Welcome to The Happiest Recap, 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” 43rd game in any Mets season, the “best” 44th game in any Mets season, the “best” 45th 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 043: May 29, 1971 (2nd) — Mets 2 PADRES 1
(Mets All-Time Game 043 Record: 29-22; Mets 1971 Record: 27-16)
Twenty-four years old, with the stuff to strike out as many ten batters in a game eleven times. That describes the pitcher the Mets sent to the hill for the nightcap of a doubleheader at San Diego Stadium this Saturday.
That’s quite a weapon to have on your side. Why you’d want to give up on it is anybody’s guess. But the Mets weren’t giving up on Nolan Ryan at this stage of the 1971 season. They were giving him the ball and he was giving opposing lineups like the Padres nothing to swing at but a blur.
To be fair to those early Friar batters, the blur started its journey toward their bats as a ball at some point, but it was hard for any individual San Diegan to tell. That’s how fast young Ryan was as a rule…and make no mistake: in this game, Nolan Ryan ruled.
Every inning that Ryan pitched — and he went the distance — included at least one Padre strikeout. Seven frames ended on a strikeout. The bottom of the sixth gave the home team some hope, as Nolan lived down to his reputation for wildness and walked the first two batters. The Padres’ three best hitters were up next. They were also down next.
This was what Nolan Ryan did. It was his modus operandi to blow balls by hitters. Sometimes other things happened. Sometime he missed. in the first inning, a walk to second baseman Don Mason led to a run via a fielder’s choice, an error and a wild pitch, but that was all the damage Ryan sustained this Saturday. He struck early, he struck often.
He struck out Gaston and Ivan Murrell three times apiece. He struck out every starter at least once, except for shortstop Enzo Hernandez, but he made up for it by striking out pinch-hitter Angel Bravo. And, as if to mix things up, he got third baseman Ed Spiezio to fly out to Tim Foli at short for the final out of a 2-1 win (Art Shamsky drove in both New York runs).
Nolan Ryan had just struck out 16 batters, the most he had ever struck out as a Met, the second-most any Met pitcher had ever fanned. Only Tom Seaver’s National League record-tying performance against these largely same Padres a year earlier yielded more K’s (19); only Dwight Gooden and Sid Fernandez would ever match 16 as Met pitchers. What’s more, Ryan turned in his twelfth double-digit strikeout showing as a Met that Saturday in San Diego. They weren’t all as neat as this four-hitter. Sometimes he walked more than four. Sometimes he could throw as hard as he wanted and he wasn’t effective enough to win.
But he was 24, and no one could deny his talent. Six starts into 1971, his record was 6-1 and his ERA was 1.08. Ryan couldn’t keep up that pace for the rest of the season. There’d be a game in June when he’d walk seven and give up seven walks in less than six innings. In July, he’d go five and walk nine. But there was also to be an outing at Montreal when he scattered eleven hits en route to a 4-1 complete game victory, striking out 10. And later, he’d K 12 in six innings, walking only one for his 14th double-digit strikeout game with the Mets.
Surely the flamethrowing young man from Alvin, Tex., was a mixed bag. Surely there were some clunkers buried deep in that sack. His final start of the season saw him face five St. Louis Cardinals. He’d walk the first four he faced and then surrender a two-run single to Ted Simmons. Gil Hodges removed him then and there, leaving Nolan Ryan with a 1971 mark of 10-14, an ERA that had ballooned to 3.97 and a walk total that topped a hundred: 116 BB in 152 IP, against 137 SO.
Ryan was what would later be known in the industry as a project, though by the time that kind of nomenclature was catching on, Nolan would deliver on his promise. He’d strike out 10 or more 201 times from 1972 to 1993, matching or exceeding the 16 he fanned against San Diego fifteen times. After recording 29 victories in 67 decisions for the Mets through 1971, he’d compile a record of 295-254 for the rest of his career.
None of that, by the way, would occur in a New York Mets uniform.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 21, 2005, a stranger from a strange land did a very strange and very wonderful thing for the New York Mets. The strange land in question was the Met bullpen, but it could also apply to South Korea, homeland of one Dae-Sung “Mister” Koo. Koo had arrived in Flushing a lefty specialist for manager Willie Randolph. How special he was as a reliever is up for debate, but the distinctiveness of his hitting portfolio is beyond reproach. Mister Koo’s first Major League at-bat, on May 16, in a Met blowout against the Reds, was as comical as it was futile. Standing as far from home plate as he possibly could while still technically in the batter’s box, Koo watched four Todd Coffey pitches sail into catcher Jason LaRue’s mitt. Three were strikes, and when the third was signaled by home plate ump Phil Cuzzi, Koo emerged from the box like a man from a dentist’s chair, simply happy to get it over with. Five days later, nobody expected much different when Randolph decided keeping Koo in a 2-0 Subway Series game was worth sending him to the plate to lead off the bottom of the seventh against Randy Johnson. Koo would just stand there and take…HE SWUNG! HE SWUNG AND HE DOUBLED! DAE-SUNG KOO DOUBLED TO THE CENTER FIELD WALL OFF OF RANDY JOHNSON! Seriously, it was something to shout about. And if you think Sheagoers were loud when Mister Koo landed on second, the squeals could be heard clear to Seoul when the next sequence of events transpired: Jose Reyes attempted to bunt Koo to third. Yankee catcher Jorge Posada fielded the sacrifice and threw to first to retire Reyes. Koo, meanwhile, on his first-ever tour of the bases, noticed Posada left home uncovered. So this time, instead of avoiding the plate, he attacked it. The pitcher kept running, and in one of the most unlikely plays Shea Stadium’s home plate ever saw, Dae-Sung dove headfirst toward the dish and avoided (by umpire Chuck Meriweather’s reckoning, at any rate) Posada’s tag of his fingers. HE’S SAFE! MISTER KOO CAME AROUND FROM SECOND ON A BUNT! It was, literally, Koo’s first slide since high school and his first run since junior high…and it came against Randy Johnson en route to a 7-1 Saturday afternoon bashing of the Mets’ crosstown rivals. Said awestruck teammate Doug Mientkiewicz, “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. And I probably never will again.” True enough: The double off the Unit came in the last at-bat of Dae-Sung Koo’s brief major league career. He retired a .500 BA/.500 OBP/1.000 SLG hitter.
GAME 044: May 23, 1999 — METS 5 Phillies 4
(Mets All-Time Game 044 Record: 24-27; Mets 1999 Record: 25-19)
Another object lesson in it ain’t being over until it’s actually over unfolded this gloomy Sunday afternoon at Shea, though one could be excused for believing it was long over before it was done. The Mets, after all, played with forks stuck in them for eight long innings. You might even say they played like they didn’t want to play, which may have been a little bit true. A nearly two-hour rain delay pushed back first pitch and the forecast grew more threatening when the presence of Curt Schilling was factored in.
Talk about a cold front. The Phillies’ ace entered the game with three consecutive complete-game victories to his credit, an overall 7-1 record and an ERA of 2.58. Good numbers anytime, fantastic figures in homer-happy 1999.
The Mets were reportedly not universally happy that the game couldn’t be postponed, preferably until the next time the Phils were in town, in September. By then, it was considered a decent possibility that Schilling would be in another uniform, possibly in the other league. But the Mets had an advance gate of better than 30,000 for a t-shirt giveaway and the front office wasn’t hot to turn those tickets into rainchecks.
So the Mets played ball…just not very well. Rick Reed went seven ineffective innings and left with his team trailing 4-0. Schilling was as good as he had to be: seven hits, seven strikeouts, a glide path to another complete game and his first shutout of the season.
Then, all at once, it simultaneously fell apart on Schilling and came together for the Mets. Mike Piazza singled and Robin Ventura homered to begin the bottom of the ninth. The Phillie lead was halved to 4-2. Not a great development for Schilling, but in a perverse way at least it cleared the bases. He could tell himself that after he grounded Brian McRae to second base for the first out.
But the ninth’s narrative picked up immediately thereafter. Matt Franco singled and Luis Lopez was hit on a 1-2 count. Jermaine Allensworth, pinch-hitting for reliever Rigo Beltran (who had kept the Phillies off the board for two innings), singled home Franco, and now it was 4-3.
Funny thing: Curt Schilling was still in there pitching. In another era, it might not have seemed strange, but by the end of the 1990s, complete games were almost dinosaurs (the ’99 Mets wouldn’t record one until Labor Day) and relievers were compensated handsomely to preserve seven- and eight-inning starts. Why didn’t Phillie skipper Terry Francona pull Schilling?
“I thought he was in complete control,” was Francona’s answer. His usual closer, Jeff Brantley, was unavailable, and besides, Curt’s fastball registered 94 on the radar in the ninth. “I felt very good,” the pitcher affirmed. Most of all, he was Curt Schilling — ace. It was an old-school decision.
“I’ve been around Schill long enough to know he was OK,” Francona said. “He was throwing good. I thought he had everything left.”
The next batter, Roger Cedeño, shot one back at Schilling, who composed himself long enough to force Allensworth at second; Lopez moved to third. Next up was Edgardo Alfonzo…whom (after Cedeño took second uncontested) Schilling hit. With his second HBP of the inning, the ace loaded the bases.
Up next was lefty John Olerud, who started the day batting .357 and was already 2-for-4 against Schilling. Francona had a lefty, Jim Poole, warming up, but stuck with his righthanded ace for his 138th pitch of the day.
Olerud, in turn, stuck it to Schilling. Gary Cohen’s call on WFAN:
“The pitch to Olerud…line drive…BASE HIT INTO LEFT FIELD! In comes Lopez! Here comes Cedeño! Here’s comes Gant’s throw from left field…the slide…SAFE, THE METS WIN IT! THE METS WIN IT! Cedeño slides home under the tag of Mike Lieberthal, a two-run GAME-WINNING single for John Olerud, the Mets score FIVE RUNS off Curt Schilling in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mets win it in a REMARKABLE finish!”
Remarkable, indeed. Cedeño accented the stunning nature of it by punching up at the air while lying on his back after being called safe by Jeff Nelson. Roger’s reaction after sprinting 180 feet to score was approximately 180 degrees removed from Schilling’s. “There’s no excuse for losing a 4-0 lead,” the losing pitcher for Philadelphia lamented. “There’s no way you should choke and blow up like that. I don’t care who you are.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 21, 2000, the Mets were the team with something extra, as base-hits that went for doubles and home runs provided them almost all the sustenance they would require to prevail. And until the end of this overcast Shea Sunday, they needed every darn base they could touch, most of them against their enigmatic opponent, Randy Johnson. The last time the Mets saw the Big Unit, it was in Game One of the ’99 NLDS, when they had trouble with the Diamondback stopper (11 strikeouts) and were trouble for him (7 earned runs en route to an 8-4 triumph). The pattern was familiar in the rematch, albeit with a slightly altered cast of characters. The first two batters Johnson faced, Joe McEwing and Derek Bell, were new to the Mets in 2000. The pair doubled back-to-back to put the Mets on the board right away. Then Edgardo Alfonzo doubled to double the Mets’ run total and give them a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the first. Everything the Mets produced thereafter — off Johnson and Arizona reliever Mike Morgan — continued to be of the extra-base variety. The nine New York hits from the first through the eighth consisted of five doubles and four homers, including a third-inning shot launched deep into the Mezzanine by Mike Piazza. McEwing was particularly super, with two doubles and a homer, all off Johnson. The D’Backs were hitting, too, resulting in a 6-6 tie heading into the bottom of the ninth. By then, Byung-Hyun Kim was on for Arizona. He issued a leadoff walk to McEwing, who promptly stole second, making it an easy trip home for him when Bell hit a ball fair down the right field line. It was scored an RBI single, the only non-extra base home team hit of the day in the Mets’ 7-6 win…but under any other, non-walkoff circumstance, it would have gone into the books as a double.
GAME 045: May 23, 1998 — METS 3 Brewers 0
(Mets All-Time Game 045 Record: 19-32; Mets 1998 Record: 25-20)
All he had to do was show up, and for one day, a Saturday like no other in Mets history, that would be enough. It would be more than enough. It would be, by universal agreement, the best thing to happen to this franchise in more than a decade.
He would show up, though, right? The Mets were playing a home game, but their newest teammate Mike Piazza would have to make a road trip. Piazza was in baseball limbo, a Marlin for a week in May 1998, dealt by the Dodgers in a fit of salary dispute pique. Florida was clearly not holding onto the superstar catcher for very long, and as the Marlins sought what they considered would be their best deal, all Piazza could do was wait for word from his agent regarding his ultimate destination. He went to take a shower assuming he would be sent to the Cubs. He emerged to discover that instead, he was Met, dealt to New York in exchange for Preston Wilson, Geoff Goetz and Ed Yarnall.
So informed of his fate on Friday, May 22, Piazza headed the next morning to the airport in West Palm Beach so he could his make his flight to LaGuardia and show up at Shea Stadium in plenty of time for his Mets debut against the Brewers. Only thing was Piazza was booked on a flight out of Fort Lauderdale. He had to shift gears and direction ASAP.
All the racing around was apropos, as Piazza’s head was doing the same. West Palm? Lauderdale? Dodgers? Marlins? Cubs? Mets? Sooner or later, Mike would have a chance to settle in, catch his breath and figure out where he was.
But not on Saturday, not with a 4:05 start at Shea, not with his being hustled to the ballpark by Mets PR director Jay Horwitz around two o’clock, not with a press conference to conduct, and not with a starting pitcher — Al Leiter — waiting to go over hitters.
Mike Piazza was immediately the center of the action in the Mets’ world as soon as he arrived in Flushing, and there was no mistaking he was the reason there was any action. The Mets had been playing pretty well in the first quarter of 1998 but were generating little buzz in the marketplace. Four nights earlier at Shea, the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Reds in front of fewer than 16,000 paying customers, many of whom, based on their level of vocal support for the home team, seemed to come for the librarian convention.
That changed immediately with Mike Piazza. More than 13,000 ticket-buyers walked up to the windows that Saturday, pushing attendance to nearly 33,000 (the next day it would top 47,000). John Franco — graciously peeling the 31 off his back so Piazza could wear it — reported having to sit in Shea traffic “for the first time in a long time”. Jerry Seinfeld, having just completed his sitcom run, could be picked out in the crowd, just another Mets fan thrilled to have one of the biggest hitters in baseball suddenly playing for his team.
The Mets, unlike Seinfeld, were a show about something.
Now all Piazza had to do was live up to the hype…which he did instantly. After absorbing multiple standing ovations for simply being Mike Piazza, New York Met, the slugger gave an inkling of what he could do and (offseason contract negotiations willing) would do for years to come in the bottom of the fifth. With the Mets up 1-0 and Matt Franco on first, Piazza stroked his first Met hit, a line drive to right-center off Milwaukee starter Jeff Juden, a ball that seemed to accelerate as it rolled toward the wall. Franco scored while Piazza took third base on the throw home. Another ovation ensued.
“There’s a marquee player, in a Met uniform, behind the plate,” observed Fred Wilpon (whose partner in Met ownership, Nelson Doubleday, was considered the more instrumental of the two in deciding to deal for Piazza). “The fans have reacted. The media has reacted. I think New York is going to love this player.”
Mike Piazza had an RBI as a Met. Soon he’d have a shutout caught, as Leiter went the distance in downing the Brewers 3-0. The start of a beautiful if intermittently tumultuous friendship between a superstar and a fan base had begun. The appreciation for his boarding the correct flight and then not seeking the first bus out of town was still immense in the summer of 2000 when Mets fans voted the acquisition of Piazza the eighth-greatest moment in Mets history. Mike accepted the honor gratefully, if with a little embarrassment.
“I wish I would have hit a big homer or something,” Piazza reflected, “not just have been traded.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 1, 1969, the Mets decided mass production was overrated, choosing instead to hand-craft their winning run the old-fashioned way: one base at a time, eschewing modern contrivances like hits. Their Sunday game at Shea against the Giants boiled down to the bottom of the ninth, the score tied at four. The Mets took on reliever Joe Gibbon in a very stealthy manner. Buddy Harrelson led off with a walk. Tommie Agee bunted him to second. A Wayne Garrett grounder to the right side moved Harrelson to third. Cleon Jones (batting .364) was intentionally walked. Jones foiled San Francisco manager Clyde King’s strategy by taking off for second, stealing it safely. Amos Otis (batting .141) then walked, loading the bases. Ron Swoboda, with a chance to be a hero, kept his bat on his shoulder long enough to accept ball four from Gibbon, and the Mets won 5-4. It was their fourth consecutive victory and their third in a row over the Giants, encompassing their first sweep ever against the team that previously wore the mantle of New York (N.L.).