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” 49th game in any Mets season, the “best” 50th game in any Mets season, the “best” 51st 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 049: May 31, 1988 — METS 5 Dodgers 4 (11)
(Mets All-Time Game 049 Record: 25-26; Mets 1988 Record: 34-15)
And a rookie shortstop shall lead them. Or at least save them. Not that the battle-hardened Mets of 1988 needed much saving, as their fast, furious and first-place start attested, but the fact that the recent world champions could be so soon steadily if subtly restocked was testament to the depth the organization built into its foundation throughout the 1980s. Games like this represented the reaping of what had been sown for several years at the minor league level.
The Mets and Dodgers faced off at Shea this Tuesday night as division leaders, adding a little potential playoff preview juice to a set of late spring games. Embellishing the intrigue was the generation gap separating starting pitchers: 43-year-old 324-game winner Don Sutton in his valedictory go-round for the Dodgers versus 23-year-old Dwight Gooden, 81-27 in his still young, still phenomenal career, 8-1 on the season. Considering his mileage, Sutton gave Tommy Lasorda a strong outing, allowing only two runs in five innings before exiting in the sixth with a broken nail on his pitching hand after surrendering a leadoff double to Gary Carter. Gooden, meanwhile, entered unprecedented personal territory when he took the ball to start the tenth inning. Except for Game Five of the 1986 NLCS, Davey Johnson had never asked Doc to go more than nine.
Of course the presence of a tenth inning could be interpreted to mean Doc didn’t finish off the Dodgers in regulation, and given Gooden’s high standards, that would be a reasonable interpretation. Carrying a 2-1 lead into the ninth (with only three hits given up all night), Gooden was reached for the tying run when Kirk Gibson led off the inning with a home run. Davey broke protocol and kept Gooden in the game after the Mets couldn’t win it the home ninth. “He was still throwing 93 miles an hour,” the manager figured. “It’s his game to win or lose.” Dwight responded by retiring Mike Scioscia for the first out of the tenth but then allowed three consecutive hits, giving the Dodgers a 3-2 lead. Doc left in favor of Roger McDowell, who let in one of his starter’s inherited runners.
Down 4-2 in the bottom of the tenth, the Mets struck back against L.A. closer Jay Howell: one-out walks to Lee Mazzilli and Lenny Dykstra set up run-scoring singles by Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez. The Mets had ensured an eleventh inning.
Randy Myers, a bit player on the 1986 champs who had emerged as the Mets’ closer by the end of 1987, came on to stifle the Dodgers. In the bottom of the eleventh, Los Angeles reliever Alejandro Peña got two quick outs but couldn’t do a thing with Elster. The shortstop, who had come in for defense in the eighth to help Gooden preserve his 2-1 lead, hadn’t been hitting much all season. If he had, perhaps the 23-year-old who was the 24th man on the ’86 postseason roster would have started regularly at short as projected. He didn’t start this game because Davey Johnson looked for every opportunity — starts by flyball pitchers Gooden and Sid Fernandez, in particular — to shift Howard Johnson to short and use Dave Magadan at third. They hadn’t been hitting much, either, but the rookie Elster, at .223, had no offensive credentials on which to fall back.
But Elster spun his good-field/no-hit reputation on its ear when he walloped Peña’s first pitch into the left field bullpen to give the Mets a 5-4, 11-inning win. If this was a playoff preview, it was certainly encouraging. Myers and Elster were stepping up among a new generation of Met weapons, while the Mets seemed to have the Dodgers’ number. They had swept a three-game series against them in California two weekends earlier and now had taken two straight from L.A. at Shea.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 27, 2000, the journeyingest of journeymen could relish reminding his original team of what they let get away all those years before. Todd Zeile, once a young catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, was in his first season as the Mets’ first baseman and on his eighth team overall, when he stroked a solo home run off Andy Benes in the top of the first at Busch Stadium this Saturday night to extend the Mets’ early lead to 5-0. It looked like a laugher for Zeile and his newest mates, but New York starter Rick Reed was uncharacteristically rocked and relievers Rich Rodriguez and Pat Mahomes were ineffective behind him. Before the sixth inning was done, the Mets trailed 7-6. In the visitors’ eighth, however, the Mets hit their reset button. Two walks sandwiched a Craig Paquette error, loading the bases for erstwhile Redbird Zeile to take wing and a little revenge on the club that sent him on his ultimately itinerant path five years earlier. The ex-Cub, -Phillie, -Oriole, -Dodger, -Marlin and -Ranger launched Dave Veres’s 1-1 pitch over the left field wall for a grand slam and put the Mets back on top, 10-8. Zeile’s current team would tack on another pair in the ninth and go on to win 12-8.
GAME 050: May 29, 2007 — METS 5 Giants 4 (12)
(Mets All-Time Game 050 Record: 21-29-1; Mets 2007 Record: 33-17)
He who was known to run wild wreaked havoc on the basepaths. He who was known to go deep put his power on display. And he who will never be remembered by Mets fans for the much he did right left his old audience with a familiar impression in what proved to be his final, unimpressive appearance at Shea Stadium.
Fortunately, Armando Benitez was wearing some other team’s uniform by then.
Consider some of the man’s accomplishments in orange, black and blue: Benitez was the closer on the only two Mets clubs to earn consecutive postseason berths, in 1999 and 2000. In parts of five seasons, he compiled 160 saves, nearly twice as many as any other righthanded Met reliever, second-most in franchise history to John Franco, the southpaw whose fireman role he usurped in the middle of the ’99 season when Armando — striking out 14.8 batters per 9 innings that year — emerged as an almost unhittable setup man. Benitez established a new single-season Met saves record in 2000 and broke it in 2001. To date, he remains the last Met to save a World Series win.
And almost no Mets fan is moved by any of it because what gets remembered is a laundry list of late and close situations turned too close or too late by Benitez’s tendency to not shut the door at the worst possible junctures: pennant race games; playoff games; the World Series games he didn’t save. In a sport spiced with precisely measured statistics, it is the chewy anecdotal center that leaves the most evocative aftertaste. Saves records and all else notwithstanding, it’s little wonder a vocal majority of Mets fans never got the Benitez bitterness out of their saliva or their subconscious.
On this particular Tuesday night, the Mets and the San Francisco Giants — for whom Benitez had registered 45 saves since 2005 — hooked up over a dozen innings that were fairly fascinating long before the ghost of blown saves past stuck his fingerprints on the storyline. Oliver Perez, off to a solid 6-3 start (2.54 ERA) in ’07, endured a rough first inning when Randy Winn greeted him with a leadoff homer and allowed another solo shot, from Bengie Molina. Perez settled down from there, retiring his next 14 batters and eventually striking out eight while walking nobody. His only other blemish of consequence was another solo home run, in the seventh, struck by first baseman Daniel Ortmeier (the first of his career).
Ollie was matched K for K by heralded rookie Tim Lincecum, making his first-ever start at Shea and fifth overall. The first 14 Mets batters all made outs against the nascent Freak until Carlos Beltran worked out a fourth-inning walk and Carlos Delgado homered to tie the score at two. A Jose Reyes single and a Beltran double put the Mets up 3-2 in the sixth. After Ortmeier tied it, Lincecum pitched the bottom of the seventh, disposing of Damian Easley, Carlos Gomez and pinch-hitter David Newhan with ease. Lincecum’s final line in his New York debut: 7 innings, 3 hits, 3 walks, 3 earned runs and eight strikeouts.
A game defined by pitching and power was accented by excellent defense, from Reyes and Beltran on the Mets’ side and from Omar Vizquel for the Giants, particularly in the bottom of the ninth when, with the potential winning run on second, the San Francisco shortstop lived up to his legend and robbed Julio Franco of a possible game-winning hit, a ground ball a diving Vizquel refused to let leave the infield.
The legend of Armando Benitez came into focus for what remained of the 47,940 on hand after a walk, a wild pitch, a sacrifice bunt, a hit-by-pitch and a fielder’s choice brought home a run for the Giants in the top of the twelfth. The 4-3 lead gave manager Bruce Bochy a save situation and, as such, Bochy called on his closer.
You could tell by the boos.
Benitez gave heart to Mets fans whose hearts were ripped out often enough (if, it bears repeating, not always) when he closed for them between 1999 and 2003. A seven-pitch at-bat climaxed with ball four to Jose Reyes, giving the Mets a leadoff baserunner who was a threat to steal — threat enough that Benitez balked Reyes to second. After Endy Chavez bunted Jose to third and Beltran grounded out to second, Delgado came up. Reyes continued to present a threat at third, dancing around and taunting the pitcher, though the odds of him attempting to steal home in the twelfth inning, with two out, his team down a run and their fiercest slugger batting were nil.
But Benitez was distracted nonetheless. Reyes teased him into his second balk of the inning, allowing Jose — without benefit of a base hit or a stolen base — to trot home with the tying run. “I just tried to put some pressure on him,” Reyes said, “and it worked.”
Two pitches later, Benitez gave up a long home run to right to Delgado, giving the giddy Mets a 12-inning 5-4 win (with Carlos’s walkoff homer serving as a cheerful bookend to Winn’s top-of-the-first leadoff homer) and Armando Benitez two defeats — the L in the game, of course, and the loss of his spot on the Giants’ roster. Two days after imploding, Armando would be shipped to Miami, where he enjoyed his finest season in 2004, when he recorded a league-leading 47 saves for the Marlins. To the chagrin of his former followers in New York, he was deadly against the Mets in ’04: 11 saves in 12 appearances, every one of them a Florida win.
That was ancient history by 2007, even if 2004 was more recent than the indelible Met tenure of Armando Benitez, one that left wounds that on some level would always feel fresh — from games not closed out against the Yankees; not closed out against the Braves; not closed out against the Giants and J.T. Snow, for that matter (though Armando would be taken off the hook in that NLDS contest). Armando Benitez had not been forgotten by Mets fans and probably never would be, though by doing everything he could — two balks and a walkoff home run — to write one of his vintage trademark Shea endings, he had given the home crowd an indisputably beautiful memory to keep for as long as SNY continued to run this game as an aptly titled Mets Classic.
Though he made 36 appearance with the Marlins in 2007 and 8 more for the Blue Jays in 2008, Armando Benitez would never pitch at Shea or against the Mets again…and he’d never record another major league save.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 2, 1989, a Mets pitcher performed very much as he had in perhaps the greatest Mets’ victory ever, though his role in that more famous game has never exactly been celebrated. Rick Aguilera came in to start the top of the tenth inning of the sixth game of the 1986 World Series with the scored tied at three, and left it with the Mets trailing the Red Sox by two runs. The Mets would score three in the bottom of the inning, and Aggie would vulture the most ignored and probably undeserved W in Fall Classic history. Three years later, on a Friday night in Flushing, the starter-turned-reliever was on in the eleventh inning of what for eight innings was a scintillating 1-1 pitchers’ duel between Dwight Gooden (8 K’s) and the Pirates’ John Smiley. Randy Myers and Jeff Robinson picked up their respective starters’ gauntlets and kept the game tied through the ninth and tenth. Now it was Rick’s turn and, just as on October 25, 1986, little good came of it. A leadoff double to Jeff King and an RBI single by Glenn Wilson gave the Bucs a 2-1 lead. Aguilera stood to be the losing pitcher if the Mets couldn’t rally in the bottom of the eleventh. But as was the case in what became known as the Bill Buckner Game, Aggie was rescued by his teammates. This time (albeit with stakes much lower), Mackey Sasser singled, Kevin Elster bunted him to second and Dave Magadan belted the first pitch he saw from Randy Kramer over the right field fence. Mets win 3-2 in eleven; winning pitcher: Rick Aguilera. It was Aggie’s first extra-inning win as a reliever since that hallowed Saturday night against the Red Sox. It was also his second win of the 1989 season. His first had come against the Cubs in April. The losing pitcher that day? Calvin Schiraldi.
GAME 051: June 5, 1987 — METS 5 Pirates 1
(Mets All-Time Game 051 Record: 26-25; Mets 1987 Record: 26-25)
Hard to believe something could be more of an attraction than Spider-Man’s wedding, but when 51,402 jammed into Shea Stadium on a Friday night, it probably didn’t have all that much to do with the previously arranged pregame nuptials between Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. What Mets fans wanted to do two months into the 1987 season was turn off the dark — and turn on to Doc.
The Mets’ promotional comics calendar bumped up against a slice of real-life drama when Dwight Gooden made his first start of the season after spending a month undergoing drug rehabilitation treatment and another month pitching his arm back into shape in the minors. His out-of-town tryouts deemed successful, Doc was scheduled to reopen off Broadway, and uppermost in many minds was the critical reception he’d elicit.
One critic panned his starring role before the curtain even rose on his Shea return. Acerbic Dick Young, fewer than three months from dying, used his bully pulpit in the Post to urge the Shea faithful to, as his paper’s front page headline put it, “STAND UP AND BOO”. Young habitually attacked “druggies,” and to the longtime columnist, Doctor K was nothing more than another such loser who deserved no hero’s welcome considering he had tested positive for cocaine in Spring Training. Sure, Mets fans might have missed that right arm, but Young couldn’t look past the young man’s nose:
“If I could choreograph things tonight, I would do it this way: Enter Dwight Gooden…50,000 people boo loudly. That’s to let him know how society feels about the wrong he has done, abut the damage he has committed to the millions of kids who worshipped him.”
Young did allow that fans should feel free to cheer Gooden later in the game as they wished. In that sense, the packed Shea house took his advice, but jumped Dick’s gun. There was very little booing for the prodigal Doctor K. Instead, he was greeted by an ovation Murray Chass described as “thunderous” in the New York Times. And when he was removed with two outs in the seventh, holding a 3-1 lead over Pittsburgh, he brought the crowd to its feet again. His descent into the Mets’ dugout didn’t deter the outburst of passionate approval, as Gooden was brought out for a curtain call.
“I didn’t expect any boos,” the Doctor said afterwards.
In between ovations, Gooden pitched well, if not at the superstar standard he created for himself in 1984 and 1985. Then again, given all the attention, the long layoff and the personal pressure, 4 hits, 4 walks, 1 run and 5 strikeouts (including that of Bucs leadoff batter Barry Bonds to begin the game) in 6⅔ innings was plenty good enough to gain the Mets a 5-1 victory and set Doc on a path that everybody who cheered him hoped would be straight, narrow and successful for the rest of his career.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On May 28, 2008, an unlikely fisherman helped the floundering Mets reel in a desperately needed win against a school of Marlins that had been veritable sharks of late by Flushing Bay. The same club that gave the Mets the final nudge of their 2007 collapse was back in town looking to take two of three in their first 2008 Shea series. After splitting two games, the Fish seemed en route to making the Mets’ lives — consumed by the impending when-not-if dismissal of manager Willie Randolph — that much more miserable as they led the home team 5-4 going to the bottom of the ninth this Wednesday night. But the worm turned as pinch-hitter Endy Chavez treated an 0-2 Kevin Gregg pitch like bad bait and bashed it over the right field fence. The 5-5 tie remained in effect until the top of the twelfth, when Alfredo Amezaga homered off Duaner Sanchez. Once more the Marlins led by a run, but once more they found their position slippery. Justin Miller started the bottom of the twelfth by issuing a leadoff walk to David Wright, then allowed a single to Carlos Beltran that chased David to third. One out later, Fernando Tatis, until very recently a little-used minor league refugee (he had barely played in the majors since 2003) lashed a double to left, driving in the tying and winning runs for a 12-inning 7-6 Mets victory. The heretofore washed-up Tatis — nine years removed from his only standout season — was more thrilled than most walkoff batsmen: “It’s unbelievable. It’s amazing. It’s a great feeling.” Not only had he won his new team a ballgame, but he had made great progress in his bigger quest. Tatis explained later in the season that the reason he wanted back in professional baseball was to provide enough money to buy land to build a church in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic. The land got bought, the church got built. Ultimately, you might say, Fernando Tatis was gratified to beat the Fish for a day, but was really dedicated to teaching a man to fish for a lifetime.