Between the time they stunned the Chicago Cubs by winning the National League East and stunned the world by upsetting the enormously favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, the Mets stunned themselves. In the first league championship series, the team that was built on pitching thrived on hitting.
The playoffs, as they were simply called in 1969, are the overlooked link in one of the most improbable baseball stories of all time. The three-game pounding of the powerful Atlanta Braves — with the Mets averaging nine runs a game — was the surprise within the surprise.
“The pitching didn’t show up,” Ed Kranepool said, alluding to the Mets’ earned run average of 5.00 in those three games, much worse than their 2.99 mark in the regular season and 1.80 in the World Series. “Without the hitting, we don’t get to the World Series.”
“If the Mets pitching staff could hold the Braves down, we would have a chance. That was the general attitude,” Jerry Grote, the Mets catcher, said recently. “Well, we didn’t. We didn’t hold them down at all. We probably gave up more runs than we ever had in a three-game series, and yet we swept them. We just blew them out of the ballpark.”
Tom Seaver added, “I don’t remember that being a real difficult task. Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you the scores, but I didn’t feel like it was a difficult series.”
For the record, the scores were 9-5, 11-6 and 7-4. No contest.
J.C. Martin, pinch hitting for Seaver, hit a two-run single in the five-run eighth inning of Game 1. Tommie Agee, Ken Boswell and Cleon Jones each hit a two-run home run in Game 2. Afterward, Braves third baseman Clete Boyer, the former Yankee, said of the Mets “They don’t know where they are. They don’t understand the pressure.”
They did understand where they were headed after Game 3, after Wayne Garrett wiped out a rare one-run deficit with a two-run home run in the fifth.
“That whole season, we kind of had our way with the Braves [the Mets won eight of 12 regular-season games],” said Garrett, a rookie acquired from the Braves as shortstop insurance because Bud Harrelson was coming off knee surgery, but who wound up sharing third base with Ed Charles. “I just felt that they didn’t have the pitching to beat us, and we had the pitching to beat anybody. I knew if we could manufacture some runs, we could win.”
Aaron’s brilliant play in that series (.358, three home runs) was totally eclipsed. He told Jones later of having met a confident Orioles’ scout on a plane and of warning him, “If you don’t play the best ball you’ve played all year, you’re going to get beat.”
That proved prescient. So did the one eye-opening Mets pitching performance of the series. With starter Gary Gentry struggling, manager Gil Hodges removed him in the third inning of Game 3 and replaced him with a raw, hard throwing righthanded pitcher who had missed occasional weekend games because he was in the military reserves. Nolan Ryan threw seven innings of relief that day, setting the foundation for one of the most legendary pitching careers in history.