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” 130th game in any Mets season, the “best” 131st game in any Mets season, the “best” 132nd 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 130: August 29, 1988 — METS 6 Padres 0
(Mets All-Time Game 130 Record: 21-27; Mets 1988 Record: 77-53)
One star was just beginning to burn incandescently. Another appeared suddenly on the horizon. All things considered, Shea Stadium seemed to be evolving into quite the stellar galaxy.
After struggling to gather momentum across the summer, the first-place Mets kicked their pennant drive into highest gear while on the West Coast. They swept the Dodgers a three-game series before coming home to take a pair of games from the Giants. They lost the finale of the San Francisco set — but found an startling new weapon.
Gregg Jefferies made his 1988 Met debut in that Sunday loss. The two time Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year (who’d pinch-hit in a half-dozen games the previous September) was the most hyped prospect the Mets had ever nurtured this side of Darryl Strawberry, and now that he was in Queens, he was intent on making an immediate impact. Davey Johnson started him at third, batted him second and was rewarded right away for his faith. Jefferies lined a single in the first and produced a double to deep right (and scored) in his second at-bat.
The next night, a rainy Monday against the Padres, Gregg showed he was no one-game wonder. Starting at second and again batting second, Jefferies once more stoked Mets fans’ imaginations when they saw him double and score in the first, homer to lead off the third and triple home a run in the sixth.
Other than wind up his second game as a starting infielder on a divisional leader with a .556 batting average (and 1.333 slugging percentage), what else had he done for us lately?
Jefferies was a line drive machine practically from the womb. Soon enough, the papers would be filled with stories of his father/hitting coach, his intense underwater training sessions, his carefully tended bats, his idolization of Ty Cobb and everything else that makes a legend come to life ten minutes after he arrives on the scene to stay. Gregg’s batting average after fifteen games was .400. He was no defensive prodigy, having come up as an unnatural shortstop, but Davey didn’t hesitate to write him in at second or third base almost every game for the rest of the season. By November, on the strength of 109 at-bats in 29 games, Gregg Jefferies — with 6 home runs, 17 runs batted in and a batting average of .321 — placed sixth in National League Rookie of the Year voting.
Gregg was the budding star against the Padres that Monday night, but a player who hadn’t been around the Mets all that much longer was one who truly glittered — as had become his happy habit.
David Cone entered 1988 as a middle reliever just waiting to explode into a starter. Despite the Mets’ talented rotation, it was just a matter of time before Coney made himself a regular in its ranks, and once Rick Aguilera went down with an injury, his chance materialized.
The righty didn’t waste it. His first start, in early May, yielded a shutout of Atlanta. By July, he was 9-2 and a member of the National League All-Star team. Then, in mid-August, just at the moment the Mets commenced putting space between themselves and the rest of the N.L. East, David took off into orbit.
In the second of what would eventually become eight consecutive wins in eight consecutive starts, Cone dominated the Padres. A Tony Gwynn one-out double in the fourth was the extent of the San Diego attack. Cone walked two but gave up no other hits and, despite two errors (one on a foul ball, one a stolen base attempt), let nobody else on base. When the night was over, David Cone had pitched himself a one-hitter, striking out eight and teaming with Jefferies to lead the Mets to a 6-0 win that allowed them to maintain a 6½-game margin over the fading Pirates..
Cone’s record rose to 14-3 en route to a final mark of 20-3. In any season that didn’t include Orel Hershiser stringing together 59 consecutive scoreless innings, David would have been a near-lock for the Cy Young. For now, the second-year pitcher, the rookie infielder and the other jelling Mets would have to sate themselves with a magic number that had just been reduced to 25.
Same age as Coney in 1988, come to think of it.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 1, 1990, it may have been a little late in the season for a new episode of Extreme Shea Makeover, yet the ratings were gangbusters as the Mets redid their look in the middle of a boiling pennant race.
With the August 31 waiver trade deadline looming, the one by which GMs have to abide if they want to add players who can join their postseason roster, and the once-hot Mets in danger of wearing down from injury and late-summer doldrums, Frank Cashen acted boldly. He obtained a deluxe defensive catcher, Charlie O’Brien, from Milwaukee. He sent two minor leaguers to Philadelphia for experienced middle infield help in Tommy Herr. He enhanced his bench by adding bases-loaded hitting wizard Pat Tabler. And he dipped down to Tidewater to shake up his veteran rotation by promoting and inserting Julio Valera, a righty coming off a decent season in the International League, into Ron Darling’s recently soft spot in the rotation.
With young Valera on the mound, Herr stationed at second and O’Brien putting down fingers behind the plate, the refurbished Mets starred on CBS’s Saturday Game of the Week, and all the changes seemed to work. Against the Giants, Herr led off the Mets’ first with a walk and came around to score, along with Dave Magadan, on Darryl Strawberry’s 30th home run of the year. Herr would lead off the fifth with a homer of his own to extend the Mets’ edge over San Francisco to 5-3, earning applause from a crowd of 40,000+ who had known him mainly as their nemesis from his Cardinals heyday in the late ’80s.
But now Herr was a new Met favorite, as was O’Brien, who guided yet another instant Flushing sensation, Valera, through six innings of three-run pitching. With holdovers Darling and Bobby Ojeda coming out of the pen, and John Franco finishing up for his 31st save (tying Jesse Orosco’s team record), the revamped Mets prevailed, 6-5, and took a half-game lead over the same old Pirates with a little over a month to go in what promised to be a divisional battle royal.
GAME 131: September 1, 1974 — METS 3 Braves 0
(Mets All-Time Game 131 Record: 22-26; Mets 1974 Record: 60-71)
A beloved Met icon and a revered Met opponent faced each other under circumstances that had been imagined as dramatic but, just as the season that was limping into its final month, were fairly underwhelming. Still, in retrospect, there was a poignancy to it that might not have been appreciated in the fleeting present of its day.
The opponent was Hank Aaron, crowned at the beginning of 1974 as the major leagues’ home run king. Really, he crowned himself, homering off Jack Billingham on Opening Day in Cincinnati to tie Babe Ruth’s allegedly unbreakable mark of 714 and taking Al Downing of the Dodgers deep four nights later in Atlanta for No. 715. Given the way things worked in those days, it was pretty much fait accompli that Aaron’s most historic home runs would come against N.L. West rivals. The schedule used to tick like clockwork — in April, you played the teams in your division. While the Braves were taking on the Reds, the Mets were preparing to begin defense of their 1973 pennant at Philadelphia before coming home to raise their flag against St. Louis.
That simple fact took off the hook any National League East pitcher who might have winkingly said, when asked the previous summer, that they wouldn’t necessarily mind being the pitcher who gave up Aaron’s 715th. Not that anybody would groove one to Bad Henry or disturb the integrity of the game…but if somebody was going to give it up and become famous for it, well…
These sentiments caught the attention of the underwhelming commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn. Kuhn, who couldn’t be bothered to stick close enough to Aaron’s historic quest as it reached it climax (he missed No. 715, claiming another, more pressing engagement), let it be known with characteristic rectitude that this — the idea that a pitcher would be anything but stone-faced about being potentially part of the biggest story in baseball — was not a joking matter, even if one of the pitchers to joke about it was that beloved Met icon, Tug McGraw.
“I’d throw my best pitch,” McGraw asserted in the summer of 1973, “and hope like hell he hits it. I’d be a commodity. I’d always be in demand on the banquet circuit.”
If not exactly incendiary, Tug’s remarks struck the commissioner as borderline, so the screwballing lefthander clarified his thoughts for the press: “I didn’t feel I was misquoted. I still say that I would give Aaron my best stuff and hope like hell he hits it out. I’m not going to lay it in there. I’m not going to give it to him. But if he gets it off me, more power to him.”
Aaron finished 1973 with 713 homers, one shy of Ruth, and whatever hot water McGraw got himself in turned tepid over the winter. As he wrote in Screwball, published before Aaron would take his first swings of the following season, “Henry figured to break the record long before he played against the Mets in 1974. But if I were to end up giving him a home run this year, I suppose the commissioner would end up giving me a big investigation. The important thing, though, is that Henry Aaron will know I didn’t do it intentionally.”
For the record, McGraw — who identified a pitch he threw to the eventual home run champ in the 1969 NLCS as “one of the best screwballs I ever threw or imagined throwing” — gave up four home runs to Aaron before Hammerin’ Hank got to 714: the first he ever allowed to any big league batter, as a rookie 1965; one in 1966; one in 1969; and one in 1973. The last of those was the 698th of Aaron’s career and delivered while Tug was cast in the strange role of starter on July 17. That was the game in which Yogi Berra took a shot in the dark at fixing Tug, whose relief efforts had gone to seed all year long. McGraw was roughed up by Brave hitting, but the Mets roared back from a 7-1 deficit to win 8-7, foreshadowing what the rest of 1973 held in store for them.
While it was easy enough to figure out what 1974 had in store for Aaron when he began it sitting on 713, it would have been tough to forecast what kind of year awaited Tug. The thrill of ’73 wore off for all of the Mets, whose late-season magic did not carry over to the following April, but for McGraw, it was as if his redemption had never occurred. 1974 picked up where the doldrums of 1973 left off, with his “You Gotta Believe” heroics serving as some kind of evanescent aberration. The tone was set in the Philly opener when, attempting to protect a 4-3 lead for Tom Seaver, McGraw gave up a two-run, walkoff homer to third baseman Mike Schmidt.
And the tone never varied much from there
By late August, McGraw and Berra were back where they’d been a little more than a year earlier, each trying to figure out what was wrong with the man who had been one of the National League’s most reliable relief aces over the previous half-decade. And as Yogi did in July of ’73, he decided to give Tug a fresh start — literally. He handed Tug the ball to begin a game in Houston and the Mets won. So he did it again a few days later at Shea. This time the Braves were the opponent — and it would almost certainly be Henry Aaron’s last game against the Mets, a team he had tagged for 45 regular-season home runs since they’d entered the National League in 1962.
The first of them was off Roger Craig at County Stadium when Aaron’s team was still known as the Milwaukee Braves. The second was in New York, against Jay Hook, and it landed in the center field bleachers of the Polo Grounds, where only a couple of sluggers had ever landed a ball. He would hit one in each game against the Mets in their playoff encounter in 1969, reaching each Met starter — Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Gary Gentry — while batting .357 in Atlanta’s losing cause. The last home run he’d hit off a Met pitcher at Shea was against his former teammate, George Stone, off whom he belted two on July 8, 1973. And his last home run against a Met anywhere was the one he hit off McGraw the starter nine days later in Atlanta.
Unless he took advantage of his last opportunity against McGraw on the Sunday that began September 1974. Aaron, with 730 roundtrippers on his ledger by now, was presumed gone from the Braves, and maybe retired, after the season. Thus, 33,879 Mets fans took advantage of their last chance to see the home run king possibly do his thing against their team. Though things had calmed down between Tug and the commissioner, it wasn’t altogether without poetic justice that it would be McGraw taking on Aaron on this last trip in for Hammerin’ Hank.
With Aaron’s future unknown, it wasn’t out of the question that any homer he hit would be his last. The pitcher who gave it up would derive some measure of reflected fame for being on the wrong end of it. Thus, McGraw was asked how he felt now about perhaps giving up this historic home run to Aaron.
“I didn’t even think about Aaron until you just reminded me,” Steve Jacobson quoted Tug in his book, The Pitching Staff. “Damn you, now I’m thinking.” With thought devoted to the subject — and with his ERA hovering above 4 — the lefty declared, “I hope I strike him out four times.”
There’d be no strikeouts. But there’d be no home runs, either. McGraw faced Aaron, starting in left field for Atlanta, four times that day. Tug grounded Hank into a 6-4-3 double play to end the first. He gave up a single to him in the fourth. He got him to line to third baseman Wayne Garrett to end the sixth. And, with one out and one on in the top of the ninth — on the heels of a thirty-second standing ovation tribute from the Shea crowd — Tug McGraw threw the last pitch Hank Aaron would ever see from a New York Met.
He popped it to Felix Millan, a longtime Brave, at second base, and Millan gloved it for the second out. Tug then flied Dusty Baker to Teddy Martinez in center to give the Mets a 3-0 win and raise his own record to 6-7.
It may have represented an uneventful goodbye to New York National League baseball for Aaron, but the complete game, five-hit shutout — the first shutout of his career — would turn into an unforeseen milestone for McGraw. It became his final win as a New York Met. The next several weeks were lackluster for both the pitcher and the team. The Mets would finish up at 71-91, McGraw at 6-11. In the offseason, a new general manager, Joe McDonald, would announce there were only three “untouchables” on his roster: Seaver, Koosman and Jon Matlack. McGraw, a Met since 1965, was theoretically available, But that’s all it could be to Tug: a theory, and not a very appealing one.
“If I got traded,” he said in The Pitching Staff, “I wouldn’t even know how to put another uniform on.”
But — just as Hank Aaron would when the Braves sent him and his 733 home runs to the Milwaukee Brewers so he could finish out his career as a DH in the city where he began — Tug would learn different shades of fabric can fit just fine. On December 3, McDonald swapped Tug, Don Hahn and Dave Schneck to Philadelphia for catching prospect John Stearns, starting center fielder Del Unser and a presumed lefty bullpen replacement, Mac Scarce.
Aaron’s American League two-season goodwill tour ended in 1976, with 755 homers as his final tally. Tug’s Philadelphia tenure, however, was just getting started. After having his left shoulder repaired (the one that, it turned out, was giving him undiagnosed trouble those last two seasons with the Mets), he’d wind up pitching ten seasons less than a hundred miles from New York, with one of them, 1980, ending with McGraw on the Veterans Stadium mound, nailing down the final out of the Phillies’ first world championship.
Tug’s final game in the majors would come September 25, 1984 — at Shea Stadium. He was asked to save a 4-2 lead for Kevin Gross, but gave up a leadoff double to Hubie Brooks and a run-scoring triple to Mookie Wilson. He was removed for Larry Andersen, who, three batters later, gave up a pinch-hit, walkoff home run to Tug’s old Mets teammate, Rusty Staub. It put Staub in the record book as only the second player (alongside Ty Cobb) to hit a home run before his 20th birthday and after his 40th.
All of which somehow calls to mind the cake Tug was presented with for his 30th birthday, which fell just before that final start against Henry Aaron and that last win as a Met. It was inscribed, “Youth is like Irish whiskey. It doesn’t last long.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 3, 1985, an unprecedented Met power display was underway on the West Coast, and the sparks it threw off were deeply appreciated across the continent. Gary Carter belted three home runs off San Diego Padre pitching that Tuesday night at Jack Murphy Stadium, leading the Mets to an 8-3 victory. Three homers in one game wasn’t the unprecedented part — Darryl Strawberry had done in only a month earlier in Chicago — but the Kid adding two more homers the next night at the Murph allowed Carter to claim a Met first: five homers in two games. It was a rarity for any player on any team; Gary became the eleventh player in major league history to produce a quintet of roundtrippers in a pair of games. The last had been Dave Kingman in 1979, as a Cub, against the Mets.
There was definitely more to come for Carter as that searing September pushed forward and the Mets dueled the Cardinals toward a bitter end. Before it was over, the perennial All-Star catcher won National League Player of the Month honors for clubbing 13 home runs and driving in 34 runs, just about each of them crucial. Carter also had an indisputable hand in determining the National League Pitcher of the Month winner for September 1985. That one went to Dwight Gooden, who threw 44 innings and gave up no earned runs. Doc’s catcher in four of his five pennant-pressure starts? Gary Carter, of course.
GAME 132: August 30, 1999 — Mets 17 ASTROS 1
(Mets All-Time Game 132 Record: 22-26; Mets 1999 Record: 80-52)
The ultimate second-place hitter established himself as No. 1 in the Met record books when it comes to best game any Met hitter has ever had.
Edgardo Alfonzo was never quite the focus of the Met clubs on which he was such an essential element, and maybe that was for the best. He worked quite well just off to the side of the spotlight. Let Mike Piazza take on the glare. Fonzie seemed to have no problems operating in a bit of a superstar shadow. At his peak, Alfonzo was tabbed in a Baseball Digest cover story as “the game’s most underrated player,” with one manager testifying, “Piazza gets all the attention in New York, but Alfonzo’s the one who makes the Mets successful.”
He played Gold Glove defense at third for a couple of years before proving even better at second. He had a knack for clutch hits. He showed surprising pop for a relatively small player. He did all those little things scouts drool over right. He was as mistake-free as they came. But, no, Edgardo Alfonzo never garnered the lion’s share of Met attention…except for not getting enough attention.
Yet there was nowhere to hide this Monday night under the Astrodome roof. The quiet infielder carried far too big a stick for metaphorical soft speaking.
Edgardo cleared his throat in the top of the first with a solo home run. Perhaps reticent to stand out so ostentatiously, he gladly contributed one of six Met hits (a single) and scored one of six Met runs in the second to help build a 7-0 lead over the Astros. Perhaps feeling looser by the fourth, he treated himself to another big swing, one that resulted in a two-run homer for a 9-0 lead.
Fonzie was 3-for-3 with two home runs and three runs scored in less than half a game. Masato Yoshii was in full command from the mound and the Mets’ sure gloves, per usual in 1999, were making no errors. Everything was pretty much perfect.
So Edgardo Alfonzo improved it.
In the sixth, leading off against Sean Bergman, Fonzie blasted his third solo home run of the night, putting the Mets ahead 11-0.
In the eighth, his leadoff single set the stage for another pair of Mets runs that made the game 14-1; the first of those runs crossed the plate under the name ALFONZO and the number 13.
And in the ninth, the luck and the skill just kept coming. A one-out double that drove Todd Pratt to make it Mets 15 Astros 1 gave the Fonz six hits — a cool, new Met record. And when Shawon Dunston singled to score, in alphabetical order, Benny Agbayani and Edgardo Alfonzo, it not only provided the final score of 17-1 for the Mets, it mean Fonzie had set yet another record — six runs, one game, most ever.
No other Met has ever matched Edgardo Alfonzo’s six runs or six hits, and the second baseman’s three home runs put him in limited company, as only seven other Mets (from Jim Hickman in 1965 to Carlos Beltran in 2011) have that many. And as almost a footnote, Fonzie drove in five runs in his six at-bats.
It bears repeating:
The same week Fonzie was making Met history, he shared the cover of Sports Illustrated with his three infieldmates, John Olerud, Rey Ordoñez and Robin Ventura. They were featured for their fielding. In the article, Alfonzo was referred to as “heady” and was noted for having committed only four errors through five months of 1999. But that was it in a piece that was devoted mostly to Ventura. It would take a more specialized publication, like Baseball Digest, to dwell on Edgardo and proclivity for not being overly appreciated.
“He’s by far the most underrated guy here,” a coach at the 2000 All-Star Game said of Alfonzo in his only midsummer classic appearance. “I guarantee, if he’d played third or short, he’d be here as an All-Star at those positions, too.” Another manager added Edgardo was “an MVP type player who’ll beat you in every way you can be beaten.”
Including, as in Houston, over the head with the hottest bat imaginable.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 3, 1974, one of the most deceptively excellent seasons in the annals of Met starting pitching continued apace. The deception lies in Jon Matlack’s final won-lost record for the year, an unimpressive 13-15, which even given the Mets’ widely acknowledged lack of offense, probably played too large a role in contemporary consideration of what a wonderful season Matlack was having.
It’s not as if Matlack was a secret to the world at large. He’d won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 1972, sparkled in the 1973 postseason and was named to his first All-Star team in July 1974. Still, the 13-15 mark tended to overshadow just how good Matlack was by his third full season as a Met. In a metric then unknown, Wins Above Replacement, Matlack’s put up a pitching WAR of 8.6, best by far among all National League pitchers. In more commonly acknowledged statistics of the day, Jon’s 2.41 ERA was third-best in the N.L. while his 195 strikeouts placed fourth. But the wins just wouldn’t come, not on the meager-scoring Mets. Perhaps if they had, his won-lost mark would have impressed Cy Young voters.
“Had Matlack played for the Dodgers or Reds that season and pitched just as well,” Alex Nelson posited in the Amazin’ Avenue Mets 2011 Preview, “it’s easy to imagine him winning 25-28 games and taking home the Cy Young Award that went to Dodgers reliever Mike Marshall.” As it was, Matlack’s losing record netted him exactly zero votes and his outstanding season got lost in the shuffle of an era when a pitcher’s wins were the first thing anybody looked at.
But when Matlack won, he was impossible to ignore, particularly since seven of his thirteen wins were shutouts, giving him the most in the National League in 1974. A representative outing for him came in the opener of a Tuesday afternoon doubleheader at Wrigley Field, when Matlack’s devastating mix of fastballs and curves baffled the Cubs for nine quick (2:16) four-hit, no-walk innings and ten emphatic strikeouts. All four Chicago hits were singles, and each occurred in solitary fashion in four separate innings; no Cub baserunner saw second. When the game was over, Matlack was a 2-0 winner, had his sixth complete game whitewashing and hiked his record to 12-10.
Six more starts awaited Jon in 1974. One became his seventh shutout, a three-hitter over the divisional champions-to-be Pirates. One was a game in which he didn’t have it and lost 12-5. The other four were losses that went against Matlack by scores of 2-1, 3-2, 2-1 and 3-2, the last of those a ten-inning complete game lost on a Bill Robinson sacrifice fly in the tenth.