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The Beautiful Game

It was a canyon of zeroes along the top line of the Citi Field scoreboard these past three nights. Read ’em, per sweep:

000 000 000
000 000 000
000 000 000

That’s what your defending National League champion Phillies left behind, thank you very much. More to the point, that’s what your homestanding New York Mets gave them.

Twenty-seven goose eggs — the perfect gift for the team that has everything. Or maybe used to.

The Phillies have been an outsized nightmare almost every day of our existence since late August of 2007. Prior to this week, we had actually beaten them some seemingly important games, including 11 of 18 in 2008 when we worked all year to put the year before it behind us. Those wins no doubt served their temporary purpose, yet it was the losses to Philadelphia that defined our relationship to our newest blood rivals. Obviously the four defeats at Citizens Bank Park that presaged The Collapse of ’07 and the three at Shea Stadium that kicked it off in earnest stand out most glaringly, but the single Mets-Phillies encounter that I think probably hurt us most in terms of timing and tonesetting was the Friday night in September 2008 that ended, just as Thursday night at Citi Field did, with a score of 3-0.

That night was about as unspecial as it got [1]. And it shouldn’t have been. That night should have crackled with tension. We held a three-game lead over the Phillies with 22 remaining. We had Mike Pelfrey going for us against Brett Myers. It was our first game at home after a 6-2 road trip that took us through Philly (1-1), Miami (2-1) and Milwaukee (3-0). Shea should have been crackling or roaring or something. Instead, it was flat, just like the Mets. The Phillies scratched out a first-inning run (single, steal, errant throw, groundout), allowing Myers to nurse a 1-0 lead through six. In the seventh, Pelfrey, who had stymied the Phillies after that first run, gave up a two-out, two-run fence-scraper to Greg Dobbs.

And that was the game, 3-0. The Mets stirred in the ninth — a Wright double, a Delgado single — but Brad Lidge retired Carlos Beltran and Ryan Church on fly balls that landed in gloves and the Phillies were winners. It was a tight game, and the Mets were still in first, but the ultimate outcome of that season felt predestined. Over the last 22 games of 2008, the Mets went 10-12, the Phillies 16-6.

Like I said, the Phillies were winners. In any one game and, for that matter, any one division (Wild Card considerations notwithstanding), there can only be one winner, which left the Mets to be something else that year…same as the year before…same as the year after.

Now it’s a different year. It would be a bit hasty, unconscionably premature and overwhelmingly presumptuous to declare in the giddy aftermath of what Gary Cohen instantly dubbed The Goose Egg Sweep that it is a different era altogether, that it is the Mets’ time to be winners and the Phillies’ time to be something else. We shall see what the balance of 2010 holds in store for us, for them and, within the realm of an N.L. East in which all teams are presently all right, for the rest of the division.

But I gotta tell ya: The Phillies didn’t look champs of anything in this series. By the ninth inning of its third game, their dugout was filled by haunted faces, as if each of them had just come back from the morgue to identify each other. They looked dead and they knew it. Even for a Mets-Phillies game that felt more like September than that Mets-Phillies September game from two years ago, we must remind ourselves it’s only May, and that a three-time divisional champ that holds a 1½-game lead with four-plus months to go isn’t exactly what you’d call down for the count.

Yet the Mets…they look pretty good. They may not have looked this good since another September 2008 affair, that bittersweet final win at Shea over the Marlins authored almost solely by Johan Santana. This wasn’t exactly that, but this was, for late May, incredibly special, maybe beautiful [2]. It was also a dandy group effort.

Mike Pelfrey was obviously the instigator, a pitcher so matured that he seems to be a different person from even his alleged breakout year of 2008. On radio and TV, it was noted the change in the rule that dictates when, where and how a pitcher can go to his mouth — which sounds vaguely pornographic — might have something to do with his relaxation and the results that have followed. If that’s the case, then get Big Pelf a bucket of KFC, because he was finger-lickin’ good Thursday night. Not spotless (not with five walks), but totally poised. Like Myers two Septembers ago, Pelf was staked to a 1-0 lead in the first and wasn’t bolstered further until the seventh.

Didn’t matter to the Phillies’ starter on September 5, 2008, and it didn’t much matter to Pelfrey on May 27, 2010. He put a runner on in every inning from the second to the sixth, and it was almost of no consequence. Maybe it wasn’t predestined, but Pelf threw five ground balls to end those five innings, the middle three of them for double plays. That’s using your noggin and your fielders, something I never believed Mike Pelfrey could do on a consistent basis. That’s also the group effort at its dandiest.

5-4-3. 4-6-3. 1-6-3. Three innings. Six outs. Everybody where they were supposed to be, everybody playing a part. The pitches were made. The throws, like Henry Blanco’s to nail Raul Ibañez, were made. The catches, like Angel Pagan’s perfectly timed dive and grab off Carlos Ruiz, were made. The adjustments, like Pagan sliding feet-first at second to steal successfully two innings after his head-first slide led him to an out, were made. Little things that impressed the hell out of me happened: such as Jeff Francoeur playing Shane Victorino’s sinking liner perfectly so Wilson Valdez couldn’t score from second in the second; such as Francoeur questioning Andy Fletcher’s strike three call in the bottom of the eighth, but knowing when to quit questioning so he would be able to go out to right for the top of the ninth and be the right man in the right place to track down a deep line drive from Chase Utley; such as Fernando Tatis running every step of the way to first so that Placido Polanco’s bobble would not go for naught. One batter later, Jose Reyes was doubling him and Blanco home. Reyes himself had been doubled home in the first by Jason Bay and spent most of the evening along some segment of the basepaths.

Even the one thing that I thought was going to blow up this beautiful game, Jerry Manuel’s ritualistic removal of Pedro Feliciano in favor of the paycheck of Frankie Rodriguez in the ninth — even though the first two Phillies due up were who Feliciano lives for getting out [3] — didn’t go against us. At the end of the evening, with Utley, then Howard, then Werth going down, it was comforting to be reminded that Frankie, his touch of Benitez notwithstanding, is actually a pretty effective closer.

It wouldn’t be fair to say the Phillies were no problem to the Mets for the last three nights. It would be more accurate to say they were a challenge the Mets accepted and handled with aplomb. The Mets were breathtaking in their efficiency, actually. The Mets just played 27 innings, scored 16 runs, allowed none and committed no errors. They didn’t exactly kick the Phillies’ ass; it’s more like they tidily swept it to the curb.

That works well, too.

After the Yankee series, I had a grand time referring to us as the Kings of New York. After the first win of this series, I was dying to declare us the Kings of the Northeast. Now that it’s five in a row over two defending league champs, I don’t think I’ll do that. That’s the stuff you do in May when you have nothing else to look forward to. I look forward to Milwaukee. I look forward to the Mets.


Somebody please get Gary Cohen a Met no-hitter to call. All that was at stake tonight, besides the bottom-line result, was a third consecutive shutout. Of course it’s significant and symbolic and, with the tidbit that the Mets hadn’t done it in the same series (against the Phillies, no less) since 1969, historic, but all that truly mattered was a win. Didn’t matter if it was 3-0 or 3-1 or 3-2. Yet Gary amped me up exponentially for that 27th zero, investing it with the kind of reverence Vin Scully lent Sandy Koufax’s 1965 perfect game — right up to including the time of night that the Goose Egg Sweep went final. At seven minutes to midnight, Gary tingled my spine every bit as much as K-Rod’s strikeout of Werth did.

SNY offered wonderful production all night (save for not being able to show us Jose’s two-RBI double landing fair), but geez, I wish they would stop doing things just because they can. The tosses to Chris Carlin are brutal. Chris Carlin is brutal. The only upside of a Met loss is the unlikelihood that I’ll stay riveted to the postgame show that he hosts and infects with his relentlessly sour disposition. But he’s not the worst part of the SNY ephemera. The worst is when they direct our attention away from the game and to Kevin Burkhardt at the wrong time of night. Kevin is a fine reporter and a generally welcome presence in these telecasts (his early-inning tour of the realigned bullpens represented value-added substance), but I wish they’d deploy him more judiciously. I as a viewer do not need to see and hear him interviewing the departed starting pitcher while the game is still in progress — not if the game is still very much up for grabs. I can wait until the postgame show to hear Mike Pelfrey’s aw-shucksiness. The more interviews they have during the postgame show, the less Chris Carlin there is. But with Feliciano pitching to Wilson Valdez and Ben Francisco in the eighth, I want Gary and his analyst buddies commenting on the action. I don’t need gee-whiz drop-ins. I don’t need SNY to prove it can get an interview with a player during a game. The novelty of that feature is long worn-off.

Why throw it to Kevin Burkhardt at that moment? I couldn’t say for sure, but I noticed his spot is sponsored as a “Business of Baseball” segment. Yes, I guess the business of baseball is to intrude on the live action with bells and whistles so long as somebody’s paying for it.

Dear SNY: Less business, more sports, particularly when the sports you’re telecasting are this exhilarating. No need for you to step on your own storylines. Thanks.