn't save themselves from hearing boos.  (Keith Torrie/NY Daily News)

John Franco and Armando Benitez rank No. 1 and No. 2 in saves in Mets history.  Ordinarily, that would make them beloved former members of the team.  But both pitchers, especially Benitez, have had their share of unflinching detractors.

Throughout his career, Franco was respected by Mets fans.  A member of the Mets Hall of Fame, Franco was a New Yorker through and through and always took pride in representing the team and the city.  But Franco was never a "lights out" pitcher, and quite often had to escape a jam of his own creation when he was on the mound, as evidenced by his commendable 3.10 ERA as a Met but less-than-stellar 1.365 WHIP.  Benitez, on the other hand, was supposed to be a "game over" type of pitcher when he replaced Franco as the team's closer, and for the most part he was, as long as those games weren't of great import to the Mets.  Sure, he had a 2.70 ERA and averaged nearly a dozen strikeouts per nine innings while he was with the team.  In fact, no pitcher who threw at least 300 innings in club history averaged more strikeouts per nine innings than Benitez and only Tom Seaver had a lower ERA (2.57) as a Met than the team's beleaguered former closer.  But he also had a penchant for allowing the biggest hits at the worst possible moments, which fans tend to remember more than the times he struck out the side in the month of May.

Mets fans love to cheer for a winner, and Franco and Benitez were certainly part of one of the more successful eras in team history.  But those same fans also have certain expectations for their star players, and if those stars fail to shine at the most crucial moments, their legacies in New York are forever dimmed.  Franco and Benitez have the numbers to be considered among the best at their position.  But unfortunately, too many opposing players had their numbers when they were on the mound.  And for many of the die-hards who watched them pitch, that's enough to take some of the shimmer off their otherwise respectable careers.

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  For previous installments, please click on the names below:

January 2, 2017: Tom Seaver
January 9, 2017: Mike Piazza
January 16, 2017: Wally Backman
January 23, 2017: Daniel Murphy
January 30, 2017: Frank Cashen
February 6, 2017: Ed Kranepool
February 13, 2017: Doug Sisk
February 20, 2017: Joan Whitney Payson


DyHrdMET said...

I was at Fireworks night 1999. I forgot THAT was the game when Franco went down with the injury (I remember being there for that too). Traffic was so bad, I didn't get there from NJ until the 5th inning and I had to park on the other side of the tennis center. The sellout crowd stayed for the fireworks despite the score.

I also saw Matt Franco pitch TWICE that season.

Ed Leyro (and Joey Beartran) said...

I was also at that Fireworks Night game. I wonder if things would have been different in the 2000 World Series had Franco (the pitcher, not the utility man) not gotten injured and subsequently lost his job to Benitez.

DyHrdMET said...

I've never gone down that path.

But I always got nervous with Benitez in the game. And I loved the alteration of saying "Benitez blew it in the 9th".