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The Happiest Recap: 016-018

Welcome to The Happiest Recap [1], a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season consisting of the “best” 16th game in any Mets season, the “best” 17th game in any Mets season, the “best” 18th game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.

GAME 016: April 23, 1992 [2] — METS 1 Cardinals 0 (13)
(Mets All-Time Game 016 Record: 29-22; Mets 1992 Record: 9-7)

Although monochromatic grandstand wardrobes are long a thing of the past, announcers are still wont to talk about players losing balls in all those white shirts. When they go to that old saw, they generally mean the fielders not getting a good read on a fly against the backdrop of the crowd. Yet their description of the havoc shirts can play with balls could easily apply to what happened one thirteenth inning between Juan Agosto and Daryl Boston.

The Mets and Cardinals dueled in the April sunshine at Shea to a zero-zero deadlock. Bret Saberhagen gave the Mets the kind of Cy Young start they had hoped for when they acquired him the previous December from Kansas City: 5 hits, no walks and 7 strikeouts over 9 innings. Donovan Osborne’s start for St. Louis was close enough to Saberhagen’s to keep the Mets from scoring. Their best chance on this Thursday matinee came in a bases-loaded threat in the bottom of the third, but it was short-circuited when Saberhagen’s fellow new Met savior, Bobby Bonilla, fouled out to catcher Rich Gedman.

The Redbirds took dead aim at going ahead in the eleventh when they loaded the bases off reliever Jeff Innis. Two handy plays by Dave Magadan, sandwiched around a strikeout of Pedro Guerrero, prevented Met calamity and the game wore on. Good thing, then, that Boston wore the jersey he chose.

Bottom of the thirteenth, Agosto starting his second inning of relief. A Dave Magadan infield single, an event akin to a solar eclipse, raised Met hopes with one out. Rodney McCray, who would literally run through an outfield wall [3] to make a catch, came on to pinch-run for Mags. Junior Noboa singled McCrae to second. From there, with Charlie O’Brien at bat, Rodney stole third. St. Louis manager responded by intentionally walking O’Brien and setting up outs at every base.

Boston came up, fell behind 1-2 to Agosto and then gently absorbed the lefty’s fourth pitch. Anybody hollering from the Mezzanine that Daryl should take one for the team had to be thrilled, for Daryl Boston received that pitch with little fuss. It almost fluttered inside uniform No. 6. No need to stick yer elbow out! as somebody is always prone to suggest in those situations. Agosto’s delivery couldn’t have been any more cooperative.

Daryl, too, was unfailingly polite. Discovering that the ball landed between his jersey and his undershirt, he pulled out the white sphere from behind his white shirt, handed it to home plate ump Mike Winters and proceeded to first as McCray trotted home with the only run of the game. Mets won, thanks to the shirt on one of their backs, 1-0.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 30, 1986 [4], the Mets methodically pounded the Atlanta Braves at Fulton County Stadium for two runs in four of the first six innings, giving Dwight Gooden all the support he needed for an easy 8-1 win, the team’s eleventh consecutive. It marked the third time in Mets history they had won that many in a row, and they had surely put the streak to good use. The Mets raised their season mark to 13-3, took a 5-game lead on Montreal and looked as unbeatable as any first-place team could look at the end of April. The N.L. East was already shouting, “MAY DAY!” and it wasn’t even May 1.

GAME 017: April 28, 1985 [5] — METS 5 Pirates 4 (18)
(Mets All-Time Game 017 Record: 22-29; Mets 1985 Record: 11-6)

Forty-three players appeared in this game’s box score, yet one in particular stands out. Actually, he does more than stand out. He shifts — 11 separate times between positions. He hits, sure, for that’s what he always does, but what blows the mind is he runs and he lunges…successfully, catching that which all the shifting was intended to keep him from getting anywhere near.

Rusty Staub doesn’t do it all in this eighteen-inning exploration of the bizarre, but he does the bulk of what stands out. And “bulk” is not intended as a crack about the figure Rusty cut as a 41-year-old emergency outfielder making his last stand, lunge and catch in the pasture that used to be his stomping grounds.

Rusty is the climax of this story, but plenty happened before he stumbled into it. Plenty of nothing also occurred. You don’t play all day without a lot of both.

The plenty from a Met point of view this Super Sundae Sunday — a Carvel promotion — occurred right away, with Darryl Strawberry (honored with Strawberry Sundae fame a year earlier) launching his first career grand slam, with one out in the bottom of the first. With a 4-0 lead, all figured to be ice cream and syrup, but, lack of rain notwithstanding, Shea Stadium was more like MacArthur Park, the sweet, green icing of an easy win flowing down and the Mets never having that recipe to score at will again.

After Straw’s slam the Mets stopped hitting. They really stopped hitting. There would be walks and there would be errors and there’d even be a bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the eighth, but the Mets went from the bottom of the first with one out through the bottom of the eleventh without registering a single base hit — a virtual no-hitter. In the meantime, the Pirates hung three runs on rookie starter Roger McDowell and another on reliever Calvin Schiraldi. Pittsburgh did a ton of hitting, but not nearly enough of it from their perspective with men on base. They had their own sacks-full situation go by the board in the top of the ninth.

Gary Carter shone defensively as his first month in a Met uniform neared an end. He engineered a 2-1 putout when his retrieval and return of a wild pitch to Jesse Orosco nailed Rafael Belliard at the plate to end the Pittsburgh ninth. In the tenth, he blocked George Hendrick’s path to scoring, and come the 14th, in what would become a Camera Carter highlight reel favorite, he knocked an onrushing Doug Frobel somewhere toward Astoria, keeping him from scoring, too.

Keith Hernandez, meanwhile, was tagged by first base umpire Harry Wendlestedt with a balk call. No, Mex wasn’t one of the six pitchers Davey Johnson used that Sunday; rather, he charged a prospective bunt and then doubled back to first to receive a pickoff attempt on Belliard from Doug Sisk in the ninth. Wendlestedt ruled that a first baseman’s balk and award the Pirate shortstop second base. Neither Hernandez nor Johnson had heard of such a rule, and the Mets played the remainder of the game under protest.

In terms of sheer volume, there was a mass quantity of baseball left to protest, let alone consume. Extras commenced, the score stayed tied and, by the bottom of the twelfth, the eventual star did what he usually starred at. After Rafael Santana led off with the Mets’ first hit since Strawberry’s four-bagger eleven innings earlier, Rusty Staub — who came on to play his first outfield since June 1983 in the top of the inning, when Tom Gorman replaced Orosco on the mound — doubled. Santana went to third, and Wally Backman walked. With victory tantalizingly close (and every Pirate outfielder playing alongside their infield brethren), the Mets resisted temptation. Ray Knight grounded into a 6-2-3 double play to cut down Santana at home. Hernandez was then issued a free pass and Carter flied out.

The Mets played on. And Staub got a move on. The Pirates were already exposed to Davey’s core strategy, which was keep Rusty as far from fly balls as possible. When inserted for not exactly defense in the twelfth, Staub went to right because Bill Madlock was a righthanded hitter. When lefty Jason Thompson came up as the next batter, Staub trotted to left field and Clint Hurdle took over right.

Back and forth they would go for the rest of the game. At first it was kind of amusing, particularly when Hurdle advised Staub as they crossed paths in center, “Now be alert. This guy hits the other way.” It was funny because Thompson had a reputation as a dead pull hitter, but the ball has a way of finding the pinch-hitting specialists who don’t, as a rule, do a lot of running. Thompson lined a Gorman pitch in front of Staub. He had no chance to catch it, but he did handle it like he handled a rack of ribs at his Manhattan restaurant — cleanly and with zest. After firing the ball into second to hold Thompson to a single, the Shea fans gave Rusty a standing ovation.

Staub and Hurdle would trade positions eleven times in all. It grew progressively less lighthearted as Staub grew more and more leadfooted. Then it became downright dangerous to the Mets’ well-being when, in the top of the 18th, as pitcher Rick Rhoden pinch-hit for left fielder Frobel (it was that kind of game). Rhoden, a righty, flared a fly to right, where Staub was supposedly hidden. Rusty’s red hair, however, was in ample evidence as was all of his frame as he took off, tracked down and nabbed the ball in a half-dive, ending Gorman’s seventh scoreless inning of relief and stranding the 14th Pirate baserunner of the day.

“I knew I could catch the ball all the way,” Staub said. “That was as fast as I could run.” Nobody doubted the second part of that statement.

At last, something gave, and it wasn’t Rusty’s constitution. Lee Tunnell walked Gary Carter to lead off the bottom of the 18th. Mookie Wilson ran for the Kid and zipped to third on Strawberry’s single. Hurdle, Staub’s dance partner, enjoyed his moment in the fading sun when he poked a ground ball through Thompson’s legs at first base, and the Mets — on six hits, beat the Pirates — who had accumulated 18 hits — 5-4 in the longest home win in team history.

“A wicked game,” Chuck Tanner summed it when the five hours and twenty-one minutes of baseball reached their conclusion. As for the signature spell of Le Grand Orange magic, the Pirate skipper was properly appreciative: “I thought it was going to be a hit. It was a great catch. If this was a World Series, they’d be talking about it for 30 years.”

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On April 27, 1976 [6], the cult of Bruce Boisclair was born in earnest. Boisclair, a fourth outfielder and lefty pinch-hitter, was popular all out of proportion to his playing time during his late ’70s Shea stay, thanks in part to a memorably alliterative name but also because of clutch performances like the one that beat the Braves on a late Tuesday afternoon when the Mets took early possession of first place in the N.L. East. Atlanta led 5-3 going to the bottom of the ninth at a scarcely populated Shea (4,002 on hand for a 4:05 start) when Brave reliever Pablo Torrealba allowed singles to Dave Kingman and Bud Harrelson. With two out, John Milner produced a pinch-RBI to bring home pinch-runner John Stearns. Then up stepped Boisclair, who lashed a double to right, scoring Grote and Milner for the 6-5 win.

GAME 018: April 27, 1969 (2nd) [7] — METS 3 Cubs 0
(Mets All-Time Game 018 Record: 24-27; Mets 1969 Record: 7-11)

Nobody in his right mind would have figured this was a sign of things to come. The Cubs were loaded, and the Mets were still, to most eyes, the Mets. Still, even if this were to be regarded as an aberration, it was a pretty sweet one.

Chicago came into the second game of this Sunday doubleheader at Shea with the best record in baseball, a sizzling 14-6, which included three straight wins over the traditionally hapless Mets. The Mets were expected to pack a little more “hap” in 1969, but their 6-11 mark didn’t even exceed that of the expansion Expos. If they weren’t the same old Mets, they were close enough to not inspire any immediate confidence on the part of the 37,000+ on hand.

The Mets, however, hung in with the Cubs in this nightcap, no easy task given Chicago’s stacked lineup — featuring Billy Williams, Ron Santo and Ernie Banks at its heart — and the dismay attached to losing the opener 8-6 on four unearned runs in the top of the ninth. Starter Jim McAndrew matched zeroes with Cub counterpart Rich Nye, taking a nothing-nothing game into the fifth. But McAndrew allowed a pair of baserunners (one on an errant Ken Boswell throw), so Gil Hodges removed McAndrew and brought in McGraw — Tug McGraw, to that point of 1969 a lightly used reliever thought of more commonly as a failed starter.

But Tug cottoned to his new role that Sunday, squirming out of McAndrew’s jam and keeping the Cubs off the scoreboard every bit as much as Nye was shutting down the Mets. The game stayed scoreless to the bottom of the ninth, when Rod Gaspar’s fly ball to left eluded the great Williams, allowing Gaspar hustle to second. Leo Durocher ordered an intentional walk to Boswell. One out later, up stepped Cleon Jones, who was as hot as the dickens as 1969 gained traction. The Mets’ left fielder kept sizzling, belting Nye’s 1-0 pitch over the fence for a 3-0 Mets win, their first walkoff triumph of the year.

The shot brought Jones’s batting average up to a cool .443, while McGraw’s four scoreless innings gave him his second relief win of the season. A three-game losing streak was snapped, and the Mets avoided tumbling into solitary occupation of last place. They ended the day tied for fourth with St. Louis and Montreal, six behind the still front-running Cubs.

Not that there was yet any reason to believe the Mets’ position relative to the Cubs was going to matter much in the long term.

ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 7, 1972 [8], the Mets spotted Fred Norman and the Padres a 6-0 lead at Shea and then, in the bottom of the eighth, woke up from their Sunday afternoon nap. Three doubles, two singles and a Norman error resulted in five runs to close the gap to one. In the bottom of the ninth, Teddy Martinez led off a second consecutive inning with a single and took second on a Leron Lee error. Tommie Agee, who had doubled behind Martinez in the eighth, drove in the second baseman to tie the game. The teams went to a tenth inning, when — after Tug McGraw’s second inning of spotless relief — Bud Harrelson reached on the Padres’ sixth error of the day. with two out, Agee delivered his third big hit in as many innings, this one a two-run homer off Ed Acosta to cap a furious comeback for the Mets 8-6.