I’m going to Friday night’s game against the Orioles. I have three standing ovations planned.
One will be for the home team, returning to its headquarters office after the road trip from heaven.
One will be for Melvin Mora. It will be his first appearance at Shea since he was traded away in 2000. He was one of my favorites long ago and I always like to let my favorites from long ago know that I haven’t forgotten them.
And a completely non-sarcastic one is reserved for the pitching coach of the Baltimore Orioles, Leo Mazzone. THANK YOU for taking your current position. THANK YOU for leaving your former employer. THANK YOU for packing up your genius and leaving none of it behind in Atlanta.
Leo Mazzone’s in Maryland, which means the lights have gone out in Georgia. And that is why I am as sure as one can be without being totally sure about anything in life (a blanket “just-in-case” for injuries, lightning, falling objects from the sky…because you truly never know) that the Mets will win the National League East.
Mike’s Mets had the headline of the week this morning: Things To Do in Atlanta When You’re Dead. It’s not like the Braves “faithful” really put baseball games high on their agenda to begin with, but I anticipate backyard barbecues and trips to The World of Coca-Cola will increase exponentially down Peachtree way over the next few months. And October? Well, I don’t know who’s going to win the Wild Card, but let’s just say Turner Field appears available for dances, Youth for Christ jamborees and rock ‘n’ roll shows when Games One and Two of the National League Division Series will be going on elsewhere. That thing the Braves do in the Eastern Division? It’s done.
Any team can get ungodly hot for a few days as we did in Arizona and continued to be for the first two games in Philadelphia. But wins like today’s, the one that sealed the sweep and, for my two bits, the fate of the Phillies, are what separates the top of a division from the remainder of a division. Forget Trachsel’s serviceable six innings (subtract Pat Burrell and they’d have been tremendous) and forget the four-run first if you can, even though four-run firsts have become a Met trademark. Dig on this sequence from the top of the fifth when the Mets were leading 4-2:
• Reyes doubles.
• Chavez bunts him to third.
• Beltran drives him home with a fly to right.
There. That’s it. That’s the beauty of these Mets. That’s what I like to call the Build-A-Run Workshop. During a pause in our ongoing offensive onslaught — I was a bit nervous that Lidle had calmed down since Wright’s three-run blast in the first and that Burrell hadn’t yet been arrested on charges of cruelty to Met pitchers — we manufactured a score when we needed one. Nothing fancy; everybody did what he had to do. Jose hit and ran. Endy executed. Carlos B. drove a ball.
5-2…boom! Those actions provided Trachsel enough breathing room to give into Burrell when it got to 5-4. From there, we were revisited by our old friend, the invincible back end of our bullpen. Remember that? Remember Heilman, Sanchez and Wagner from early in the season? Remember when we played one-run games and usually won them? It was the big three from the seventh, eighth and ninth innings who made the difference.
Their role has been diminished of late. The games haven’t been close, so it’s been starters and long/middle relievers keeping opponents at bay while our ridiculously awesome lineup took center stage. Yet it was somehow appropriate on the afternoon that we clinched all there is to clinch in the middle of June that we resorted to our core competency as the difference-maker.
It was more than competent.
Whether it was a restored arm angle for Aaron, necessary rest for Duaner or mental replenishment for Billy (those phans really got to him, huh?), it worked. Nine Phillies up, nine Phillies down in the final three innings. Those guys can hit, but they didn’t. With every opportunity to pull one of those patented Vet/Cit comebacks on the Mets — for whom a one-run lead has never seemed to be enough in that part of town — the home team couldn’t do spit.
The Phillies may rally for a run at the Wild Card, but the East is out of their reach. The Braves have enough talent to find second place and make it count, but Leo Mazzone is in Baltimore and Roger McDowell, whom we’ll always love, ain’t no Leo Mazzone. The Braves’ viability in 2006, from what I’ve seen, hinged on their ability to outlast the Marlins whom they beat in three walkoff heartbreakers last month. Last night, the Marlins turned the tables on the Braves, making Atlanta look like the all-rookie, all-thumbs, all-out-of-their-element pretenders. It wasn’t the first time the Braves looked that way either. The Nationals? There’s only so much Alfonso Soriano can do before he’s traded.
The Mets have no genuine competition in their division. Now that I’ve said that, those words are on my head. I’ll accept them. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll steamroll through The Ted on our next trip south. It doesn’t mean Jakey & The Fish won’t annoy us as they gain experience. It doesn’t mean Frank Robinson won’t order some green kid to throw at one of our heads. And it doesn’t mean the Phillies or Braves won’t reappear amid some October situation. But I don’t see any of these teams being a problem in the big picture, the one that’s developed over the course of 162 games. I only see the National League East title back where it originated in 1969, back where it hasn’t been since 1988, back where it belongs.
I see no competition from our competitors and I see no letdown from us. Again, allowing for ugly acts of nature or a horrible two-bus pileup, this team, our team, gives me no reason to doubt them. What if one or two of the pitchers has a poor stretch? We’ve already persevered through that sort of bump in the hump. What if one of the big bats slumps? We’ve lived through that, too. What if the bullpen…seen it happen and survived quite nicely.
I don’t shout out loud proclamations of practical infallibility lightly. I have the longest, deepest, most tortured memory of any Mets fan you’ve ever Met, and my catalogue of things that have gone wrong can fill three Camden Yards warehouses. But I also remember what it was like to know that things were going to go well. I remember September and October 1969, culminating in the first time we played the Orioles for real. I remember the stretch drive of 1973. I remember all of 1986 and the awesome parts of 1988 and how we took off in 1999 and how we did what we had to do in 2000.
I also remember 1970, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2005. Those were seasons when I thought — sometimes for a moment, sometimes for six months — that something capital-S Special might happen. It didn’t. I know capital-D Disappointment. I know all about tempting fate and not wanting to say too much and not wanting to feel too happy only to regret something too awful to contemplate.
I know that’s not the case this year.
I know we’re going somewhere we haven’t been in quite a while.
I know we’re gonna win something we haven’t won in quite a while.
And in the name of the Casey, the Gil and the Holy Murph, I know that from now until the end of the regular season — at least — that they’re not gonna get us.
First pitch of the rest of our lives, 7:10 Friday night. Stand up and cheer.