The mysteries of baseball are part of its wonder, and nothing is more of a mystery than pitching. A pitcher can completely fall apart without warning, missing targets and walking guys until he’s trapped trudging around behind the mound, pain etched on his face. His mechanics are gone, the baseball feels like a foreign object in his hand, and he’s having an out-of-body experience in front of tens of thousands of people. There’s nothing he or anybody else can do about it, and it’s pitiable to watch.
But sometimes a pitcher is touched by grace, for want of a better word. All of his pitches are working. He can put the ball anywhere he wants. The mound is his, and he stands atop it with a faintly glassy look of mild amazement on his face, while teammates try not to break the spell and enemy batters wait for it to be over.
It can happen to anybody, which is the joy of it. It happens to guys for whom Cooperstown is a foregone conclusion, sure — but it also happens to ham-and-eggers and raw specimens and lost causes. When it does, you see the whole package as imagined by some scout, the possibility that made that scout drool and a GM urge an owner to write a big check. For two or three hours, the gap between potential and reality vanishes. (One of my favorite such cases: Len Barker’s May 1981 perfect game. Pitching before a tiny crowd on a clammy night in Cleveland, the oft-wild Barker threw 84 of 103 pitches for strikes, with no batter seeing ball three. When Barker’s grandmother heard he’d pitched the 10th perfect game in baseball history, she said she was proud of him and hoped he’d do even better next time.)
Chris Capuano has been … how to put this? Workmanlike? Distressingly predictable? He’s had a habit of looking very good early, giving up a run or two in circumstances you want to shrug off as unlucky, and then imploding hideously. But not tonight. Tonight all of the mysteries of baseball were an open book for him. His fastball, change-up and slider were all superb, borderline untouchable. He knew it, the Mets knew it, the nicely appreciative crowd knew it, and the Braves certainly knew it.
Over at ESPN New York, Mark Simon has some interesting notes: The game rated a 96 on the 1-100 Bill James Game Score metric for starts, the best by a Met since David Cone fanned 19 Phils on the final day of the ’91 season. And Capuano’s performance was only the second time a Met threw a shutout, allowed two hits or fewer, struck out 10 or more and walked nobody. The other guy who did that? It was Tom Seaver, in the Jimmy Qualls game.
The Jimmy Qualls game, of course, was nearly a no-hitter. (It was mentioned in our house tonight in the third, when Joshua asked how close the Mets had come to the promised land of being a normal franchise. I forgot Leron Lee also got a hit instead of becoming Out No. 26, not to mention Joe Wallis getting one as the potential Out No. 27. Though Wallis wouldn’t have counted anyway.) As Simon’s notes attest, it’s not an idle comparison: Capuano certainly had no-hit stuff, and in fact wound up facing one over the minimum. Which just goes to show you how much luck has to do with it: You can be in a state of grace, and still have your date with destiny canceled because of a single lapse in concentration, or a pebble three feet in front of the shortstop, or a little mis-hit parachute, or most anything.
With nobody out in the fifth, Dan Uggla broke his bat on a chest-high change-up, which went through the hole after David Wright seemed to shy from the airborne barrel of the bat. Hard to blame Wright for that, but it was close enough for grumbling about a playable ball, so I was actually a bit relieved when David Ross scorched one past Lucas Duda and practically into the Mo Zone for a clean double in the eighth — a solo homer in some Citi Field reconfigurations being discussed these days. After that it was a joyride until we were down to Michael Bourn staring glumly out at Capuano, knowing he was being fitted for the golden sombrero and unable to escape it.
I can’t think of a better game to get if Mother Nature is going to deprive you of watching your team for two days. Besides Capuano’s pitching clinic, good performances were turned in by Ruben Tejada (who inspired a discussion with Joshua about patience with young players and consistency), as well as by Lucas Duda and Nick Evans, once more freed from the back of the milk carton for garbage time. Evans has been particularly impressive in his last two games — it’s not just the hits, but watching him calmly monitor the strike zone and wait for something he can drive, instead of letting doubt and rust help tempt him into expanding the zone.
And now, well, a lost weekend. Rain and the closure of the mass-transit system have erased tomorrow’s game, followed by a rather definitive erasure courtesy of Hurricane Irene. Evacuating apartments is now the main order of business for a few Mets, and I imagine for a few of us, too.
Emily and Joshua and I were scheduled to make our annual weeklong trek down to Long Beach Island tomorrow morning. Scratch that, obviously. Maybe Monday morning, assuming Irene hasn’t done terrible things to the Jersey Shore, or to Brooklyn for that matter. Until the storm’s gone through, our priorities are staying safe and staying dry. Here’s hoping all of you do the same.