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” 73rd game in any Mets season, the “best” 74th game in any Mets season, the “best” 75th 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 073: July 3, 1990 — METS 12 Astros 0
(Mets All-Time Game 073 Record: 20-29; Mets 1990 Record: 43-30)
This was the Darryl Strawberry we had been waiting for. He took eight seasons to arrive, but boy was he present.
Darryl had been good, sometimes very good since his debut in 1983. His numbers made an occasional case for great. Yet there was always the sense something was holding him back. Call it immaturity or a learning curve or a matter of there being holes in his game as he developed.
By the middle of 1990, there were no longer negatives. He was a superstar in full. And didn’t the Houston Astros know it? Then again, why should have they been any different from the rest of the National League?
The Astros showed up at Shea this Tuesday night in time to learn that Darryl would be gracing the cover of the new Sports Illustrated, a tribute to “The Amazin’ Mets,” which may not sound like the world’s most original coverline, except the word “Mets” was inserted where the word “Mess” was crossed out. A few weeks earlier, SI bemoaned the Mets’ fate. Now they were printing what amounted to an enormous retraction.
Darryl was an enormous part of the instant revisionism that surrounded the 1990 Mets. The most enormous part, really. Their midsummer roll was one of the most unstoppable in club history, a 27-5 stretch that redefined their fortunes and seemed to be writing them a ticket toward the postseason. That was a ways away in June and July, but if any one player seemed capable of carrying them to October, it was Straw. In a 29-game span roughly coinciding with the Mets’ surge, their cleanup hitter launched 15 home runs and drove in 36 runs while hitting .389.
You couldn’t get the guy out. The best you could do was duck and maybe turn and admire what he did to your best stuff. It would have been the sporting thing to do if you were Astros reliever Xavier Hernandez.
Hernandez’s team was already in a hole of someone else’s making when he entered to pitch the bottom of the fifth. Starter Mark Portugal was flash-filleted by the Mets’ scorching bats right away. He got his first Met hitter out in the bottom of the first, and the Mets got him: Dave Magadan singled; Gregg Jefferies singled him to third; Darryl singled Magadan home and Jefferies to third; Kevin McReynolds homered them all home.
Mark Portugal had thrown 16 pitches since retiring Howard Johnson to begin the first and they had netted his opponents four runs. It wasn’t going to be Mark Portugal’s night.
How could it be? He had to face Darryl Strawberry again.
The bases were empty, there was one out, it was still “only” 4-0 Mets, but Portugal may as well have been stranded on an island (or the Iberian Peninsula) given how alone he must have felt on the mound having to divine a way to not have one of his pitches turn to jelly against Strawberry.
Darryl chose his second delivery and then…SPLAT! All the way to the picnic area bleachers over the left field fence, some 425 feet from home plate…an opposite-field shot for Straw. Or, as he might have called it, a stroll in the park.
No picnic for Portugal. The Mets ruined his Third of July a little more when they loaded the bases in the fifth and brought home a sixth run. With the Mets having pounded Portugal to a pulp, Astro manager Art Howe took mercy on his starter and pinch-hit for him in the visitors’ fifth (with ex-Met Alex Treviño). Houston didn’t score and handed their 0-6 deficit to Hernandez.
As Julia Roberts said in 1990’s big flick, Pretty Woman, “Big mistake. Big. Huge.”
On a 1-0 pitch, Darryl Strawberry swung and everybody, Hernandez included, was compelled to look up in awe. Ooh! Aah! Where did that thing land?
It didn’t so much land as crash into the highest obstacle in its path, which in this case was the massive Shea Stadium scoreboard. As described by Joe Durso in the Times, it “carried 450 feet from home plate and struck halfway up the scoreboard against the lighted word ‘Ball,’ where the count on the batter is recorded but where baseballs rarely carry.”
This one — one of the farthest-traveling Shea had ever seen — carried, much as Darryl was known to carry the Mets on his back. He didn’t have to do it all by himself in June and July of 1990, however. He had help. Hell, he had another Daryl. Two batters after Strawberry, Hernandez saw his seven-run deficit grow larger, courtesy of the Mets’ other Daryl.
What? The Mets have ANOTHER one?
In 1990, they sure did, platoon centerfielder Daryl Boston, and he tagged a Hernandez pitch that made its way literally as well as figuratively onto the same scoreboard the first Darryl tattooed. Alas, Boston’s blast merely banged into one of the ads on the lower righthand corner of the edifice (piker), putting the Mets up 8-0…and they weren’t likely coming down. Frank Viola continued to shut out Houston, while the third Astro pitcher of the night, Jim Clancy, found four more runs to give the Mets in the seventh. The Mets held on from there for the 12-0 win.
It was a team effort, but how could you ignore the player in the middle of it all? Manager Buddy Harrelson couldn’t and wouldn’t miss his not-so-secret weapon. Darryl Strawberry, the Mets’ skipper marveled, “is a beautiful thing to watch. He’s like a well-oiled machine out there.”
And in the midst of the Mets’ 27-5 renaissance, he just kept humming along.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 22, 1997, Bobby Valentine didn’t have a starting pitcher, but the manager of the Mets wasn’t supposed to have a contender on his hands, either. Thus, on a steamy Sunday at Shea, he found both. The contender we knew about. The Mets were hanging right in there with Florida and Montreal for the National League Wild Card lead, and they were asking reliever Cory Lidle to keep them close. Lidle got the call to start because Armando Reynoso was unavailable, having sustained a shot to the knee from a Luis Sojo line drive in the previous week’s Subway Series (which must be what they meant when they said the Yankee hitters were dangerous). Valentine asked Lidle to give the Mets as many innings as he could against the Pirates. It didn’t add up to many, but he had assistance on both sides of the ball.
Lidle was staked to a 4-0 lead, but couldn’t hold it. The Mets got him an extra run, but Pittsburgh knocked Cory out and brought home the go-ahead run in the fifth versus Juan Acevedo. Tough stuff, but the Mets were tougher, scoring four runs in the bottom of the sixth to take a 9-6 lead. Acevedo gave way to Ricardo Jordan, and the spirit of middling middle relief couldn’t quite be shaken. Jordan gave up a run to make it Mets 9 Pirates 7. In the eighth, Greg McMichael became the first Met pitcher of the day to not allow a runner (his own or an inherited one) to score. But John Franco…well, a two-out walk, a steal and a Kevin Young double happened and the Bucs tied the Mets at 9-9.
Not a lot of great Met pitching by their all-relief corps, but you may have noticed there was plenty of hitting. And sure enough, after Takashi Kashiwada held the Pirates scoreless in the top of the tenth, the Mets drew two walks and, with two out, Carl Everett collected his fourth hit of the day — his biggest yet: a three-run walkoff homer for a 12-9 Met victory. Kashiwada was credited with the win, but it was Everett who earned the save.
GAME 074: July 3, 1986 — METS 6 Astros 5 (10)
(Mets All-Time Game 074 Record: 28-21; Mets 1986 Record: 53-21)
It couldn’t have been more patriotic around Shea this Thursday night. Fireworks awaited in the postgame on this Independence Day’s eve, and all of New York was preparing to celebrate the Statue of Liberty’s centennial the next night. The Mets contributed to that sense of red, white and blue with their own version of manifest destiny.
This land was their land. This league, too.
It had been the story of 1986 from almost the word go. Go? The Mets went and couldn’t be hailed down. An 18-1 stretch in April and May elevated them permanently above the N.L. East pack. The Expos lingered within wishing distance for a while, but a six- and then seven-game winning streak had irrevocably separated the Mets from Montreal. Yet another streak — six and counting — was in progress when one of the Mets’ prospective playoff opponents, the West-contending Astros, landed at Shea for a holiday weekend series.
Prospective playoff opponent? Houston was indeed in a dogfight for first with the Giants in their division, but wasn’t it the height of presumption to infer it had anything to do with the Mets? After all, more than half the season had yet to be played.
But no, it wasn’t presumptuous. The Mets held an 11½-game lead over the Expos, much bigger over everybody else. It clearly wasn’t going to recede. They needed a new challenge. Hence, Houston.
Versus Ron Darling, the Astros entered swinging. Ty Gainey and Glenn Davis each drove in a first-inning run and the Mets trailed 2-0 almost immediately.
That would not stand.
In the bottom of the second, lightly used backup catcher Ed Hearn homered off Astro starter Jim Deshaies to put the Mets on the board. Jose Cruz’s sac fly got the run back in the fourth, but Darryl Strawberry’s eleventh home run of the season, with Kevin Mitchell on base, tied the game 3-3 in the fifth. After that, the two starters traded zeroes into the eighth. Charlie Kerfeld replaced Deshaies — who had struck out eleven — but the Mets didn’t score. Darling went nine but left with the game tied. Kerfeld got out of the ninth as well.
The Grucci pyrotechnics spectacular would have to wait a little while as the Astros and the Mets played on. Sadly for the 48,839 in attendance, Jesse Orosco, picking up for Darling, dampened the skies. With two out, Jesse walked Jim Pankovits. Phil Garner, pinch-hitting for Kerfeld, homered. The Astros led 5-3.
In another year, the Mets fan default attitude might have been “so much for fireworks,” but this was 1986, a year like no other. So what happened next, while not necessarily a lock, couldn’t have seemed all that surprising.
Frank DiPino came on to attempt to close out the Mets in the bottom of the tenth. But the first thing he did was walk Lenny Dykstra, who entered the game as a pinch-runner in the eighth. One way or another, walking a Met leadoff batter wasn’t a good idea. Usually it meant a stolen base was in the offing. This time it meant Dykstra could trot home in front of Strawberry, who whacked the lefty DiPino’s first pitch 430 feet for his second home run of the game. Suddenly it was 5-5, and Shea had more explosive things on its mind than fireworks.
Met momentum stalled briefly as Gary Carter (that night’s starting first baseman) grounded out and Rafael Santana struck out. Ray Knight, who had fanned in his four previous at-bats, seemed an unlikely candidate to regenerate Met momentum. But he did, with the final swing of the game.
“This ball is outta here,” Tim McCarver exclaimed over Channel 9, “this ballgame is over and I don’t believe it! Ray Knight hits a game-winning home run and the Mets have won seven in a row! They are spreading the news that they are, right now, the dominant team in this game…in either league!”
Was McCarver looking ahead, too, and not just to the fireworks display? In case it wasn’t enough that the Mets had just beaten the Astros 6-5 in ten innings, Tim alluded to the undeniable fact that the Mets (now 12½ up on their nearest Canadian rival) had the best record in all of baseball, 4½ games better than that of the best the American League had to offer, the Boston Red Sox.
Why anyone would think a Mets’ 6-5, ten-inning triumph at Shea in which Ray Knight scored the winning run would be of interest to the 1986 Red Sox is another story for another time.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 26, 1963, the Mets gave a game away, which was nothing unusual given their brief, inglorious history. But then, in stunning fashion, they took it back. To be fair, the Mets did a nice job of burrowing their way into this Wednesday matinee versus the Cubs at the Polo Grounds. Down 4-0 by the middle of the fifth, Duke Snider drove in Ron Hunt with a sixth-inning double and Frank Thomas followed behind him with a two-run homer. Frank was Thomas on the spot in the eighth, driving in Choo Choo Coleman in the eighth to knot the score at four. The Mets pitching staff was doing a heckuva job in the meantime: starting with Al Jackson getting the last out of the fifth and going through his next inning of work, then two from Larry Bearnarth, one from Tracy Stallard, two from Carl Willey and two and two-thirds from Galen Cisco, the Mets actually threw the equivalent of a no-hitter for nine innings’ worth of Cubs outs. That streak was snapped, however, when, with two out in top of the fourteenth and Don Landrum on first via walk, Billy Williams lined a ball to left that Thomas — known as the Big Donkey — got a poor jump on. It took off to distant precincts of the PG outfield and Williams’s hit became a two-run inside-the-park home run, giving the Cubs a 6-4 lead.
If the game had climaxed there, it would have been…not unusual. But the Mets had hung around this long, so they might as well hang in there a little longer. Jim Hickman singled to open the home fourteenth and the Mets seemed to have a rally going when rookie Ron Hunt singled, too, but Hickman, in his haste to make something happen, overran second base for the first out of the inning. After Jimmy Piersall walked, Cubs head coach Bob Kennedy opted to change pitchers, replacing Jack Warner (who’d produced boffo results since entering the game in the ninth) with Paul Toth. Toth was assigned the heavy task of getting out Thomas, who had four hits on the day. The strategy worked, as Frank flied to left for the second out. Toth was then removed in favor of Jim Brewer. Brewer experienced a prohibition on control, walking Sammy Taylor to load the bases for first baseman Tim Harkness.
Harkness had three hits already, including two in his previous at-bats in the eleventh and the thirteenth. Extra innings were apparently Tim Harkness’s kind of innings, the fourteenth in particular. Harkness ended the game right then and there, on a 3-2 pitch, with his first career grand slam, a mighty wallop over the right field wall that gave the Mets an 8-6 win that unleashed delirium among however many hundreds of fans who stayed to the joyous end. Although the numbers were fewer and the stakes absolutely lesser, Harkness was called out by Mets fans who gathered at the foot of the steps to the Mets’ center field clubhouse (as fans were permitted to do in days of yore) and cheered “WE WANT HARKNESS!” until the man of the moment emerged on the balcony to acknowledge their rapture much as Bobby Thomson did a dozen years earlier when the home team at the Polo Grounds was the Giants and the shot that set off shock waves was heard ’round the world.
“We just about had to end it there,” Casey Stengel offered with impeccable logic after deploying 20 players across four hours and eight minutes of baseball, “because I’d run out of men.”
“I couldn’t believe it was me who hit that,” Harkness, a .208 hitter when the day began, confessed. “It doesn’t seem like good things happen to me.” That might have been a blanket statement for the Polo Grounds Mets, but their New Breed of loyalists recognized the good thing that had befallen them and they never forgot it. Witness the stream of reminiscences this game has generated in the past decade at Ultimate Mets Database:
• “Having seen hundreds of games at Shea, Yankee Stadium, Oakland Coliseum, Candlestick Park, AT&T Park, and a few other places, that afternoon in 1963 at the Polo Grounds is still my most memorable and favorite baseball recollection.”
• “I remember listening to that game on my portable transistor radio. School was over for the day, and I was in the playground in front of my building in the projects. I was eight years old and just about to finish fourth grade. When Harkness came up with two outs and the bases loaded, I recall thinking how great it would be if he hit a grand slam. But that was too much to hope for; the Mets were such a bad team in those early days. When it really did happen, you can imagine how great it felt.”
• “I remember sitting on the first base line. The count was full. Everyone in the Polo Grounds stood and started yelling. Harkness swung and you could hear the ball whistle on a line toward the right field wall. It cleared. It sounded like 50,000 people were there.”
• “Playing stickball or baseball we always imagined; last at bat, two outs, trailing by 3 with a full count. It was nearly perfect. I was out in right, standing in a position that would allow a dash to the IND. I was high the entire 2 hour train and bus trip home. I attended ‘game 6’ with my wife and kids but I always rate this 1963 Cub game as number 1 in my Met memory bank. Probably because it is only a memory.”
• “Based on these comments, there sure were a lot of 13-year-olds at that game. I was one of them. What I remember was the pandemonium after the game, in the corridors leading out of the Polo Grounds and down into the subway. Everyone was just chanting ‘Let’s Go Mets’ and the sound was bouncing off the walls. It was so much fun.”
GAME 075: June 24, 1997 — METS 6 Braves 5
(Mets All-Time Game 075 Record: 27-22; Mets 1997 Record: 43-32)
If the Yankees weren’t exactly slain in the first Subway Series ever, the Mets had more than held their own: a win in the Mlicki opener, an unfortunate loss in the middle, a riveting extra-inning affair that felt a bit like a tie in the finale (though, technically, it was a loss). It was an exciting, draining three-game set, and there was some speculation among Met doubters in the New York media that the Mets couldn’t possibly get themselves up for more mundane opponents once they finished playing the Yankees.
But they hadn’t really been paying close attention to the 1997 Mets — and the 1997 Mets were worth everybody’s attention. They proved it in the week that followed the New York-New York production.
First, a four-game set against the surprising Pirates, contenders in the N.L. Central for the first time since they were winning the East five years earlier. But Pittsburgh came off more like pretenders when they encountered this latest iteration of Met magic. In four successive games, the Bucs succumbed four heartbreaking ways — or exhilarating ways, from a Mets perspective.
The Mets blew a 6-1 lead on Thursday, the first night after the Subway Series, but Jason Hardtke redeemed everybody when he drove in the winner in the bottom of the ninth. Bobby Jones, in budding All-Star form, took a 1-0 lead into the ninth the next night, one handed successfully for the final out to John Franco. The day after, it was Edgardo Alfonzo emerging as the clutchest of Mets, turning a 2-1 deficit into a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the eighth with a home run off reliever Marc Wilkins, a margin preserved by Greg McMichael. And, to cap it off, Carl Everett launched a three-run, tenth-inning homer to sweep the Pirates out of Shea.
A four-game winning streak presenting evidence that the Mets weren’t hopelessly distracted by having been in the presence of the Yankees. Now the competition would stiffen again as the Braves came to town. Bobby Valentine, having used his entire bullpen in the Pirate finale, asked Rick Reed to go deep on Monday night, and the righty who came out of something approximating nowhere obliged his manager, beating John Smoltz in a 3-2 dual complete game. So that was five in a row for the Mets.
Could it continue? The Braves may have been in the same division as the Mets, but it was hard to say the Mets were in the same league as the Braves. Atlanta won three straight N.L. West titles before realignment and Rand-McNally figured they belonged in the East. Bad news for the Mets and other co-habitants as the Braves cruised to the first two Eastern Division titles in their grasp in ’95 and ’96 (1994 having had no champ due to strike). The Mets, only recently asserting themselves as a legitimate Wild Card combatant, couldn’t be concerned with first-place Atlanta from a competitive big picture. Or could they? A win on Tuesday night and not only would the Mets keep up with the second-place Marlins, they’d be, somehow, not far off the tails of the perennial powerhouse Atlantans.
The two teams battled to a 3-3 tie through six, the Mets knotting it on a Bernard Gilkey sacrifice fly. But as fast as the Mets got themselves back into the game, they seemed to fall away from it. In the top of the seventh, Jeff Blauser singled in a run against Cory Lidle and 25-year-old Chipper Jones did the same to Takashi Kashiwada. The Braves led 5-3, and Mike Bielecki made it stand up in the succeeding half-inning.
The bottom of the eighth, however, was a different matter, one with a definite Met twist. Carl Everett (a .500 hitter across these six games since the Subway Series) doubled and Carlos Baerga, generally a disappointment since being acquired from Cleveland the summer before, rose up and satisfied every Mets fan on the planet by homering. It was a 5-5 tie, heading to the ninth.
McMichael was Valentine’s choice to keep Atlanta from regaining the lead. The former Brave was up to the task, if barely. Michael Tucker struck out to lead off the ninth but reached when strike three eluded Todd Hundley. Chipper’s groundout erased Tucker, but Jones — being the Jones the Mets were coming to know all too well — stole second. Bobby V ordered an intentional walk to Fred McGriff on a 3-1 count. McMichael struck out erstwhile teammate Ryan Klesko, a fine thing on its face, except Jones and McGriff executed a double-steal to place themselves on third and second, respectively. Another intentional walk was issued on another 3-1 count to another Atlanta batter (another Jones: Andruw) and McMichael was left to face Eddie Perez. He struck out the Brave catcher and left the bases loaded….bases that were loaded on no hits, no errors, no hit batsmen and no unintentional walks, yet the Mets needed 29 gut-check pitches to get out of the inning.
Welcome, per usual, to Atlanta Braves baseball.
But now it was time to show the Braves what 1997 New York Mets baseball looked like: a one-out walk to Hundley by Mark Wohlers; a single by Everett that drove Todd to third. And, finally, Baerga, sneaking a ground ball past Blauser for the single that scored Hundley and clinched the 6-5 Mets win.
Six wins in a row for the unfathomable, indefatigable, contending Mets, and only four behind the heretofore impregnable Braves, not to mention a tiny game-and-a-half off the Marlins’ Wild Card pace. These Mets — “getting to be a group to be reckoned with,” in Valentine’s words — had little in the way of starpower, but everything in the way of resilience. And now, for the first time since 1990, they had a share of a playoff race.
Two of them, technically.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 30, 1989, the Mets proved they learned something from one of baseball’s most famous managers despite vanquishing his forces two decades earlier. Orioles skipper Earl Weaver was known for preaching a formula of pitching and three-run homers. The Mets mixed his ingredients quite effectively this Friday night in Cincinnati. The pitching came from Ron Darling, who put eight fine innings on the Riverfront Stadium board — six hits, one run — before giving way to Don Aase to complete the 11-1 Met win. The three-run homers were plentiful, too: one from Darryl Strawberry, off Rick Mahler; one from Howard Johnson, off Kent Tekulve; and one from…Ron Darling? Indeed, the Mets’ starting pitcher helped his own cause with a three-run home run off Norm Charlton in the sixth inning, giving himself a 7-1 lead. Of course it was almost old hat for Mr. Darling, considering that in his previous start, against the Phillies, he contributed to his own well-being by launching a home run at Shea versus Floyd Youmans (he got the win then, too). Ronnie clouted home runs in consecutive starts, yet the 1989 National League Silver Slugger for pitchers went to the Giants’ Don Robinson. The surehanded Darling instead had to settle during the awards season for becoming the only Met hurler to win a Gold Glove.