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Last Pitch Gives Leiter Heavy Burden

The New York Mets missed the last train out of Queens on Thursday night, and Al Leiter cried.

The Subway Series ended with the indomitable New York Yankees defeating the Mets, 4-2, on two runs in the ninth inning of Game 5.

Leiter took the loss, a cold and cruel conclusion.

The 34-year-old left-hander, in his 35th start of the year, made 142 pitches in 8 2/3 innings, working emotionally and tenaciously only to sit in the dugout after his departure with tears in his eyes, only to stand at his locker later and say, “I’ve never been so emotional, never been so upset when walking off a mound. Deep in my heart I know I pitched well, I know I gave it everything I have, but I’m just very disappointed I couldn’t get the third out in that inning.”

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The score was tied, 2-2, when Leiter struck out Tino Martinez and Paul O’Neill to open the ninth, valiantly trying to get the Mets to Game 6 at Yankee Stadium on Saturday night.

He had given up five hits and struck out nine to that point, the Yankees scoring only on a home run by Bernie Williams in the second and a home run by Derek Jeter in the sixth.

Now Jorge Posada was the batter in the ninth and Leiter needed only one more out to get the Mets to the bottom of the inning with the tie intact.

But in a tense battle that saw the Yankee catcher foul off three full-count breaking pitchers, a battle in which Leiter thought he had nailed a strikeout on the 2-and-2 pitch, Posada finally walked.

“I was really upset that I didn’t get the strikeout,” Leiter said, “but I can’t say that affected how I pitched [Scott] Brosius and [Luis] Sojo.”

Brosius would single to left off a slider, and Sojo would single to center off the same pitch, a “12-hopper up the middle,” Leiter would say, shaking his head.

The Sojo single scored Posada for a 3-2 lead. The throw home by center fielder Jay Payton hit the sliding Posada, bounced away, and Brosius trotted home as well.

John Franco came out of the bullpen at this point to secure the elusive third out, and Leiter sat disconsolately on the bench as Manager Bobby Valentine put an arm around him, congratulating him on “a great season and great game.”

Did Valentine leave him in too long? Were 142 pitches too many? Should he have summoned Franco after the walk to Posada and single by Brosius?

Valentine seldom delivers an answer without a degree of facetiousness, and his answer this time was drenched in it.

“I thought that striking out those first two guys [in the ninth] and with the stuff he threw to Posada that he had plenty left,” Valentine said. “I was wrong. It was the wrong decision, obviously. If I brought somebody else in, they definitely would have gotten [Sojo] out and we’d still be playing.”

The Valentine arrogance aside, Leiter said:

“It wasn’t an issue of me being tired. I mean, I got two strikeouts to start the inning. I wasn’t exactly pitching (poorly), and I’ve thrown that many pitches before. I joked with Bobby yesterday, ‘Keep me in. I’ve got four months to rest. I can throw 150 pitches. I want the chance to win one of these postseason games.’ I’m grateful he gave me that chance.”

In a fine career, Leiter has pitched for two World Series winners: the 1993 Toronto Blue Jays and 1997 Florida Marlins.

He was credited with the win while pitching in relief in Game 1 of the ’93 Series, but he has made 10 postseason starts since without a win, a misleading measure of his effectiveness.

Against the Yankees in this series he started twice, giving the Mets a chance while permitting only five earned runs in 15 2/3 innings, but emerging with a loss and no decision as the Mets lost both.

“It was gut wrenching to watch him battle the whole postseason with nothing to show for it,” teammate Dennis Cook said. “He’s the consummate professional. He thrives in games like this. I mean, no amount of money can buy that kind of pitcher.”

There was no music and little talk in the Met clubhouse. They went quietly on and off the field. The Yankees made it three consecutive World Series titles and four in the last five years by limiting the Mets to 16 runs in the five games. Their only two Thursday night were unearned, Leiter contributing with a perfect drag bunt.

The Yankees have proven their toughness, but the Mets may face an even tougher off-season. They have nine players eligible for free agency, including three starting pitchers: Rick Reed, Bobby J. Jones and the ace, Mike Hampton. General Manager Steve Phillips is unsigned, a situation that should be resolved quickly. Valentine may be another matter. He has led the Mets to the postseason for two consecutive seasons and reportedly wants a three-year contract. That may be one more than the Mets are willing to offer.

His contract expires Tuesday, after which other teams can talk to him without the Mets’ permission.

“Hopefully,” Phillips said, “we can get a deal done with Bobby within the window of exclusivity. If not, we’ll have to deal with whatever the next world is.”

Phillips said it is doubtful the Mets can re-sign all nine free agents and “I think we’ll look different next year, but we are committed to remaining a competitor and contender and to get back to this level again.”

Toward that end, he said, pitching is a priority, but it is also expected that the Mets will make a big pursuit of free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who attended Wednesday night’s game and was told by a Yankee executive named Reggie Jackson that New York “is the only place to play, the only real stage. They can build all the buildings in the world, but there’s only one Empire State Building.”

Rodriguez is the future. The present sat heavy on the Mets on Thursday night. The frustrated Leiter thought about that, conceded the Yankees were the better team and said:

“When you invest as much emotion, spirit and dreams as we did and come up short, there’s no one in this clubhouse right now who is going to say they’re happy with the season or that it was a success. But when you back off, when you find a way to swallow the disappointment, you realize there were only two teams left standing in the final week of October and we were one of them. That’s pretty good.”

In this final shot at extending the Subway Series, Leiter was one out from being very good.

His 142nd pitch was the difference, as his tears indicated.


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