Not so long ago, an off-day for the Mets was secretly a little bit welcome. But that was before Ike Davis rolled away the stone from Citi Field and commanded that the Spirit of 2006 come forth — and be quick about it, dammit. (What’s that? Putting too much pressure on the rookie? Don’t know what you can possibly mean.) Thursday I was antsy because there was no game to play; today I was nervous and excited, trying to will 7:10 p.m. to hurry up and arrive. In my desperation I even wound up watching 15 minutes of WPIX News, an experience dangerously close to being lobotomized.
I think for a lot of us there was a sneaking suspicion that tonight would see an immediate and painful return to cold, hard terra firma. Yes, the Mets were on a roll, but the Cubs are mediocre at best, the Braves played like they’d never seen a baseball before, and the Dodgers have degenerated into a squalid soap opera. The Phillies have had injury problems, but they just stuck a shiv in the Giants to pull out a pretty amazing victory, they were returning home, and, well, they’re the Phillies. How many balls would they launch into that dinky left-field porch, seemingly built to the opposite specifications of the Great Wall of Flushing? How many Met drives would Shane Victorino snag in the gap? Would a Met reliever walk in the winning run? Perhaps an overenthusiastic Met runner would get called out for obstruction? Even without Jimmy Rollins woofing sweet nothings, there’d be Chase Utley to contend with, and the blandly surly Jayson Werth and the foaming-at-the-mouth Greg Dobbs and who knew who else. In recent years the Mets have had to claim, not entirely convincingly, that the Phillies aren’t in their heads; since late 2007 I’ve never tried to claim they aren’t in mine.
One game out of 18 means pitifully little, I know, but this one sure felt different: The Phillies got steamrolled in every aspect of baseball except mascot antics. A shaky second inning aside, Jon Niese was sublime: His strikeout of Placido Polanco was one of the most beautifully unhittable and downright unfair curveballs I’ve ever seen not end a season. There’s something appealingly lunch-bucket about Niese, from his squashed-looking nose and his ungainly grasshopper legs to the way he snaps his catcher’s throw out of the air and turns his head as if annoyed with himself, tramping back to the rubber to give it another try. Meanwhile, Jeff Francoeur was the night’s Indiana Jones, suffering injuries and indignities from chain-link fencing and hurled fastballs and abusive fans and afterwards declaring it all great fun. Francoeur plays baseball like a dog racing after a Frisbee, and even when he’s doing something spectacularly ill-advised you can’t help grinning at the idea that he just might pull it off. And there was David Wright golfing a homer into the shrubbery and Barajas slamming two of his own and Jason Bay somehow plucking Victorino’s two-run triple out of the flowers, among other wonderful things. (Does it surprise anyone else that flowers survive in Citizens Bank Park? I’m faintly amazed Phillies fans don’t incinerate them with lighters.)
April sure looked like the cruelest month in the early going, but it’s ended on a hopeful, downright gleeful note. The Mets are somehow in first place, and playing like they belong there. And to my happy surprise, I find myself eager for May.