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” 145th game in any Mets season, the “best” 146th game in any Mets season, the “best” 147th 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 145: September 17, 1986 — METS 4 Cubs 2
(Mets All-Time Game 145 Record: 25-21-1; Mets 1986 Record: 95-50)
It would be bad form to carp at the 1986 Mets that, “It took ya long enough” to arrive on the precipice of clinching their division. No Mets team had ever had a title in its grasp so soon in either schedule or calendar terms. But the grasping had been going for a little while now, so when the Mets showed up at Shea with their magic number a solitary 1 this Wednesday night…well, it took them long enough.
All the Mets needed to do was beat the Phillies once on Friday night, September 12. The Phils had displaced the Expos in second place, so it was a perfect setup — eliminate your “closest” rivals and drink champagne. Except the Mets lost on Friday the 12th. And Saturday the 13th. And Sunday the 14th. The Mets’ closest rivals were sticking around, no matter that “around” — 19 out with 20 to play — barely amounted to the same divisional area code. It wasn’t like the Mets weren’t going to clinch at some point relatively soon.
But, uh, not to carp, but, um…when might that be?
Not Monday the 15th. The Phillies kept winning and the Mets, to use a phrase that almost never came up in 1986, kept losing, this time 1-0 in 13 innings (on a bases-loaded walk) in St. Louis. Their magic number had been 2 for days on end. And it was ensured of not going down to more than 1 until the next night, once Philly took its fifth in a row. But the Mets “finally” won another game on Tuesday the 16th, topping the Cardinals at Busch, 4-2. The victory meant they’d clinched a tie for first, which was hardly their goal that week or that year. Still, they celebrated a little, pelting each other merrily with shaving cream pies in the visitors’ clubhouse.
As celebrations go, they hadn’t seen or done nothin’ yet.
Keith Hernandez had an idea. He asked Mets fans, through the media, to not party too hard should the Mets finally reach the first of their 1986 aspirations when they got home Wednesday night to Shea, a place the Mets figured to need well past the final game of the regular season.
“Please ask them not to destroy the field,” the first baseman plead, cognizant of how the stands emptied onto the grass in 1969 and 1973.
Nice thought, but just like Keith’s plan to be in the lineup per usual for the potential clinching game against the Cubs, there could be no guarantees. Hernandez took ill and Davey Johnson had to pencil rookie Dave Magadan in his place: playing first, batting third and coming through.
In a scoreless game, Chicago starter Dennis Eckersley put Lenny Dykstra and Wally Backman on base with one out in the third. Up stepped the callow Magadan, yet the kid from Tampa did his best Hernandez impression, singling home Lenny to give Dwight Gooden a 1-0 lead. Two batters later, Darryl Strawberry singled in Backman. And for the next couple of innings, Gooden kept the 2-0 shutout going — long enough for young Dave to knock in Dykstra again.
“Shea is going to be rocking like you’ve never seen it rock,” Wally predicted as the Mets packed up in St. Louis. “I don’t want to hear myself scream.”
The second baseman was getting his wish. The crowd of more than 47,000 paid was ready to blow from the first pitch, and once they were granted a brand new 1986 Met hero (“DAVE MAGADAN FAN CLUB,” read one quickly scribbled sign), there was no curbing their enthusiasm. It was 4-0 after another Strawberry RBI in the seventh. It was 4-2 after rookie Rafael Palmeiro reached Gooden for a two-run homer, but this was one was Gooden’s to win (and surely not lose). Hernandez’s flu symptoms didn’t stop him from replacing Magadan for defense — and the thrill of being on the field as the clinching approached.
The Mets and their fans had indeed waited an extra several days for this moment, just as they’d waited through two near-misses in 1984 and 1985, just as they’d waited through 13 long years with no playoff berth at the end of any season’s rainbow.
“I think back to how we used to feel at this point of the season,” Mookie Wilson recalled for the Daily News’s Howard Blatt of the early years of his Met career. “Now we’re on the other end of the stick, and it’s the other guys playing out the string, and I remember how that feels. It seemed like this day was a long way away.”
For Mookie, it had taken parts of seven seasons to arrive here. For Lee Mazzilli, rescued from the proverbial scrap heap in August, it had taken even longer. He came to the majors with the Mets in September 1976, just as things were about to take a drastic turn for the worse. He was traded away in the spring of 1982, when things were still going pretty badly. “I know what it was like ten years ago,” the Mets from humbler times told Blatt.
Most everybody in that stadium and watching on Channel 9 and listening on WHN knew that a decade-plus had gone into this night becoming this night. Hence, it’s no wonder that when Bob Murphy called Chico Walker’s final swing in the ninth…
“Ground ball to the right side of the infield…Backman has it…to Hernandez…Mets win! It’s over!”
…Keith’s pleas to “not ruin the field too much” fell on deaf ears. The Mets’ champagne-soaked 4-2 win that clinched their third National League East title had been too long incoming to keep everybody sitting, standing or even jumping up and down in one spot. The field, like the division, was overrun. Head groundskeeper Pete Flynn — charged with readying the playing surface usable for a Thursday matinee (nice scheduling) — grumbled that the more vandalous of the fans “didn’t deserve” a championship. GM Frank Cashen admitted he “figured on a few crazies,” not the estimated 6,000 who poured down and wrought destruction.
Security would never allow such a scene again, but the stadium withstood the rampage. Good thing it did: the Mets had just confirmed that Shea would be staying busy significantly longer than usual come October.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 13, 2000, the Mets broke themselves of an unfortunate habit. A five-game losing streak covering the final week of the 1998 season cost the team its shot at the Wild Card. A seven-game losing streak during the final two weeks of 1999 endangered what seemed like a surefire date in the playoffs. And now, in 2000, the Mets appeared ready to make things hard on themselves.
The team entered September with a half-game lead over the Braves, the first time they were out in front of the pack at that juncture of the calendar since 1988. Perhaps dizzy from scaling such heights, the Mets fell from grace the second the month began. They lost seven of eight, including a three-game sweep at the hands of the Cardinals, a potential playoff opponent…though the way the Mets were playing, that was a rather presumptuous hypothetical. The division was getting away, per usual — Atlanta was back in the saddle again — and Arizona, having fortified its pitching with a July trade for Curt Schilling, was sitting a handful of games in back of New York for the Wild Card.
After losing series to the Cards, the Reds and the Phillies, the Mets welcomed the Brewers to Shea, which was usually encouraging news for the home team. Nevertheless, Milwaukee took the Monday night opener of their three-game set before the Mets rebounded on Tuesday night. The finale, on a beautiful Wednesday afternoon in Flushing, would indicate just how rocky their road to October might be.
Mike Hampton had been obtained the previous December to win big games late in the season, and though matinees versus the Brewers might not have been whom GM Steve Phillips had in mind when he thought of must-wins, Hampton tackled his assignment aggressively. He was reached for an unearned run in the first (a line drive baffled right fielder Lenny Harris), but he settled down for eight innings of shutout ball from there. Problem was his opponent, 6’ 7” righty Jeff D’Amico, towered over Mets batters, striking out ten and scattering four singles.
The game remained a tense 1-0 affair clear into the ninth and may have wound up the same, except Milwaukee manager Davey Lopes submitted to the cult of the closer and replaced his brilliant starter with reliever Curtis Leskanic. Jay Payton greeted Leskanic with a leadoff double, and with two outs, Robin Ventura sent him home with another double. It was a 1-1 game heading to extra innings.
After Armando Benitez pitched a scoreless tenth, former Met Juan Acevedo allowed a pair of one-out singles to Mike Bordick and Joe McEwing before popping up Bubba Trammell. That left things up to Payton, a notoriously poor bases-loaded hitter in 2000, but capable of handling himself with two on and two out. Sure enough, he handled the first pitch he saw from Acevedo, sending it soaring over the left-center field fence at Shea for a 4-1 win that righted the Met ship. Payton’s walkoff homer touched off a modest three-game winning streak and quelled recurring doubts where this team and September were concerned.
GAME 146: September 16, 1976 — METS 4 Cardinals 1
(Mets All-Time Game 146 Record: 21-26; Mets 1976 Record: 77-69)
The summer of 1976 presented unforeseen opportunities for a couple of relatively obscure Minnesotans — better known than most people, but overshadowed in their chosen professions.
Consider Walter “Fritz” Mondale, a United States Senator from Minnesota for nearly a dozen years. Mondale wasn’t as well known as political titan and mentor Hubert Humphrey, but he did explore a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1974. As quickly as he looked into it, he looked away from it, admitting he didn’t have the “fire in the belly” that such an undertaking would demand.
Someone who did was another early starter, the former governor of Georgia, Jimmy Carter. Carter embraced the Holiday Inns Mondale resisted, laid extensive caucus- and primary-state groundwork, ingratiated himself with all the party activists he could while nobody was yet paying serious attention, and before the Democratic establishment knew what hit it, Jimmy Carter was their frontrunner and nominee. When it came time for the would-be president to pick a would-be vice president, he chose someone experienced, respected and used to being overshadowed: Minnesota’s Fritz Mondale.
Mondale was officially nominated for the second spot on the Democratic ticket at Madison Square Garden on July 16, 1976. Nine days later, north of the United States border, another Minnesotan skilled at operating in the shadow of a more charismatic frontrunner wasn’t having his happiest day on the hustings. When Andre Thornton singled home Ellis Valentine in the bottom of the ninth at Jarry Park on July 25, Jerry Koosman walked off the Montreal mound a hard-luck loser of a 2-1 game…the kind of game every Mets pitcher of that era experienced regularly. Koosman pitched very well, but received little support. His record fell to 11-7. With the Mets having 64 games remaining in 1976, anybody dreaming of a 20-win season for the veteran lefty would have to bank on two factors being omnipresent:
1) Jerry Koosman would have to be very, very good.
2) Jerry Koosman would have to be uncommonly fortunate.
Kooz would have to be responsible for the first part. The rest was up to his teammates and fate.
It was fate that sent Koosman to the Mets in 1964, the same year Mondale debuted among the senators in Washington. Kooz was serving his country then, playing a little army baseball in Texas when the son of a Shea Stadium usher had the pleasure of catching him. He sent word to his dad, who alerted scout Red Murff to check him out. Suitably impressed, Murff signed Koosman. Three years later he got his first taste of the bigs. A year after that, in 1968, Jerry led the Mets (and all National League rookies) with 19 wins.
But Koosman’s role was destined to be, essentially, vice president of the rotation. Tom Seaver was its commander-in-chief, staying healthier, generally winning more games (if not necessarily bigger ones, as Kooz’s 3-0 World Series record would attest) and definitely attracting more attention. Seaver was the undisputed ace of the staff for the entirety of his stay in New York.
Yet after the Mets escaped Montreal in late July of 1976, their best pitcher was clearly Jerry Koosman. His next five starts each yielded a complete game victory, including a 3-2 decision over the first-place Phillies and a 1-0 shutout of the West-leading Reds. The Mets weren’t scoring much for him, but he was making whatever he got stand up.
Following a poor outing against the Dodgers at the end of August, Koosman’s record was 16-8. Thus, a good September could make Kooz the first lefthanded 20-game winner in Mets history…and the first pitcher not named Seaver to reach that plateau.
Another 1-0 whitewashing, this one of the Giants (secured when John Milner drove in the game’s only run in the eighth), brought Koosman to 17-8. A nine-strikeout performance tamed the Cubs five days later helped him to reach 18 wins. Five days after that, a third consecutive complete game — Jerry’s 11th in 12 second-half starts — took care of St. Louis at St. Louis. Koosman had matched his career-high 1968 victory total of 19.
Now it was time to make it twenty.
The Cardinals were the opponent again, this time on a Thursday night at Shea, an occasion for Mets young and old to come to the aid of their pitcher. Veteran Felix Millan scored the first run of the game, in the third, when ex-Cub Don Kessinger couldn’t handle venerable Joe Torre’s ground ball. The next Met run came when rookie Roy Staiger sent Torre home on a single in the fifth. Bruce Boisclair, in his first full season, chipped in an RBI single and a homer.
And Koosman did the rest: nine innings, four hits, 13 strikeouts. The only blemish was Keith Hernandez’s eighth-inning solo home run, but it barely mattered. Koosman rushed the finish line like the Cy Young contender he’d become, striking out Joe Ferguson, Mike Anderson and Cruz in the ninth. With the last strike safely in John Stearns’s mitt and the 4-1 win complete, Koosman ascended to center stage. He was a 20-game winner at last.
“What took you so long?” his fellow 20-game club member Seaver asked him with a wink.
Toasting the achievement with his teammates in the clubhouse (Koosman had ordered a case of champagne), the man from Minnesota made an exultant acceptance speech: “It is the night of my life. This is the night I have waited for since I was sixteen years old.”
On November 2, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced the 21-10 Koosman finished in second place to Randy Jones of the Padres for the 1976 National League Cy Young Award. In other election results that same day, the voters of America chose Walter Mondale as their next vice president.
All told, not a bad Tuesday for medium-profile Minnesotans.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 12, 1984, precedent was officially shattered, though that was almost a formality. Everybody swore they’d never seen a rookie pitcher strike out batters the way Dwight Gooden did. Now irrefutable evidence was at hand.
On a Wednesday night at Shea against the Pirates, Gooden blew a 2-2 fastball by former Mets farmhand Marvel Wynne for his tenth strikeout of the evening. That gave Doctor K 246 of his namesake for the season, a new rookie record. The previous holder was Herb Score, whose output for the 1955 Cleveland Indians was one fewer.
“I’m delighted for him,” Score said after he was displaced in history. “In 10 or 12 years, I’m sure he’ll have other records that mean even more.”
Gooden, in the meantime, just kept pitching to Pittsburgh, and just kept striking out Bucs. He finished the night with 16, a career-high in a career that was awfully young yet already stellar. The 2-0 win improved his personal victory total to 16, while the strikeout sum became Doc’s 14th double-digit effort of his freshman season. He’d come up with another gem one start later, fanning 16 Phillies, though he’d lose the game, 2-1, on a balk, of all things.
Presenting irrefutable evidence that the 19-year-old phenom wasn’t perfect.
GAME 147: September 13, 1997 — METS 9 Expos 6 (11)
(Mets All-Time Game 147 Record: 23-24; Mets 1997 Record: 80-67)
There’s no better time to test your belief system than when things appear beyond belief…or beyond the power inherent in “You Gotta Believe,” the September credo of every true Mets fan since 1973. In September 1997, one’s last thread of credulity came awfully close to snapping, which was too bad, considering all that had come before.
The 1997 Mets were expected to do little in the standings, yet they never received the expectations memo. A slow start (8-14) was eradicated by a strong middle (57-35), and the Mets were headed for their first winning record in seven years and claimed a decent shot at the National League Wild Card. As late as July 28, they had the second-best record in the N.L. and a half-game edge over the beefed-up Florida Marlins for a playoff spot.
But by September, the Mets were fading. The winning record was intact — no way this wouldn’t be the Mets’ best season since 1990 — but the Marlins had swum almost out of sight. Thus, when the Expos came to Shea for a four-game set on September 11, the Mets were practically in win-or-go-home mode. Every day in which ground wasn’t gained prior to the Mets’ visit to Miami for four games starting September 19 was a day when the Mets’ dreams would take a body blow.
Against the Expos across the next 96 hours, the Mets made every moment count.
On Thursday night the 11th, as the Mets opened for business six behind Florida with eighteen to play, the Mets built a 6-1 lead entering the eighth when Montreal pulled close on an RBI single from Orlando Cabrera and a three-run homer off the bat of Jose Vidro. Insurance would be necessary in the bottom of the inning, and it would come in an unlikely form. John Olerud, who had already singled, doubled and homered, needed a three-base hit for the cycle…which was like saying a person with a penny, a nickel and a quarter needs an eight-cent piece to round out his change. John Olerud was the slowest first baseman this side of Mo Vaughn, and Vaughn actually totaled more career triples to date. Oly had all of six (to Vaughn’s eight) entering 1997, and none all year. Yet with the bases loaded and two out, Olerud hit a ball to deep center that emergency center fielder Vladimir Guerrero — out there only because Felipe Alou had made multiple moves and was forced to insert his literally hamstrung right fielder into unfamiliar territory — couldn’t track it down. It took an injured, out-of-position rookie to make it happen, but John Olerud got his triple, his cycle and, most importantly, three huge insurance runs on the board. It was Olerud’s only triple of the year and the last time Vlad ever played center. The Mets won, 9-5, and moved to within 5½ of the idle Marlins.
On Friday night the 12th, the Mets hosted Flaming Pie Night, promoting the latest CD released by onetime Shea Stadium star Paul McCartney. Paul didn’t show up (except on DiamondVision), but then again, neither the Mets’ offense until the eighth. An Olerud single and a Carlos Baerga sacrifice fly tied the score at two. Then Met bats went back into hibernation, at least when runners were on base. The Mets stranded one in the ninth, two in the tenth, one in the eleventh, two in the twelfth and one more in the fourteenth, all while Met relievers — including Mel Rojas for three sparkling innings — held the Expos in check. In all, Met pitching had kept Montreal scoreless since the second inning. But that all went for naught when Joe Crawford, surrendered a two-out, bases-empty home run to Rondell White to fall behind, 3-2. Against Expo closer Uggie Urbina in the bottom of the fifteenth, the Mets puts two on with one out before Carl Everett flied to right and Luis Lopez struck out. In 15 innings, Mets pitchers struck out 16 batters, but Mets batters left 16 runners on base. The only saving grace of the 3-2 defeat was the Marlins went down, 1-0, to the Giants, keeping the Mets 5½ back.
Two games went by and the Mets had picked up a half-game. There was still time to edge closer to Florida in advance of their prospective showdown a week later, but any more implosions like Friday night’s, and the competitive portion of the season would end instantly. And that would have been a pity. The 1997 Mets didn’t just win more games than they lost. They won spiritedly and dramatically and they won late a lot. They scored more eighth-inning runs and in more eighth innings than any team in the National League, emblematic of a never-say-die team that plowed ahead with no stars to relatively little notice. They weren’t supposed to be in any kind of playoff race as late as September 13, not even on the fringes of one. Yet here they were, within dreaming, maybe sprinting distance of making it to October.
But first, mid-September and its perils.
On Saturday afternoon the 13th, the Mets’ sprint seemed to be at its end and the Mets’ dreams were all but dashed. After two batters, Met starter Jason Isringhausen had the Mets behind, 2-0, on a Mark Grudzielanek single and a Mike Lansing home run. White drove in a third run before the first was done.
From there, Montreal starter Dustin Hermanson took over. He was a little wild, but not at all hittable. The Mets couldn’t touch him in the first or the second or the third or the fourth. Ex-Met David Segui reached Isringhausen for a two-run double in the fifth to pad Hermanson’s advantage to 5-0. To Hermanson, it looked like window dressing. The Mets didn’t touch him in the bottom of fifth, either, putting the Mets twelve outs not just from psychic elimination but being no-hit for the first time since Darryl Kile did it to them in 1993.
Callup Carlos Mendoza, pinch-hitting for Turk Wendell, lined Hermanson’s third pitch of the sixth inning toward left fielder Brad Fullmer. As it sank, it bounced of Fullmer’s glove, falling in for what official scorer Bill Shannon decided was the first hit of Mendoza’s major league career…and the first hit off Hermanson all day. On SportsChannel, Mets announcers Howie Rose and Fran Healy, watching it from as many angles as possible, didn’t necessarily agree, but there was no changing Shannon’s mind. The no-hit bid was over.
But Dustin’s dominance wasn’t. Hermanson wild-pitched Mendoza to second and walked Olerud with two out but struck out Butch Huskey to end the Mets’ mini-threat. They went down in order in the seventh and, by now trailing 6-0, managed no more than a walk (Hermanson’s fifth) in the eighth.
“You don’t think you have a chance,” Huskey admitted of those kinds of circumstances. “Not the way he was pitching.” But the Mets weren’t supposed to have any kind of chance all year, so what was one more long set of odds to this bunch?
After Jason Hardtke flied out to start the ninth, Huskey made the most of his final chance, singling to center to extend his hitting streak to twenty games. Baerga then produced a grounder that found a hole between first and second. Brian McRae flied to White in right-center, which moved Huskey to third, but shoved the Mets down to their last out. As Roberto Petagine, he of the 0-for-7 .000 batting average, pinch-hit, Baerga took second on defensive indifference. Even when Petagine lined a single to center and scored both runners to make it 6-2, it couldn’t have made a great deal of difference to Hermanson. He was still up four runs, the Mets were still one out from over, and he still had a seven-strikeout, four-hitter to his credit.
“I got 26 outs,” Hermanson would say. “I should have gotten the 27th.”
But Alou decided 129 pitchers was enough for Hermanson, so he removed his starter and brought in righty Shayne Bennett. His mission was to get the game over by retiring Lopez, the Met who ended the game the night before on a strikeout. This time, however, Luis lived up to the 17 on his back and was as clutch as Keith Hernandez, singling to right. Alou ended Bennett’s cameo and went to Urbina, as nasty a ninth-inning man as the National League had in 1997. Nastiness, however, was trumped by the next batter, Matt Franco, who singled to load the bases.
The math was pretty simple: the bases were loaded with two out and the Mets were down by four. In this dream of a season, all the Mets and their fans ever asked for was a chance to keep dreaming. The math allowed that. Four was as vast a margin as could be overcome on one swing.
The next Met up was Carl Everett, slumping of late, particularly since his wife was accused of child abuse while their kids were in the Shea family room (the children were taken into protective custody in August and Everett was allowed only supervised visits). Still, he was capable of swinging for the fences, and on the first pitch Urbina threw him, he did just that…and if the fences extended right of the foul pole, Everett would have been a hero. Instead, the Mets’ fourth outfielder was faced with strike one, to say nothing of a preening pitcher. When Everett’s blow went foul, Urbina rolled up the sleeve on the right arm of his Expos jersey to let Everett know he was throwing too hard for Carl to hit anything fair.
“I’ve seen him do that before,” Everett would say later. “I’m not going to stoop to his level.”
Perhaps Urbina should have kept his sleeve shut. He worked Everett to a 3-2 count, and on the sixth pitch of their battle, Carl belted another one to deep right.
Except this one wasn’t going foul. It was going clear over the right field fence for a grand slam home run.
A game-tying grand slam home run.
“You have three guys on base, one guy at the plate and you’re down by four runs,” Everett reasoned. “It can happen. It’s real. It’s no fantasy.”
The Mets, who limped into the ninth inning trailing 6-0 had now, in Rose’s SportsChannel parlance, created “a brand new shiny one” on the scoreboard. It was Mets 6 Expos 6. As Everett pointed skyward on his way past home plate and McRae pointed at his own bicep so as to get Urbina’s goat a little more, a deep breath was in order to consider the reset that had just occurred. It was the largest ninth-inning comeback the Mets had ever engineered at Shea Stadium. The last time they trailed by a half-dozen runs in the ninth was at Atlanta in the You Gotta Believe year of 1973, when they were down 7-1 and won 8-7.
These 1997 Mets hadn’t won anything yet this Saturday, but, boy, had they not lost.
“You might have had the obituary written,” Bobby Valentine declared. “But you can tear it up, because we’re not dead yet.”
“I think Uggie can put his sleeve down now,” added Huskey.
Life support had been provided by Everett, Petagine and everybody else who hit their way on in the ninth. Now the plug would stay unpulled in the tenth and eleventh thanks to two shutout innings from John Franco, who had entered in a double-switch that removed Everett (of all people). That kept things tied long enough for the Mets to put two runners on in the eleventh against Steve Kline. Valentine resorted to hobbled left fielder Bernard Gilkey as his pinch-hitter. Alou countered with his fifth pitcher of the day, Mike Thurman.
Gilkey had spent most of Saturday in the whirlpool, trying to soothe his stiff left ankle, the one that scratched him from the lineup minutes before first pitch. He was batting for John Franco, which meant he was batting in Everett’s original position.
It must have been a lucky spot in the order, because on the second pitch he saw, Bernard launched a line drive to deep left, up into the Mezzanine, inside the pole. It was good enough for a three-run pinch-homer to win it for the Mets in eleven, 9-6. Gilkey was less matter-of-fact about the chain of events that led to his stunning homer than Everett was about his.
“I couldn’t reasonably say this could happen,” Gilkey admitted. “It was kind of farfetched.”
But it did. The almost-dead 1997 Mets were alive and reasonably well after 147 games. True, the Marlins won again, and the margin remained a daunting 5½, but pulling ahead from so far behind in what became the Mets’ 43rd comeback and 22nd final at-bat win of the year (not to mention John Franco’s last W until Game Four of the 1999 NLDS) had levitative powers, at least in the Mets’ minds.
Gilkey: “We have to keep believing until the point when it’s out of reach. Crazier things have happened.”
Valentine: “I think our reward for this season is going to be getting in the playoffs.”
On Sunday afternoon the 14th, the Mets inducted Keith Hernandez into the team’s Hall of Fame. Lopez again honored No. 17, this time with a solo home run that stood up as the only run of a 1-0 game. Dave Mlicki went 8⅔ before Greg McMichael came on to retire Guerrero for the final out. The game’s turning point, however, came when Todd Pratt dropped a ball on a play at the plate, yet umpire Larry Vanover missed the miscue and called Expo baserunner Segui out. Montreal’s dugout was so livid that the Expos’ trainer was ejected. Because the Marlins stubbornly won again, the Mets taking three of four in arguably the most exciting quartet of games Shea ever witnessed netted them only a half-game gain in their quest for the Wild Card. They were still 5½ out and their chances to reduce that margin were dwindling. That, too, was simple math.
Yet they were alive. Alive after six consecutive seasons of being the opposite. Alive after being six runs in arrears in the ninth on Saturday. Alive in the middle of September.
The 1997 Mets would eventually say die, but they would take their sweet time doing so. It was a very sweet time, indeed.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 15, 1969, one of the best pitchers of his generation threw one of the most overpowering games of his life. And it did him absolutely no good.
Meet Steve Carlton: 24, hard-throwing, ultracompetitive and getting better all the time. One of the real southpaw comers in the National League. Won 27 games in his first two full seasons and pitched in consecutive World Series for St. Louis. Named to a pair of All-Star teams. Already had 16 wins in the bank and an ERA under two entering a Monday night at Busch Stadium where Carlton would show his stuff like he’d never shown it before.
But it would still do him absolutely no good, because Steve Carlton would be meeting the Mets.
Not good acquaintances to make in the midst of September 1969.
The Mets had just come off a ten-game winning streak and stood 3½ games ahead of the Cubs in the National League East. A Sunday loss in Pittsburgh nevertheless left them 30 games above .500, and even in a 5-3 defeat, they banged out 11 hits off of Pirate starter Steve Blass. The Mets could pitch and the Mets could field…if the Mets were to suddenly start hitting with any consistency, then there’d be no chance of anybody stopping them — not even a talented lefty like Carlton.
Gil Hodges called on those who could swing from the right side to ignite a new winning streak: Al Weis at second; Ed Charles at third; Donn Clendenon at first; Amos Otis in for an injured Cleon Jones in left; and Ron Swoboda in right to go with regulars Bud Harrelson, Tommie Agee and Jerry Grote. Factor in starter Gary Gentry, and that was seven righties and two switch-hitters. Hodges, an old Marine, believed in platoons.
This night, however, he would have needed a battalion to halt Carlton, for it didn’t matter from which side of the plate the Mets swung. Everybody was taking a turn at missing what Steve threw. Harrelson struck out to start the game. Otis struck out looking behind him. An error and a base hit followed, but Swoboda struck out to end the frame. Steve Carlton wasn’t perfect in the first, but he had struck out the side.
A pattern was established. Weis would single in the second, but the other three Mets who came up all struck out. Agee struck out to end the third, giving Carlton seven K’s in three innings. It was a record-setting pace.
Down 1-0 in the fourth, the Mets rallied by way of a Clendenon walk and a Swoboda swing that connected: a two-run homer to give Gentry the lead. Unrattled, Carlton handled the next four batters as such: strikeout, strikeout, single, strikeout. That made it ten whiffs in four innings. His pace was still record-setting.
In the fifth, two more. In the sixth — after the Cards took a 3-2 lead — another. And in the seventh, with two on and two out, Otis went down looking. Fourteen strikeouts after seven innings, or four from tying the major league record for most in a nine-inning game. Bob Feller struck out 18 in a loss to Detroit in 1938; Sandy Koufax punched out 18 twice, in 1959 and 1962; and Don Wilson of the Astros tied the mark a year earlier.
And one Met in Hodges’s lineup had experienced a night very much like this before. Ron Swoboda struck out three times against Cincinnati’s Jim Maloney in 1965 as Maloney no-hit the Mets for ten innings en route to losing to New York, 1-0, on Johnny Lewis’s leadoff home run in the top of the eleventh. Swoboda was the batter up directly after Lewis and became Maloney’s 18th victim. It was Rocky’s third strikeout of that game.
Here, in St. Louis, the 25-year-old outfielder, who was one of the handful of ’69 Mets to commence his career under Casey Stengel, represented two of Carlton’s 14 strikeouts. But he was also responsible for the only two Mets runs on the board through seven. Thus, after Agee singled to lead off the eighth, and Clendenon became strikeout No. 15, there was precedent for what Swoboda was about to do.
Though that didn’t make it any less mind-boggling when Swoboda swung not through a Carlton pitch but right at it, belting it out of Busch for his second two-run homer of the night. The Mets now led 4-3. There was little for Carlton to do but rear back and finish the inning with one more strikeout — No. 16 — and then set down the Mets on three consecutive strikeouts in the ninth. When he fanned reliever Tug McGraw, Harrelson and Otis (the fourth time the rookie left fielder whiffed), Carlton had the record: Nineteen strikeouts in nine innings.
What he didn’t have was an opportunity to win his overpowering start unless the Redbirds rallied in the bottom of the ninth. Two runners reached against McGraw, but Tug had an idea about not besmirching a story that seemed too good to be true. He didn’t give up any runs and the Mets came away 4-3 winners on the night they were struck out 19 times…more than any team had ever been struck out in regulation.
Every Met starter, plus McGraw, had fanned at least once. And the Mets won anyway.
What could Carlton could say? Back in the days when Lefty wasn’t so reticent to speak to the media, he explained he came to the ballpark late because of a fever, yet found himself on the mound with “the best stuff I ever had”.
Swoboda, on the other hand, was on a team enjoying a season cooked up in Mets fan’s fevered dream, and it countered anything a future Hall of Famer could bring. “He’d throw a pitch so good,” the improbable star of the game attested, “that I’d say to myself, ‘if he throws two more like it, there’s no way I can touch him.’”
Yet he laid two pretty good hands on him, marinating the tone that the Mets had set for improbable outcomes in September 1969 and perhaps foreshadowing what was to come for Carlton down the road. Steve started 76 games against the Mets in a National League career that lasted until 1986. He put up impressive numbers against them: a 3.12 ERA, a WHIP of 1.222 and more strikeouts against the Mets — 464 — than he had versus any other team. But nobody beat Steve Carlton more often than did the Mets, just as the Mets beat Steve Carlton more than they did any other pitcher in their first half-century of baseball. In a career that was put into the books at 329-244, Carlton’s record against New York finished a pedestrian 30-36.
And he’d be sharing that strikeout record with a Met by the following April.