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Series Metamorphosis

Game 3: Two-run eighth inning changes things completely as streaks end for Yankees and Hernandez.


NEW YORK — Stick around long enough or late enough in October and the New York Mets will do something interesting or exciting. And chances are it will involve Benny Agbayani, the chunky outfielder who may soon supplant David Letterman as New York's late-night king.

With one swing of his bat in the eighth inning Tuesday night, Agbayani shattered two of baseball's longest-running postseason win streaks and breathed new life into a World Series that the New York Yankees seemed poised to kill with another four-game sweep.

Agbayani's RBI double off Yankee pitcher Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez was the key to a two-run eighth that lifted the Mets to a 4-2 victory over the Yankees in Game 3 before 55,299 in Shea Stadium, pulling the Mets to within 2-1 in the best-of-seven series.

The Mets also handed Hernandez, the Cuban right-hander, his first loss in nine playoff decisions, and the Yankees their first World Series loss since Game 2 of the 1996 Series to Atlanta after a record 14 wins.

"I think baseball fans, and I'm one of them, have been watching the World Series for the last few years, and it hasn't seemed like it's been a real big competition," Met Manager Bobby Valentine said.

"I thought we were in those first two games, but you could only go so long saying they were close games. If we didn't get a victory tonight . . . "

If the Mets didn't get a victory Tuesday night, they would have been down, 3-0, to the Yankees and in a position from which no other baseball team has come back to win a seven-game series.

In other words, they would have been dead.

But thanks to a command performance from right-hander Rick Reed, who pitched an aggressive and efficient six innings, giving up two runs on six hits and striking out eight, two huge hits by third baseman Todd Zeile, who knocked in the tying run in the sixth and scored the winning run in the eighth, and Agbayani's huge hit in the eighth, the Mets are feeling a lot better about themselves going into Game 4 tonight.

"This was a crucial win," said reliever John Franco, who pitched a scoreless eighth to earn the victory. "Going down 3-0 would have been very tough."

About as tough as it has been beating Hernandez in October. In another gritty playoff performance, Hernandez threw 134 pitches in 7 1/3 innings, striking out 12, and he pitched his way out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the sixth after the Mets had tied the game.

But he made one too many mistakes in the eighth and finally tasted defeat in the playoffs. Zeile started the rally with a one-out single off the glove of diving shortstop Derek Jeter.

Agbayani, whose 13th-inning homer won Game 3 of the division series against San Francisco, then laced a gapper to left-center that split outfielders Bernie Williams and David Justice and rolled to the wall, allowing Zeile to score the go-ahead run without a slide.

"It was a fastball over the plate where I could drive," Agbayani said. "His pitches were just . . . we were just swinging at those [outside sliders] he was throwing us. He was keeping us off balance tonight."

The Mets weren't through in the eighth. Jay Payton legged out an infield single, and pinch-hitter Bubba Trammell followed with a sacrifice fly to center off reliever Mike Stanton to make it 4-2.

Valentine, showing confidence in Armando Benitez despite the right-hander's blown save against the Yankees in Game 1, went back to his closer in the ninth, and Benitez retired three consecutive batters after Chuck Knoblauch's pinch-hit leadoff single.

Of the Mets' 13 playoff wins in the last two seasons, eight have now come in their last at-bat.

"All year long we have that feeling we're going to win close games at home," said Met third baseman Robin Ventura, who homered against Hernandez in the second inning. "The fans sense that, and that helps us."

The fans sensed a big Met rally in the sixth too, but Hernandez snuffed it out. Mike Piazza, who swung and missed at six of the first seven pitches he saw from Hernandez in his first two at-bats, opened the sixth by lining Hernandez's first pitch down the left-field line for a double.

Ventura walked, and Valentine instructed Zeile to bunt. Zeile missed on his attempt, and Valentine, feeling either a little more adventurous or a little less confident in Zeile's bunting ability, took the bunt sign off.

Zeile lofted the next pitch into the left-field corner for an RBI double that pulled the Mets even, 2-2, and Agbayani walked to load the bases.

Up stepped Jay Payton, who worked the count to 2-2 before flailing at a slider, low and away, for strike three. Next was Mike Bordick, a noted fastball hitter and one of baseball's toughest outs, but Hernandez blew a full-count, 89-mph fastball by him for strike three.

Darryl Hamilton, pinch-hitting for Reed, grounded to Jeter, who threw to second for the force.

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