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 that includes the “best” 82nd game in any Mets season, the “best” 83rd game in any Mets season, the “best” 84th 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 082: July 8, 1968 (2nd) — Mets 4 PHILLIES 2
(Mets All-Time Game 082 Record: 22-27; Mets 1968 Record: 39-43)
Imagine if the Franchise opened an outlet store. Imagine if the best starting pitcher the Mets ever had decided to fill his days between starts with relief assignments. Imagine Tom Seaver as not just your ace but your closer.
Once a year, with something approximating regularity, Gil Hodges availed himself of this fantasy. He handed Seaver the ball not in the first inning, but in a late inning. The first time he did it, it made for a most successful if unusual finishing flourish.
The Mets and Phillies were winding down the first half of the 1968 season with a Sunday doubleheader at Connie Mack Stadium. The opener was lost in most heartbreaking fashion. Dick Selma had pitched seven shutout innings, but was removed in favor of Ron Taylor after Johnny Callison reached him for a leadoff homer in the eighth to cut the Mets’ advantage to 3-1. Hodges’s confidence in Taylor, the reliever who finished more games for the Mets than any other that year, was justified when he allowed no further damage in the inning. So confident was Gil that he let Ron bat for himself in the top of the ninth, even though the Mets had the bases loaded. Dick Hall struck Taylor out to keep the game at 3-1.
After Ron retired Cookie Rojas to start the bottom of the ninth, the walls fell in: two singles and then Richie Allen belting his 15th homer of the season — the third of a record-tying 10 he’d whack Met pitching for in 1968 (Willie Stargell had 10 vs. the Mets in 1966) — to win it for Philadelphia, 4-3. Taking the nightcap, thus, became imperative if the Mets wanted to savor their overall progress sans bad taste during the All-Star break.
Their opponent was Larry Jackson, a Metkiller of Allenian proportions as a pitcher. Jackson, a fine if not outstanding pitcher most of the time, morphed into a monster when he was facing Mets batters. His record against New York: 20-1. Yet 1968 was to be Jackson’s final season and this was, hands down, the Mets’ best team ever. Win or lose this game, they were headed to the All-Star break nearer to .500 than ever before and farther above tenth place than ever before. But the nearer and farther they got, respectively, the happier everybody in Metsdom would be.
Jackson turned out not to be his usual problem. Phil Linz, starting at second for the Mets, singled in a pair of runs in the second to put the Mets out in front, 2-1. The Phillies tied it off starter Danny Frisella in the fourth, but the Mets put together another rally off their old nemesis in the eighth: doubles by J.C. Martin and Ed Kranepool built the lead run and a one-out error by Phillie shortstop Roberto Peña provided insurance. Larry Jackson left trailing 4-2 after giving up 11 hits to his traditional patsies.
Hodges had Frisella go eight innings and he kept the score 4-2. For the ninth, though, the manager realized the All-Star break allowed him some unusual flexibility. He could fill his bullpen with starting pitchers, get them a little extra work and not do any damage to his rotation since there’d be nothing to rotate for another four days. Plus, since he had some awfully good starters, they were likely to help secure this win. Out went Frisella and into the begin the ninth came Jerry Koosman. Kooz was building a strong case for himself as Rookie of the Year, having gone 11-4 in the first half and earning a slot on the National League All-Star team. Here, Hodges looked to his stellar lefty to get out lefty hitter Tony Gonzalez.
Instead, Koosman hit Gonzalez with a 2-2 pitch, meaning the tying run was coming to bat with nobody on…and it was a righty…Richie Allen. So Hodges pulled his lefty specialist du jour and inserted his right-hand man, Tom Seaver.
This wasn’t Seaver’s first relief appearance ever. It was his second. Wes Westrum used Tom out of the ’pen in his rookie year of 1967 in a most unusual circumstance. It was another doubleheader, this one in August at Pittsburgh. Seaver started the first game and was knocked around badly enough to be gone after two innings. The Mets rallied to beat the Bucs 6-5 and went for the sweep in the nightcap, which also got off poorly for the Mets. Starter Billy Wynne didn’t last two innings, and Westrum had to keep dipping into his relief corps: Reniff, Selma, Taylor, Grzenda and, in the twelfth, with two out and the dangerous Donn Clendenon up, Seaver.
Yes, Tom Seaver started one end of a doubleheader and was brought in to hopefully close the other end. For a moment there, Wes Westrum was a genius. Seaver retired Clendenon and then pitched a scoreless thirteenth. Alas, Tom wasn’t so fortunate in the fourteenth, loading the bases and giving up the game-winning single to Manny Mota for a 6-5 loss.
It didn’t affect the kid too badly. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in ’67 and pitch the first half of ’68 well enough to merit his second All-Star selection. And now, in Philadelphia, Hodges was asking Seaver to make a one-day return to relief, all in the name of getting Richie Allen.
Tom, good Marine that he was, followed Hodges’s orders and struck out Allen on three pitches. Seaver then got fly balls out of Callison and Tony Taylor to preserve the 4-2 victory, giving Frisella his second win of the season, dealing Larry Jackson his second loss ever against the Mets (he’d finish his career versus New York at 21-2) and earning for himself the first save of his career.
Make that the only save of Tom Seaver’s career…not counting the one he earned for pitching the 15th inning of the 1967 All-Star Game.
The save wasn’t a universally recognized statistic during the 1968 season; it would take an offseason baseball Rules Committee edict to make saves an official part of the box score forever more. As the Associated Press reported that December, saves previously “had only been kept by scorekeepers on an unofficial basis.” But look through the records maintained by the likes of Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference, and you’ll see saves documented going back many decades, not just from 1969 on. As the B-R Bullpen explains, “Baseball researchers have worked through the official statistics retroactively to calculate saves for all major league seasons prior to 1969.”
In any event, Seaver had one and only one regular-season save, though Hodges would parachute him into a couple more pre-break ninth innings. In 1970, two days before starting him in the All-Star Game, Gil called on Tom to strike out Bob Bailey of the Expos with two out in the ninth. Unfortunately for the Mets, Seaver’s role that day was to slam the barn door after the horse — in the form of a pair of ninth-inning runs off starter Ray Sadecki — had already gotten loose in what became a 5-3 Met loss (Hodges used Seaver in a similar losing ninth inning versus the Cubs in April 1969).
In 1971, with one out and one on and the Mets up by one over the Reds, Tom played fireman again, but the situation was too hot even for a pitcher as terrific as him. Seaver gave up a single to Lee May and a three-run homer to Tony Perez, winding up the losing pitcher in Jon Matlack’s first major league start. It goes down in the books as Tom Seaver’s only blown save.
All told, Seaver made six relief appearances as a Met, as opposed to 395 starts. The last of them came during arguably the most star-studded pitching inning in Mets history, in the last game before the break in 1976. Matlack began the bottom of the seventh that Sunday at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium up 4-1; he got in trouble, so manager Joe Frazier brought in Koosman, who deepened the trouble enough to put the Mets into a 6-4 hole; Frazier replaced him with Seaver, who got out of the inning with no further runs scored. The Mets pounced on former Cy Young winner (and future Met) Mike Marshall in the eighth to retake the lead, positioning Seaver for his only relief win as a Met…but Bob Apodaca surrendered a three-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to Braves cleanup hitter (and another future Met) Willie Montañez and the Mets — despite using Matlack, Koosman and Seaver in rapid succession — lost 9-8.
Tom Seaver had three relief appearances left in his career, but they wouldn’t come until he was with the White Sox in 1984 and 1985. The first of them was downright historic. The White Sox and Brewers played 17 innings at Comiskey Park on May 8, 1984. At 3-3, the game was suspended, to be picked up before the next night’s game. Well, this one wasn’t so easily dismissed. The Brewers scored three in the top of the 21st inning on a Ben Oglivie home run…but the White Sox answered back in their half of the 21st. So it went on, at 6-6 through 24. Tony La Russa, having gone through seven pitchers already, had no choice but to insert his starter for the regularly scheduled May 9 game in relief for the remainder of the suspended game from May 8 — Tom Seaver. Seaver pitched two scoreless frames, holding the fort long enough for Harold Baines to hit a walkoff (or a dragoff) home run allowing the White Sox to prevail 7-6 in 25 innings.
With that, Tom Seaver not only recorded the sole relief win of his career, but won the longest game ever played to a decision in major league history. And then he went out and pitched into the ninth inning of the regularly scheduled game, beating Milwaukee 5-4, giving him, depending on how you read these things, wins on consecutive days or two wins in the same night.
More proof, as if Mets fans needed any, that Tom Seaver could do just about anything whenever you handed him the ball.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 11, 1986, the Mets continued to take guff from no one while simultaneously being not at all reticent about dispensing much as they saw fit. They were playing the hapless Braves on a Friday night at Shea, a game NBC chose to televise to a national prime-time audience. Great programming decision, as Gary Carter launched a three-run homer for the cameras and just like that the Mets had a sizable first-inning lead. Atlanta pitcher Palmer must have thought he was appearing on Friday Night Fights because his next move was to plunk Darryl Strawberry “in the butt,” as Jack Lang put it in the Daily News.
Butt nothing, the Mets answered in unison as they attacked Palmer en masse. The beleaguered Brave starter was clearly out of his weight class. Lang: “A mob scene followed with Palmer winding up on the ground and a mob of Mets on top of him.” The Mets were getting to be old hands at this sort of thing. They’d already stood up for themselves, fistwise, against the Dodgers and the Pirates earlier in ’86.
No ejections were issued, which was too bad for Palmer because in the second inning, he had to face Carter again and this time Carter crushed it for a grand slam. Two innings, two home runs, seven RBI — and a TKO of David Palmer. From there, it was simply a matter of the Mets tacking on runs and Sid Fernandez giving up none. The lefty spun a two-hit, nine-punchout 11-0 gem, the first complete game shutout he’d ever fought through.
GAME 083: July 3, 1996 — Mets 10 PHILLIES 6
(Mets All-Time Game 083 Record: 22-27; Mets 1996 Record: 38-45)
Once in a while, things work out as Mets fans wish, if only for a little while. Take the consensus desire that their club call up their most talented prospect in the midst of an almost-lost season. It’s a fairly regular impulse in these parts. The Mets don’t always listen. Even when they do, the minor leaguer turned Met doesn’t necessarily make it a worthwhile exercise. But when it does, isn’t everybody a genius? Even if it’s just for a little while?
The 1996 Mets had run through four different starting right fielders in their first 21 games. Among Butch Huskey, Chris Jones, Carl Everett and Kevin Robertson, none of them worked out. A fifth contender, Andy Tomberlin, emerged in June, but he, too, failed to take control of the position. No offense to (or from) any of them, but what were the Mets waiting for? Why didn’t they just reach down to Norfolk and bring up Alex Ochoa?
The word on Ochoa, dating back to when he was acquired at the 1995 trade deadline from Baltimore (with Damon Buford) for Bobby Bonilla was “five-tool”. He was said to be able to hit; hit with power, run; catch; and throw. Five tools, no waiting…or as little waiting as talent-starved Mets fans were willing to endure. The last Met outfielder who answered honestly to those qualities was Darryl Strawberry, and he’d been gone from the Mets for five years. In the interim, there were guys who seemed to have all those tools — guys like Ryan Thompson and Jeromy Burnitz and the aforementioned Everett — but none who actually knew how to use them consistently.
Would Ochoa be different? An eleven-game sample at the end of 1995 provided promise if no guarantees. Alex collected 10 hits in his first 20 at-bats but nine of those were singles and none of them drove in a run. He was also badly fooled by a two Marlin flyballs at Joe Robbie Stadium, despite having grown up in Miami and presumably having a handle on how bright the Florida sky can be (Ochoa failed to wear sunglasses on the first of those plays). Judged not quite ready to start the ’96 campaign at Shea, Alex honed his game at Triple-A. Batting .339 and showing genuine pop, the Mets brought him back in late June.
His first 10 games of 1996 were superb. Ochoa was batting .306, slugging .500 and had driven in eight runs already; on defense, he had thrown out Dante Bichette of the Rockies on a play at the plate Then came his eleventh game of the year.
That’s where Alex Ochoa really put his tools to work.
The 24-year-old son of Cuban immigrants singled in his first at-bat, helping along a rally that put the Mets ahead of the Phillies at the Vet, 1-0. In the fourth, after the Phillies took a 2-1 lead, Jeff Kent and Todd Hundley produced back-to-back doubles to tie the score. Ochoa was up next and tripled to give the Mets the lead. In the sixth, with the Mets up 4-3, Ochoa led off with a double and scored on first baseman Huskey’s home run. The Mets were ahead 6-3 and Ochoa, 3-for-3 off Philadelphia starter Terry Mulholland, needed only a home run to complete a cycle in his 22nd game in the majors.
Come the eighth inning, with the Phillies having since knotted things at six, Ochoa delivered that homer. He put himself in the Met record books alongside Jim Hickman, Tommie Agee, Mike Phillips, Keith Hernandez and Kevin McReynolds as the only six men to cycle in orange and blue, and he put the Mets up 7-6. The Mets led 9-6 in the top of the ninth when Ochoa continued his assault on Phillie pitching by doubling home the Mets’ final run in a 10-6 win.
What a night: five times up and five hits for the five-tool player of Met dreams, including one of each kind of hit. He drove in three and he scored three and his batting average was now up to .390.
Mets manager Dallas Green mastered understatement when he appraised his right fielder’s performance: “He’s playing pretty good baseball. He’s done a lot of good things with his bat. He came up here smoking from Triple-A and hasn’t stopped.”
“I know it’s the major leagues, but I feel like I belong,” the star of the game said. “I’m doing well, and I hope it’ll continue.”
Every Mets fan simply assumed it would.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 13, 1991, the Mets were as hot as they’d been the summer before, as hot as they’d been most of the summers immediately preceding the one they were in. After a rather lackadaisical April, May and June, July transformed the Mets into unbeatable. They took a seven-game road trip to Montreal and Philadelphia and swept all seven. This longest undefeated road trip in club history brought the Mets to the All-Star break in second place, 2½ games behind the Pirates; they had been 6½ back, in third, before the trip commenced.
When play resumed, the Mets stayed en fuego, taking their first two games at home against San Diego for a nine-game winning streak. The tenth came on a Saturday night at Shea when starter David Cone, like the Mets of late, couldn’t have been any hotter. He went eight innings, fanned 13 — including one in each frame he worked — and led the Mets’ winning streak into double-digits. With the 3-1 win, the Mets rose to 15 games above .500. They wouldn’t get any higher or closer to Pittsburgh, but as far as anyone could tell after they won their tenth in a row, the Mets of 1991 were every bit the powerhouse they’d been since the summer of 1984.
GAME 084: July 15, 1980 — Mets 9 BRAVES 2
(Mets All-Time Game 084 Record: 23-26; Mets 1980 Record: 42-42)
Goals are all relative. Some years, you keep your feet on the ground and, per Casey Kasem, keep reaching for the stars. Other years you’re just happy to keep your balance. In 1980, the Mets were all about standing on two feet and not falling over. It was taking them quite a while to reach this modest goal.
To retrace their Magic is Back footsteps, the Mets stumbled to a pitiful 9-18 start. Then they began to win more often than they lost, often in dramatic fashion. The drama then turned to their record, and whether it would reach (never mind exceed) .500. It may not sound like much, but the Mets hadn’t had as many wins as losses after the eighteenth game of any season since 1976. When you haven’t had much, it doesn’t take much.
On June 12, the Mets raised their record to 26-27; they lost their next game.
On June 14, the Mets raised their record to 27-28; they lost their next game.
On July 4, the Mets raised their record to 37-38; they lost their next game (the second game of a doubleheader in which they held a 4-2 first-inning lead).
On July 5, the Mets raised their record to 38-39; they lost their next game (in extra innings).
The .500 mark was a hump for the 1980 Mets, and getting over it loomed as paramount. It would take the entire first half, the All-Star break, a doubleheader sweep of the Cardinals and a trip to Atlanta to position them once more to take on the thus far unscaleable hump.
On July 15, the Mets entered their game against the Braves at 41-42 and took Chief Noc-A-Homa’s bull by the horns…or by the winning horn that was exactly the same size as a losing horn, in the spirit of reaching .500.
The Mets struck early: Mike Jorgensen singled in a run off Doyle Alexander in the top of the first and Steve Henderson followed him to the plate with a three-run bomb. The Mets were ahead 4-0.
The Mets struck often: Back-to-back RBI doubles in the second, from Claudell Washington and John Stearns, made it Mets 6 Braves 0.
The Mets continued to strike: Henderson led off the sixth with a second home run off Alexander and hiked the Mets’ margin to 7-0.
The Mets struck down any potential Atlanta comeback: Pat Zachry kept the Braves off the board until the seventh and allowed only five hits through eight innings, as the Mets continued to lead 7-2.
The ninth is where things got that much more interesting. Zachry came up to bat with Doug Flynn on first. On orders from manager Joe Torre, Pat looked to bunt his teammate to second. Atlanta reliever Al Hrabosky, presumably incensed that the Mets were working on an insurance run with a five-run lead, threw a pitch that sailed over Zachry’s head. Or as Bob Murphy put it in the 1980 highlight film (a film that made no bones about .500 being “a big target”), “Al Hrabosky had come on to mop up. Instead, he did a little dusting.”
The pitch didn’t come close to hitting Zachry, but then again, it was obviously aimed nowhere near the plate. Taking umbrage, per Murphy’s narration, was the next Met hitter:
“Hrabosky got into words with on-deck batter Lee Mazzilli, who didn’t like what he had just seen.”
The benches cleared for a bit. Later, Torre remarked of Hrabosky, “If he wanted to throw at someone’s head” because the Mets were trying to increase a 7-2 lead in the ninth, “he should have thrown at mine. I was the fellow who instructed our pitcher to bunt.”
Zachry struck out, but the tension was still as thick as the Georgia humidity when Lee strode to the plate. Murphy’s highlight narration continued:
“And if the Mad Hungarian thought things were bad then, he only had to wait until Mazzilli got a chance to take a swing — with a bat, that is.”
“The spirited Mazz,” as Murph called him, had just avenged Zachry’s headspace by walloping a Hrabosky pitch over the Fulton County left field wall. It was his ninth home run in seventeen games and it felt as good as the previous eight combined. Lee watched his homer take off into orbit; he took his sweet time rounding the bases; and he called to the Mad Hungarian as he crossed the plate, “How’d you like that? Don’t be throwing at my pitcher.”
The Mad Hungarian got madder still and the benches emptied again, but the Mets would not be denied their 42nd win against 42 losses. Zachry pitched a scoreless ninth for the 9-2 victory and the Mets, by Murph’s highlight film reckoning “had balanced the books.” Further, the Mets not only stood at .500 but stood tall and proud at having stood up for one another.
“I can’t say I was right,” Mazzilli admitted upon reflection. “I probably was wrong, but I’d do it again.”
The Mets would have to do it again, too — reach .500 that is. They lost their next game, putting them at 42-43, but they balanced the books the night after that, at 43-43. But from there, the 1980 Mets never saw .500 again.
On July 19, the Mets raised their record to 44-45; they lost their next game.
On August 2, the Mets raised their record to 50-51; they lost their next game (in extra innings, after leaving the bases loaded in the eighth).
On August 13, the Mets raised their record to 56-57; and they were swept five games by the eventual world champion Phillies at Shea Stadium in a series whose cumulative score was 40-12 in the wrong direction.
For more aspirational teams, .500 would have been a stepping stone. For the 1980 Mets it proved both a peak and a banana peel. The final, fatal slip after lunging at breaking even ushered in a stretch of baseball far worse than the 9-18 start from April and May. The sweep at the hands of the Phillies festered into an 11-38 finish, pretty much wiping out all signs of progress from when the Magic Is Back Mets kept coming so close at being as good as they were bad.
But when they were that good, if only for a couple of nights in Atlanta, .500 was a truly Magical mark.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 6, 2010, Johan Santana threw 40 pitches in keeping the Reds from scoring over the first three innings at Citi Field, but it was a different pitch count that got the crowd’s attention in the bottom of the third. With one out and Ruben Tejada on first, Santana stepped in against Cincinnati starter Matt Maloney. Tejada took off for second on ball one, but was thrown out by catcher Corky Miller. Now, having only to retire the light-hitting Met pitcher to get out of the inning, Maloney focused all his attention on Santana. Johan did the same in reverse.
He fouled off Maloney’s second pitch for strike one. He fouled off Maloney’s third pitch for strike two. At one-and-two, there entered into the equation a certain sameness: Santana fouled off Maloney’s fourth pitch. And his fifth pitch. And his sixth and seventh pitch. Still one-and-two until a ball. OK, two-and-two on Santana, who entered the game batting .133. Maloney’s ninth pitch…fouled off. As was his tenth. And his eleventh. Then came Maloney’s twelfth pitch.
And there went Maloney’s twelfth pitch, sailing over Citi Field’s right field wall, just off its foul pole, for Johan Santana’s first major league home run and the first home run generated by a Met pitcher since John Maine smacked one to left at Shea Stadium three seasons earlier. That, incidentally, was the same year Johan, as a visiting Twin, doubled and scored against Aaron Sele while in the process of whitewashing the Mets, 9-0. When, Mets fans wondered, might we see the mighty Johan produce on both sides of the ball when he was pitching and hitting for us?
After three years as a Met, they had their answer.
Maloney: “I threw him everything I had.”
Santana: “I hit it and I started running. I didn’t believe it was out.”
But it was. And with that one-run margin in his back pocket — and his ability to continue to concentrate on pitching undisturbed despite the curtain-call giddiness that surrounded his maiden dinger — Santana diligently went about his business, throwing another 73 pitches over the next six innings. He gave up no runs to the Reds and (after telling Jerry Manuel upon the concerned manager’s visit to the mound in the ninth, “I’ll finish it”) nailed down a 3-0 complete game victory. That made Santana only the second Met pitcher ever to throw a shutout in the same game in which he homered. Pete Falcone turned the trick late in the second season of 1981. Santana’s predecessor’s hitting secret then? “I go up there swinging hard,” Pete said. “If I strike out, I won’t get cheated up there. Anybody with a bat in his hand has a chance, right?”
Johan must have thought so. He didn’t homer again in 2010 or drive in any more runs, but he did collect a hit in five of his final six starts of the season to finish with a respectable (for a pitcher) .177 batting average.