With his teammates' bags and emotions long since packed away for the winter, David Cone Sunday provided the New York Mets one last reason to care about baseball. In a sublime end to a ridiculous season, he tied the National League record for a nine-inning game with 19 strikeouts in a 7-0 victory over the Phillies.
"It's kind of tough to get excited for the last game of the season," said Cone, who walked one and gave up only three hits, "but this is something I'll never forget."
Nor will the other Mets, who spent the first part of the weekend worrying mostly about plane reservations and football scores. Minutes after the final out, Frank Viola stormed up the runway from the dugout in street clothes and headed for the nearest exit.
"I wanted to leave in the sixth inning," Viola said, "but he had 15 punch-outs. I said, 'I ain't going nowhere.' "
It was that kind of afternoon at cold and dreary Veterans Stadium. It took a tiny bit of the sting out of the Mets' 77-84 record, their worst since 1983. They finished fifth in the NL East, a half-game behind the Chicago Cubs, after seven consecutive seasons in first or second.
"It's been a disappointing year . . . we're all to blame," Cone said. "Hopefully, this will carry over (to 1992)."
Cone tied the league record set by Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals against the Mets on Sept. 15, 1969, and the Mets' Tom Seaver against the San Diego Padres on April 22, 1970. He had an opportunity to match the major league record for nine innings that Roger Clemens set when he struck out 20 Seattle Mariners in April of 1986, but Dale Murphy grounded out to shortstop on a 2-and-1 count with two men out in the ninth.
"I wasn't too happy seeing him come up for the 20th," Cone said.
"He just threw me another good curveball . . . (he) broke my bat," Murphy said.
Cone consistently was ahead in the count, and once he established his fastball, he retired numerous Phillies with low, outside sliders. Only one of his 19 strikeout victims was caught looking, and every starter except Andy Ashby (1-5) struck out at least once.
"They were swinging at a lot of balls off the plate," catcher Charlie O'Brien said. "That kind of helped us out."
O'Brien said Cone's pitches weren't as good they were when he one-hit the Cardinals last month. "That was the best stuff I've ever caught," he said.
Facing a mixture of regulars, semi-regulars and late-season irregulars, Cone struck out the side in the first, second, fourth and sixth innings and had 15 strikeouts through six, surpassing his career high by two.
He might have lost his chance to tie Clemens' record in the seventh, when with a 5-0 lead, third base coach Tom Spencer sent him home when Phillies' center fielder Braulio Castillo bobbled a ball hit by Keith Miller. Cone was out easily and twisted his right leg. He failed to record a strikeout that inning.
Cone, who said he was surprised Spencer waved him home, felt some tightness in his leg, but wasn't sure whether it affected him in the seventh. He did retire the side in order. The more damaging development might have occurred when Phillie coach Larry Bowa alerted Cone about his total after No. 15.
"I think in the seventh I pressed a little bit," he said. "When you start trying to get strikeouts is when you don't get them."
He struck out two in the eighth to reach 17, topping Nolan Ryan's 1991 major league high by one, then struck out Kim Batiste (for the fourth time) and Mickey Morandini to start the ninth. Wes Chamberlain hit an 0-and-1 pitch for a double, and Murphy followed with his groundout.
Cone finished with 241 strikeouts, tying Clemens for the major league lead. Still, his 14-14 record and mystifying slump in August.
"It doesn't make up for (the rest of the season)," Cone said, "but it certainly gives you something to build on."