The audience may have dwindled to diehards who think Citi Field is marvelous on a misty, unseasonably cool evening and we hardcore devotees on our couches, but the Mets rewarded that smaller population of interested parties with a hell of a ballgame. It had Met pluck and verve and some Marlin pluck and verve too, along with a much-appreciated helping of dopey baseball on the enemy side, a shocking reversal, a stirring comeback and a somewhat melancholy denouement. Not bad for whatever you paid out there in Flushing or the investment of your time in the living room or the car.
The Marlins played a strange, upside-down game, one that turned twice on misplays by Cameron Maybin. First came Angel Pagan’s fifth-inning smash to center, played into three bases by Maybin. That was forgivable considering the conditions, but the eighth inning wasn’t: With two outs, Pagan smacked what was clearly a single into center. Except it wasn’t — when Maybin went after it with a somewhat leisurely approach, Pagan pounced, streaking for second and arriving safely. Whereupon — as had happened in the fifth — Carlos Beltran drove him home to tie the game at 5.
Offsetting Maybin’s lack of hustle (and a certifiably lousy night for ace Josh Johnson) was a surprising dollop of it from Hanley Ramirez, who’s inherited Miguel Cabrera’s status as the Worst Great Player in Baseball. (For some reason this role is often filled by a Marlin.) Ramirez’s lack of interest in the game he’s so superb at is routine and deplorable, but something got into him tonight: He had a full head of steam heading for first with two on and nobody out in the top of the seventh, which allowed him to just beat Ruben Tejada’s relay and avoid being the back end of a double play, setting up the three-run homer by Gaby Sanchez that ruined R.A. Dickey’s night. (By the way, if you ever want to explain to someone why a knuckleball that does absolutely nothing is a bad thing, cue up the video of Sanchez’s blast.) As a baseball fan, I’d of course rather see Ramirez play full-throttle; as a Mets fan, I much prefer it when he’s going through the motions.
The bottom of the ninth was a great bit of theater: Ike Davis snuck a little worm-killer past Will Ohman, depositing it in one of the only places Ike Davis can place a ball to yield an infield hit — and even then he was nearly out on a superb, stuntman-quality midair heave by Dan Uggla. Ike moved to second on Josh Thole’s second hit of the night, but with two outs, all was left to Luis Castillo — who promptly slapped a single over Uggla’s head.
This didn’t ensure a happy ending, as the things you can do during the time it takes Ike to run from second to home include mowing a good-sized lawn, reading a couple of chapters of Tolstoy, and possibly growing a beard worthy of a Brooklyn bartender. But young Mike Stanton’s howitzer arm is not yet perfectly calibrated: He had Ike dead to rights, but made his second bad throw of the night, Ike arrived safely, and we’d won.
So where was the melancholy part? It came on the replay. I always enjoy watching the replay of the batter who drove in a walk-off run: He’ll round first, but the businesslike demeanor is already slipping, as what really matters is what’s going on with his teammate heading home. You see the batter turned brief runner applauding, or the pointing to God, or the fist pump, and the hug from the first-base coach, and then there’s the happy scrum of half a team delivering head pounds before escorting the hero to the celebratory postgame spread.
Except tonight Castillo rounded first, turned toward home, watched Ike score and barely reacted. He displayed all the satisfaction of a man who’d completed a transaction at an ATM. His teammates were happy for him, with Dickey speaking movingly and empathetically of what he’s gone through, but you could see quite clearly that Luis was not happy for himself, not even at the moment when he’d just won a baseball game. He is no longer capable of that happiness, as it doesn’t outweigh the reality of everything else: He’s no longer a starter, was never a fan favorite, and has become an uneasy mix of mentor and problem for an organization that wishes he belonged to someone else.
It was a marvelous game and a thrilling win, but that made for a bad aftertaste.