Funny how little you know about a baseball team until you spend some time focused on them. The San Francisco Giants, for example, disappeared from my radar screen the moment the Mets were mistakenly awarded a victory against them in the middle of July. And the Atlanta Braves? We saw them as recently as the third weekend in September, but they were playing the role of opponents. Opponents never fully capture my comprehension.
Now both the Giants, a team that’s always been on my take-or-leave pile, and Braves, a team I wish had been left in their pre-1994 division so they never would have grown into quite such a Met obstacle, are teams I’m following closely. I have little choice if I want to watch baseball in October.
What struck me about these particular playoff combatants as the drama in their NLDS ratcheted up exponentially late Friday into early Saturday is how many familiar names and faces dot each roster. Yes, they look familiar and they seem familiar, but the context is strange. I may have been intellectually aware that these individuals were presently wearing Giants uniforms or Braves uniforms, yet to see them competing as Giants or Braves when it mattered most…it was jarring. This isn’t about intellect. It’s about instinct.
I instinctively know these guys can’t be who they say they are.
Pat Burrell, Giants: Pat Burrell powered the Giants to an early 3-0 lead when he took Tommy Hanson deep to left in the first inning. HUH? Pat Burrell is that phucking Phillie Met-killer who started hitting home runs at Shea in 2000 — including the longest one I ever saw (it bounced over the back fence of the visitors’ bullpen and into the parking lot) — and hasn’t yet stopped. What do you mean he hasn’t been a Phillie in two years?
Edgar Renteria, Giants: Edgar Renteria laid down a beautiful bunt to start what appeared to be the winning rally in the bottom of the tenth. HUH? Edgar Renteria drove in the winning run in the 1997 World Series, seventh game, eleventh inning, single through the middle to plate Craig Counsell. Edgar Renteria is a world champion Marlin, a real budding star. What do you mean he’s 34 and on his sixth team?
Troy Glaus, Braves: Troy Glaus turned one of the gutsiest double plays I’ve ever seen, going around the horn with Buster Posey’s one-out, bases-loaded grounder to end the bottom of the tenth instead of firing home. If anything goes wrong on the attempted 5-4-3, the game is over and the Giants win. HUH? Troy Glaus breaks Giants hearts, sure, but he does it as the slugging Anaheim Angel who won the 2002 World Series MVP award by bashing three homers and hitting .385. What do you mean it’s been almost a decade since Troy Glaus was besting Barry Bonds for all the marbles?
It felt like this all night as the Giants’ 4-0 lead melted into the Braves’ 5-4 win. Freddie Sanchez isn’t a Pirate? Aubrey Huff isn’t a Devil Ray? That little bedbug Cody Ross gets to be in the playoffs? The most dramatic examples were the two ex-Royals whose stays in Kansas City all but escaped my attention earlier this season.
• Kyle Farnsworth was the winning pitcher. Last time I thought about Kyle Farnsworth, I was advising some Yankees fan in the winter of 2005 that no matter how fast you think he throws, you don’t want to trust this new setup man of yours with anything of substance (I was right then, less so now).
• Rick Ankiel was the winning hitter. His story is too famous to facilitate disingenuousness regarding what he’s been doing for the past ten years, but the name “Rick Ankiel” will always mean pitcher, not hitter to a Mets fan — tragic figure from 2000, not hero in 2010…not until last night anyway.
When Ankiel pulled a J.T. Snow of sorts (speaking of ten years ago), my right arm, the one I use for raising in triumph, shot up on his behalf. That surprised me, as I wasn’t rooting for the Braves, but I guess I liked the great story suddenly unfolding — both in the sense of scatter-armed phenom hurler having completely re-established himself as an offensive force in postseason play, and because it was good to see somebody come back on anybody this month. Winning teams were ahead in their League Division Series by a collective seven games to zero entering this particular contest. With Burrell’s homer and then some in the books, it looked like the orange-clad Giants had relegated the Braves to hopeless pumpkin status and we would be lulled to sweep everywhere in this round. But the Braves were making a set of it after all, down by four, now ahead by one. That alone seemed worth cheering for.
As would be the return, somehow, of Braves closer Billy Wagner, should we be lucky enough to see it.
If Billy hadn’t been a Met, I might have the same cognitive dissonance issues with him as I’ve had with all the other mercenaries on the field last night (whaddaya mean he’s not an Astro anymore?), but once you’re a Met, you’re a Met all the way, and I keep tabs to your last playing day. Like anybody else even slightly sentient this season, I knew Billy Wagner was saying goodbye to America whenever he got through pitching in 2010. When he came on to start the tenth, I treated his appearance like I have every Billy Wagner appearance since he came to be one of us in 2006 — I greeted it with ambivalence.
Oh, of course I wanted him to succeed as a Met when he was taking our big innings, just as I rooted against him as a Brave when he was facing us this year, but I’ve never decided how I really feel about him. I read wonderful stories like this one Michael Bamberger wrote in Sports Illustrated and I want to cheer him on. Then I remember how he got on my nerves for multiple reasons as a Met — mound-related mostly, but occasionally for not sticking up for a teammate. There was one game in 2008 when Oliver Perez simply didn’t have it (big surprise, I know) and Wagner called him out in the press for the crime of making the bullpen work overtime that afternoon, a day game after a taxing night game. You mean Perez wanted to blow up early? I’m no fan of Ollie — who is? — but even I assume a pitcher would rather succeed than fail. It seemed like the sort of criticism you address in private, not in the papers.
Then again, there was something to Billy Being Billy that couldn’t help but be appealing. He apparently said what he apparently meant. In this David Waldstein Times story on the potentially waning days of the Los Mets brand, for example, there seemed a good opportunity for Wagner to take a parting shot at certain former fellow Mets and pile on the Mets at a moment when piling on the Mets was de rigueur. But he didn’t go for it. I appreciated that.
His Met pitching? Like any other closer’s, I appreciated it when it wasn’t hair-raising. When it was, hoo boy. After the recent Ken Burns documentary aired on Channel 13, they ran a New York-centric version in which fans of all four NYC teams shared their baseball recollections. One of them, a Mets fan, chose to elaborate on the atrocities of May 20, 2006 — Pedro Martinez’s seven sparkling innings (four hits, eight strikeouts), Duaner Sanchez’s clean eighth, the Mets leading the Yankees 4-0 and in came Wagner.
Single. Walk. Run-scoring single. Flyout. Walk. Run-scoring walk. Run-scoring hit by pitch.
Seven batters, six baserunners, three scored, three willed to the next guy, Pedro Feliciano, who couldn’t prevent the score from being tied. The Mets went on to lose in eleven.
Fuck PBS, I thought as I watched it all over again. And fuck Billy Wagner, I thought that Saturday afternoon (and the Sunday morning after) four years ago and not a few times during his Met tenure. The horror shows wrought by closers are never fully countered by the saves, particularly the saves that don’t come easy. No matter what he did after May 20, 2006, Billy Wagner was always the guy who let a 4-0 lead over the Yankees dissipate into a 5-4 loss. Or the guy who entered a tied second game of the ’06 NLDS and allowed a leadoff home run to So Taguchi and two runs after that. Or the guy who very nearly let life-or-death Game Six slip away (another 4-0 lead, this one cut to 4-2 — Taguchi doubling home Juan Encarnacion and Scott Rolen). Or the guy who disappeared down the stretch in 2007 and couldn’t remain in one piece in 2008.
Mad at a closer I didn’t trust for not staying healthy so I could not trust him some more? It’s a little short on logic, but it comes with the highly compensated three-out territory.
When Wagner came on Friday night, I was sort of rooting for him to succeed, sort of not. What I wasn’t rooting for was him straining his left oblique muscle while fielding Renteria’s bunt in the tenth. Nobody noticed he had hurt himself and Billy didn’t say anything. Everybody noticed he had hurt himself after his next pitch was put down for a sacrifice by Andres Torres. Billy threw it to first and then went down on one knee grabbing his side. He didn’t look a whole lot different from Y.A. Tittle in his bloodied, beaten, can’t go on any longer moment made iconic by this photograph, taken by Morris Berman in September 1964…though Tittle actually kept quarterbacking the Giants for another dozen games before calling it quits.
Can Wagner pick himself up, dust himself off and relieve all over again? They’ll check on his well-being tomorrow, but it doesn’t look good for the NLDS or, almost certainly, the NLCS. Maybe the World Series.
But the Braves would have to get to the World Series. That was Wagner’s stated reason for working his way back from the elbow miseries that sidelined him as a Met in 2008 and signing as a Brave in 2010: one more shot to get where he never quite landed as an Astro, Met or Red Sock in six previous postseason attempts. Can the Braves get that far without their closer? Well, they won their first Division Series game after Wagner was compelled to limp away. The dirty little open secret of last night’s extra-inning drama was Billy bequeathed to Farnsworth a man on second with one out. Had his oblique been fine, you think Wagner would have kept Renteria from scoring? Would have provided an opportunity for Ankiel to homer into McCovey Cove and send the series back to Atlanta 1-1 instead of 2-0 Giants?
I don’t. But maybe that’s Billy Wagner the Met I’m seeing out there.