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” 154th game in any Mets season, the “best” 155th game in any Mets season, the “best” 156th 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 154: September 16, 1998 — Mets 4 ASTROS 3 (11)
(Mets All-Time Game 154 Record: 23-24; Mets 1998 Record: 86-68)
The goal was the National League Wild Card. But, really, could it have been any wilder than what was transpiring under the Astrodome? This was already the greatest show on turf.
The Mets and the Astros, two franchises linked by their 1962 expansion births and their 1986 NLCS for the ages, were engaging in a tug of war maybe unsurpassed in the annals of regular-season four-game series…Mets’ four-game series, that is, but it’s hard to imagine any better were played by any other teams.
“A real every-pitch kind of baseball series,” Bobby Valentine called it.
First, there was Brian McRae homering in the ninth to prevent the Astros from clinching their division once, on Monday night the 14th, and doubling in the thirteenth to keep them from celebrating altogether; the Mets won 7-4 and stayed tied with the Cubs for the Wild Card lead.
Second, in the opener of a rare scheduled indoor doubleheader on Tuesday the 14th (the Astrodome was needed later in the week for a rodeo), Carlos Baerga did the champagne postponement honors by homering in the ninth to send yet another game into extras. The teams traded big RBI hits in the eleventh (Rey Ordoñez with a double, Jeff Bagwell with a homer) to keep things tied until the bottom of the twelfth, which was when rookie Jeff Tam surrendered a walkoff wallop to Derek Bell (who did a lot of standing and admiring at home plate); the Astros clinched by winning, 6-5.
Third, in the nightcap, with the Astros probably at least a little distracted by having clinched their N.L. Central title (yet with most of their regulars still playing), John Olerud’s three-run homer in the eighth put the Mets in front, 5-3. The Astros would edge to within a run before the visitors broke it open in the ninth; the Mets arranged for a split, 8-4, leaving them a half-game behind the Cubs.
Every one of those games was as tense as it was tight. Nothing about any of them was decided prior to the eighth inning, and two of them went far longer than nine.
But those were just the appetizers for Wednesday night the 16th.
That marathon-in-waiting was disguised as a pitching duel for a very long time, Mike Hampton for the Astros, Bobby Jones for the Mets. The only costly mistake either made came from the right hand of Jones with Craig Biggio on first, and it landed over the right field fence in the third inning via the bat of ex-Met Carl Everett for a 2-0 Astro lead. Jones wasn’t otherwise enjoying a very effective 1998, but he went eight here and gave up nothing else of consequence. Unfortunately, Mike Hampton also went eight. The lefty surrendered eight hits and walked six, but the Mets couldn’t figure out how to score off him. They left eleven runners on in those eight innings.
The 2-0 game was transferred to the care of fireballing Astro closer Billy Wagner in the top of the ninth. A leadoff single by pinch-hitter Todd Pratt appeared headed for the same Dumpster-brand trash bin where all those other hits and walks went once Tony Phillips struck out and Edgardo Alfonzo flied to right. But John Olerud, who’d had three hits already, worked Wagner — lefty vs. lefty — to three-and-two before the slowest man in the majors (he had to be) singled to third base. Despite Olerud’s feat of feet, he was removed for pinch-runner Ralph Milliard. Two were on, though two were out. The Mets’ last hope was Mike Piazza.
He was also the Mets’ best hope. That was what Mike was brought to the Mets to be in May. He, along with a raging hot Olerud, was the reason the imperfect Mets were perfectly positioned to lunge at the team’s first playoff berth in a decade. They and the Cubs were neck and neck, with the Giants lurking in the shadows. Taking three of four from Houston in Houston would be an immense step in the right direction. But they already knew that. Doing it was a different matter.
Mike Piazza was all about doing over talking. On a two-two pitch from Wagner, Piazza swung and drilled the longest home run in Astrodome history…and one of the clutchest the Mets ever had. It went 480 feet and its vibrations could be felt all over the National League map. The Mets were suddenly ahead 3-2 and were three outs from pulling into a temporary tie with Chicago (who would be playing later that night in San Diego).
The final three outs were usually the province of John Franco, who’d been a major leaguer since 1984 and a Met since 1990 but never a playoff participant. Franco, however, was gassed after pitching again and again down the stretch, so Valentine turned to Dennis Cook, the most dependable lefty non-closer the Mets had deployed maybe ever. After a generation spent cringing at the likes of Tom Gorman, Randy Niemann, Gene Walter, Doug Simons, Rich Savueur, Paul Gibson, Eric Gunderson, Bob MacDonald and Ricardo Jordan, to name just a few, Mets fans generally felt relieved when Cook was doing the portside relieving. But Cook, too, had been asked to go to the well quite a bit — all of Bobby V’s bullpen was. Nevertheless, Dennis was sent to the mound in the bottom of the ninth to get those three crucial outs.
He got them, but not consecutively. Between the first and second of them, Houston catcher Brad Ausmus homered to tie the game at three. The Mets and Astros had played four gripping games in an attempt to close out their 1998 business, yet they weren’t done. Extra innings beckoned.
Larry Dierker had left Wagner in to bat (and strike out) for himself in the ninth so he could keep pitching in the tenth. Undeterred by Piazza’s bomb, Billy partially redeemed himself by tossing a scoreless frame. Valentine countered with Greg McMichael, who didn’t make it easy on himself. After two quick outs, he loaded the bases on a walk, a stolen base, an intentional walk and an unintentional walk (to Moises Alou on a three-two pitch), but escaped when he struck out Ricky Gutierrez.
The eleventh brought on Sean Bergman, who had no problem with his first two batters, Phillips and Alfonzo. Up next was what had been Olerud’s spot; it was now McMichael’s. Valentine’s man in a pinch here would be Todd Hundley, simultaneously one of the Mets’ best power hitters ever and one of the current edition’s most superfluous parts.
It was Hundley’s unhealed elbow that forced management to take proactive steps when Piazza became available from the Dodgers (though laundered by the Marlins) four months earlier. The original plan had been to wait for Hundley, two-time Met All-Star and holder of the franchise’s single-season home run record, with 41, to come back as soon as he could. But Todd left a gaping void in his absence and his return was off in the distance. The Mets tried Tim Spehr, Alberto Castillo, Jim Tatum, Rick Wilkins and Pratt as starters. None of them produced worth a damn. Hundley was nowhere near ready. Piazza may have been a dramatic stroke of marketing for a Mets club that wasn’t drawing even as it was contending, but he was mostly needed for catching…catching and hitting.
As Mike acclimated to New York (where a surfeit of double play ground balls created some ill will early on), Todd went about his rehabilitation from surgery. Finally, in July, the Mets’ starting catcher since 1991 returned to Shea, only to find home plate blocked by a better-paid megastar. Hundley sucked up the change in the weather and trotted out to left field for the first time in his major league career. He’d had no experience there ever, save for trying it on for size at Norfolk.
It wasn’t a good fit. The Mets wanted to inject Hundley’s offense into a lineup that depended mostly on Piazza and Olerud, but he was no left fielder. He was a catcher trying to learn a new position on the fly, and any fly that came near Hundley was a painful adventure to watch unfold. In the meantime, the slugger who had racked up 71 homers in the previous two seasons wasn’t hitting at all. He stepped to the plate in the eleventh inning batting all of .159, slugging a tepid .246.
Which is what made Hundley’s pinch home run to center off Bergman every bit as electric as Piazza’s off Wagner.
Piazza you were learning to expect enormous things from in a Mets uniform (he was batting .415 in September). But Hundley? Hundley was the ghost of Metsmas past in this first full-out playoff charge since 1990. Not totally unlike John Stearns circa 1984, he was a catcher who waited and waited through a veritable eon of mediocrity for the Mets to get good enough to challenge for all the marbles, and when they got deadly serious at last, he wasn’t nearly physically capable of fully contributing.
But Hundley gave his all in Houston in the eleventh inning of the fourth game. The 124th and final home run of Todd’s Met career was easily his biggest. One wished there could be more — especially when you saw the next batter in the inning, Piazza, greet him at home plate, and you imagined what might have been had left field worked out — but if you were an experienced Mets fan, you deep down knew this was it for Hundley in New York.
Yet you didn’t think the end was nigh for the ’98 Mets. Workhorse Turk Wendell struck out the side in the Astro eleventh to secure the 4-3 win. The Mets were heating up. Olerud was positively scorching. That infield single in the ninth sparked a 9-for-9 stretch that catapulted him to a second-place finish in the N.L. batting race and a new Met single-season batting average best of .354, easily supplanting Cleon Jones’s 29-year-old .340. Despite an irritating blown save by Franco against the Marlins in their next game, on Friday the 18th, the Mets won two of three in their subsequent series against Florida. A crowd of more than 52,000 watched as Franco wriggled from a bases-loaded jam to save a 4-3 angstfest on Saturday the 19th, and another crowd of the same size luxuriated in eight innings of Al Leiter mastery en route to a 5-0 win on Sunday the 20th.
By then, the Mets had opened a one-game lead on the Cubs, while the Astros were positioned to finish with the second-best record in the league, behind the Braves. That meant if the Mets won the Wild Card, there’d be yet another series — a National League Division Series — opening in a little more than a week between the Mets and the Astros at the Astrodome. What a terrific next chapter that would make to follow the scene Vic Ziegel described in the News when the Mets’ most recent trip to Houston was done:
“They’re still playing, aren’t they? The Mets and Astros, who were scheduled for four games in three days, gave us so much more than that. You want Wild Card baseball? This was Wild Card baseball. Somehow, the Mets managed to pull out last night’s game, 4-3, in 11 innings. The teams stared at each other for 45 intense innings and 15 hours and 25 minutes. The Mets won three of the games because they were the kind of nailbiters the Mets make a habit of winning.”
The habit eluded them after the Marlin series. Two games at home against Montreal and three in Atlanta versus the long-clinched Braves resulted in no wins, which left the Mets one game shy of the Cubs and the Giants when all was said and bitterly done. Those two teams played off for the Wild Card, the Cubs taking it in Game 163. The Mets, meanwhile, went home after 162 contests, trying to picture a 1999 that would be longer and, consequently, more successful.
Next year would come for the Mets. But what a shame it couldn’t arrive earlier.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 21, 2002, a Met with no record of accomplishment before or after accomplished the one thing for which he would become known, at least by those who witnessed it. The Met’s name was Esix Snead, a seemingly ideal name for a September callup from whom you expect little. But for one night, Esix Snead delivered all he could.
Promoted from Double-A Binghamton for his speed (66 stolen bases in 2002), Snead entered this Saturday night tilt at Shea versus the Expos as a pinch-runner for a pinch-hitter. Raul Gonzalez singled in place of Timo Perez to start the home eighth — the Mets down, 3-2 — and after Roberto Alomar struck out, Bobby Valentine inserted Snead. As Mo Vaughn attempted to drive him in, Snead took off for second…and was picked off by Scott Stewart. He was thrown out bolting for second, leaving Vaughn with empty bases (and Mo struck out anyway).
It wasn’t an auspicious showing for Snead who was a Met in September only for his base-stealing ability. Yet with both Perez and Gonzalez out, Valentine stuck with him as his center fielder. Esix’s fourth defensive appearance might have gone into the agate type of history unnoticed, except in the bottom of the ninth, a bad throw by the usually surehanded Andres Galarraga allowed the Mets to tie the score at three, sending the game to extra innings.
Thus, Snead was playing longer than anticipated, which allowed him to make a putout to start the top of the tenth, when he caught Brad Wilkerson’s fly ball. It also gave him the chance to register his very first major league base hit in his sixth MLB at-bat, when he singled off Joey Eischen to begin the bottom of the tenth. He advanced to second on a wild pitch, but was stranded there.
The game went to the bottom of the eleventh tied, and didn’t necessarily appear headed for resolution when Snead came up again, this time with two on yet two out to face Dan Smith. But with Mets who come out of nowhere, things are rarely apparent. Thus, Snead belted Smith’s second pitch into the Mets’ bullpen for a three-run homer that gave the Mets an utterly unforeseen 6-3 win.
“I was just hoping and praying it would get out,” he said. “I was blowing at it: ‘Get out, get out!’”
It got out — and immediately and forever became the highlight of Esix Snead’s big league stay. He only appeared in four more games for the Mets: three in 2002 (once as a starter) and one time in 2004, when he pinch-ran and scored for Mike Piazza.
And that was it. That was Esix Snead’s Met career, not to mention his major league career. He spent the bulk of 2004 with Norfolk, his second consecutive year in Triple-A, before drifting through the Atlanta and Baltimore systems over the next two seasons.
But so what? Esix Snead (through 2011, one of 54 non-pitching Mets to hit exactly one home run as a Met) won a game for the Mets with one big swing. At the moment something like that happens — no matter how hard you have to hope and pray it goes out, no matter how much you blow at it and implore it — there’s nothing obscure about you.
GAME 155: September 25, 2004 — METS 4 Cubs 3 (11)
(Mets All-Time Game 155 Record: 24-23; Mets 2004 Record: 68-87)
Welcome to the plight of the would-be spoiler. More specifically, welcome to the plight of the fan of the would-be spoiler. One Mets loyalist who attended this Saturday afternoon game between his fourth-place home club and the Wild Card-leading Cubs of Chicago was moved that night to jot down his dissatisfaction with how his ballpark was populated:
“[M]an, this was just wrong. Shea Stadium was no better than Miller Park, just another convenient depot for Cubs fans to strut their stuff. Yeah, I know, we suck. We don’t deserve support. If this were the Pirates and Mets in late September, you couldn’t get enough fans of either team for a minyan. The Cubs were a draw, no doubt about it. I imagine the self-hating Mets management, which once garishly honored Sosa to bring in otherwise disinterested Dominicans, will institute a Cubs Fan Appreciation Night next year. But it’s still wrong. Engaging in throat-to-throat combat with Yankees fans at Shea is one thing. It’s to be expected. But a house — our house, to be dramatic about it — half (at least) filled with Cubs fans really, really, really turned my stomach. And that’s a lot to turn.
“They cheered their heroes. They cooed ‘Ah-looooo.’ They greeted Sammy and Nomar like royalty. They were loud on behalf of relatively obscure visitors like Todd Walker, who rocked this house divided against itself with a two-run homer in the second. They bared (beared?) foam Cubs claws. Those things were cute on TV last fall. They were disturbing in person, in Flushing. As were the fans, the long-suffering, by my gauge, outnumbered by the trendy. How can you front-run for a team that’s 96 years removed from its last parade down Michigan?”
The Mets didn’t need this game in the pennant race sense, but their fans didn’t need this,. Cub-o-philes were everywhere. Where they came from, heaven or a somewhat lower environ only knew. In college football parlance, they — like some big-time Big Ten school — traveled well. Real Mets fans found it bizarre. Real Mets fans like New Jerseyite Al Leiter, who told Steve Popper of the Times, “There were a lot of Cub fans. I don’t know if they flew up from Chicago. I don’t think there’s a lot of Cub fans here in Manhattan or New York.”
Of course frontrunners know no address. They just root for whoever seems hot, and the Cubs burned much brighter in the baseball consciousness if 2003 and 2004 than did the Mets. You wouldn’t have seen this type of Cubbie turnout at Shea in 1969 or 1984, years when the teams threw down head-to-head for N.L. East honors, but times had certainly changed in these parts. The Mets were in a definitive down cycle. The Cubs had come one fan’s foul-ball reach from winning a pennant the October before. They were taking another shot at it this year.
And who were the Mets to stop them? Here’s what our 2004 correspondent had to say primarily to himself that night:
“The Mets’ first and likely only serious threat summed up their shattered season. With the bases loaded in the fifth and nobody out, Jose Reyes bounced to first. Took a nice play, but Derrek Lee threw home to nail Valent. One out. Old Gerald Williams, who probably came up alongside Don Buford and Paul Blair, flied to Alou in relatively deep left. Jason Phillips, the most glacial man in the bigs, Jason Phillips, who got tagged out Friday night on a throw 10 feet to the right of home, was on third. Even Jason Phillips could tag up and score.
“However, Jason Phillips had gone halfway. He hadn’t tagged up. Two outs, no sac fly. Bases still loaded. Jason Phillips officially sliced from my favorite players list and mentally traded to Toronto. Wilson Delgado, who furtively subbed for Kaz Matsui, flied out.”
And so it went for eight-and-a-half innings. Aaron Heilman and his relievers (Tyler Yates, Mike Stanton, Bartolome Fortunato and Heath Bell) hadn’t pitched terribly, but Chicago starter Mark Prior had pitched brilliantly. The end result was a 3-0 Cubs lead heading to the bottom of the ninth.
Which is where times changed back in these parts to 1969.
Ryan Dempster had come on in the eighth to get the last out for Prior, a grounder from Mike Piazza. He opened the ninth by striking out Todd Zeile. But he walked Valent and Phillips, which moved Dusty Baker to exchange Dempster for LaTroy Hawkins. It seemed like a pretty good idea after Hawkins flied Jeff Keppinger to right for the penultimate out of the game.
But it didn’t seem particularly helpful to the Cubs’ cause when the Mets’ final hope, September callup Victor Diaz, belted a three-run homer to right field. Quite suddenly, quite shockingly, the moribund Mets had tied the contending Cubs at three apiece.
The Cubs fans grew quiet. The Mets fans exulted. Was it any wonder? As our resuscitated chronicler from ’04 declared of Diaz, a Chicago kid raised on the enhanced splendors of Sammy Sosa, no less, “To the spoilers belong the Victor.”
Two innings later, Mets could would also lay happy claim to Craig Brazell, another recently promoted prospect. Brazell chose the bottom of the eleventh to launch his first major league home run. His shot out of the dark and out of the park, off veteran Kent Mercker, decided this game in the Mets’ favor, 4-3. The Cubs lost the next day to Leiter and slid right out of the Wild Card and into the same also-ran status that plagued the Mets when the season ended the following week.
As for the fan who was compelled to write down the details of what he saw at Shea, he had to, by prior arrangement, bolt the stadium after nine that Saturday. He caught word of Brazell’s big moment on his Walkman radio. But it was enough, to him, that he saw Diaz tie it as he did, when he did. Yet like Brazell, the fan made his final swing count.
“I didn’t get to the concourse before I let out a “HA!” at a cluster of younger, very recently sullen Cubs fans. And a “HA!” on their house for acting up in my house. Of all the places on the face of this earth, Shea Stadium is not where a Cubs fan wants to get cocky, not even in 2004, not even in a game started, respectively, by Mark Prior and Aaron Heilman.”
That fan, so miserable for the preceding several seasons, was beyond jubilant come Saturday evening. He took his wife out to dinner and couldn’t believe what he saw was on tap: Rheingold, the official beer of the New York Mets back when black cats roamed the earth. He didn’t normally drink beer with dinner.
But he sure did that night.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 24, 1983, eight solid innings of Tom Seaver’s pitching nearly went to waste. Pulled after allowing only one Cub run on seven hits, Seaver — bolstered by four Brian Giles RBIs — took a seat and waited for his 7-1 win at Wrigley Field to go final. But manager Frank Howard’s decision to give slumping starter Mike Torrez some work in a mopup role backfired immediately. Torrez surrendered a homer, a triple and a wild pitch before recording one out. Hondo then let Mike give up a double and another walk before, at 7-3, calling on lefthanded specialist Carlos Diaz. Diaz was only modestly special, getting the second out of the inning by striking out Bill Buckner, but then allowing a two-run pinch-double to Gary Woods. Suddenly it was 7-6, Mets. Out went Diaz and in came righty reliever Doug Sisk, who grounded Ron Cey to Hubie Brooks at third. Brooks threw to Gary Rajsich at first to preserve the win for Seaver.
This rather innocuous Saturday afternoon affair between the sixth-place Mets and the fifth-place Cubs became, thanks to bizarre front-office machinations that wouldn’t come to pass for another four months, the final victory of Tom Seaver’s New York Met career. His final Met record would go into the books as 198-124, with 2,541 strikeouts and an earned run average of 2.57.
All of those marks, unsurprisingly, are franchise bests.
GAME 156: September 22, 2011 — Mets 8 CARDINALS 6
(Mets All-Time Game 156 Record: 26-21; Mets 2011 Record: 74-82)
In a New York inning, everything can change.
Take the top of the ninth on the final Thursday of the 2011 season, the last road game of the Mets’ fiftieth year. If the Mets had literally come to the end of the road, they were also figuratively going nowhere at the end of an up & down campaign…but they weren’t going quietly.
They trailed St. Louis at St. Louis, 6-2, and based on all you’d seen all day (it was early evening in the Midwest after a lengthy afternoon rain delay) you wouldn’t have bet against the Redbirds flying away with an easy win. The Cardinals were chasing the faltering Braves for the National League Wild Card. After miles had separated them in the early September standings, the two old Met rivals were now almost inches apart. If the Cards held on for three more outs, they’d be just a game behind Atlanta.
The Mets hadn’t put up much of a fight for eight innings, which wasn’t like them. Terry Collins, in his first season as manager, had proved a surprisingly masterful motivator. After losing his teams’ confidence in Houston and Anaheim during his aborted ’90s tenures, the professionally reborn Collins related well to these Mets, most of whom were too young or unaccomplished to have egos, or simply too menschy to not buy into Terry’s program of hustle and selflessness.
There were occasional slipups, however. For example, one week earlier, the Mets exhibited an astounding display of amateurism in losing an absolutely unsightly game to the noncontending Nationals at Citi Field, 10-1. After watching his team flail helplessly and somewhat stupidly, Collins used his postgame press conference as an opportunity to read his charges the riot act.
“The perception I have right now,” he announced to the assembled media, “[is] we folded it up. And I won’t stand for that … Our fans should be upset. I don’t blame them a bit. No energy, none at all, on the field. This is not the way we played all year long.”
As if to prove they were listening, the Mets went to Atlanta and took two of three from the Wild Card-leading Braves. They were less successful in St. Louis, however, losing the first two of a three-game series, and appeared incapable of mounting a rally let alone showing a pulse when the ninth inning of the finale rolled around. They seemed so irrelevant to a game involving a playoff contender that the big story surrounding the Mets that day was whether the Mets would sell their scheduled starter, Chris Capuano, to the pitching-strapped Red Sox, another Wild Card leader that was losing its grip on its spot in its race.
Capuano stayed a Met and pitched something less than his usual adequate game, departing with two outs in the fifth after falling behind 4-1. Given the eight hits and two walks allowed by Caps, it was surprising St. Louis didn’t lead by more. Eventually, however, they would, when a Yadier Molina double and a Tyler Greene single increased their margin to five runs in the seventh. The Mets scrounged one tally in the top of the eighth when Molina — an all-time Metropolitan villain since homering to beat them in the last postseason game Shea Stadium ever hosted in 2006 — couldn’t handle a pitch from long-ago Met reliever Octavio Dotel. The passed ball that scored Ruben Tejada from third base cut the Redbird advantage to 6-2, but Angel Pagan and David Wright struck out to end the inning.
After Manny Acosta kept the Cardinals from doing further damage, the Mets came up for their last licks against Jason Motte. There was no reason to believe that a series sweep and a one-game deficit weren’t in St. Louis’s immediate future.
But in a New York inning, everything started to change.
• Willie Harris led off with a walk on a 3-2 pitch. It was the fifth walk allowed by Cardinal pitching.
• Nick Evans grounded an almost certain double play ball to shortstop Rafael Furcal, a trade deadline acquisition from the Dodgers, and an ancient thorn in the Mets’ side from his Atlanta days. Furcal was picked up to tighten the Cardinals’ infield defense. But he made a temporarily costly error the night before, and now he bobbled Evans’s grounder. Harris was safe at second. Evans was on first. Nobody was out.
• Josh Thole, the object of affection for 300 residents of nearby Breese, Ill., who bused to the game to make Thursday “Josh Thole Day” at Busch Stadium couldn’t quite be a hometown hero against the team for whom he grew up rooting. Thole flied to center.
• Jason Pridie pinch-hit for Josh Satin and walked to load the bases. “The Mets,” Gary Cohen noted, “are being very patient with Motte.”
• Justin Turner was the next pinch-hitter, batting for Acosta. Justin made the most of his plate appearance, underscoring Cohen’s commentary. He went ten pitches deep into his at-bat before taking ball four and driving in Harris. On three walks and an error, the Mets had put a run on the board. It was 6-3, Cardinals.
Motte hadn’t entered in a save situation, but now he left one for Tony La Russa’s next pitcher, Marc Rzepczynski, a lefty who had never saved a game in his brief major league career. Now would be a good time for him to get one.
But the New York inning continued apace.
• Jose Reyes, ever so slightly behind Ryan Braun for the National League batting crown, decided patience wasn’t a virtue at this juncture of the ninth. He attacked Rzepczynski’s second pitch (breaking his bat in doing so) and lined a ball over second baseman Ryan Theriot. It landed for a single that tightened both Jose’s batting race and his team’s game. The Mets trailed, 6-4, and the bases were still loaded.
So much for learning to spell Marc Rzepczynski. La Russa went to his overworked bullpen and produced club save leader Fernando Salas.
• Tejada, the 21-year-old second baseman with the proverbial 35-year-old head, was up next. Collins couldn’t have asked for a better batter. Ruben with the bags full in 2011 to date: 5-for-10 with three walks. This kid was as patient as he was preternaturally baseball-wise. Almost predictably, he worked the count full. Then he pulled Salas’s sixth pitch to deep left — National League managers tended to play the young man too shallow — where defensive replacement Shane Robinson made a diving, lunging grab…and came up less than an inch short of a spectacular catch. Tejada’s ball ticked off Robinson’s glove, chasing home Pridie and Turner to tie the score, 6-6. Reyes went to third, Tejada to second.
• Pagan was intentionally walked to load the bases again.
• Wright went down swinging. There were two out.
• Harris batted for a second time in the inning. Willie was a notorious Met-killer in the uniforms of the Braves and Nationals, yet Mets fans were left throughout 2011 to wonder why that guy never showed up in their threads. Willie finally began flashing his trademark style the night before when he robbed Lance Berkman of a probable three-run double, so you might say he was back in the Willie Harris groove. And when he singled home Reyes and Tejada — “a great secondary lead by Tejada provided that run,” noted Ron Darling — to put the Mets up, 8-6, the Mets as a whole had gotten their groove back.
“Late in the game,” a satisfied Collins said, “we settled into what we do best, and that is make sure we get something good to hit. We came through in the ninth.”
Indeed, those six runs turned the game upside down. When Bobby Parnell retired the Cards 1-2-3 in the bottom of the frame (the last out coming on a Jason Pridie dive ‘n’ grab off the hated Molina), it appeared they had changed the complexion of the National League season, too. Cardinal momentum was halted dead in its tracks. St. Louis was two behind the Braves with six to play. The Mets were being called spoilers.
“A stunning ninth-inning comeback,” Cohen labeled it. The Mets had “put a dagger in the heart of the St. Louis Cardinals.”
That wasn’t their goal, however. Their goal was to keep playing and keep playing hard for themselves, if no one else. Harris reflected the 2011 Mets’ M.O. as their season wound down when he said, “When you go to work, you should go to work hard. I think today shows these guys in this locker room care about each other and we want to win. We go out and try to win every game. It just so happens tonight, those guys are fighting for a Wild Card. We’re fighting just to get a W.”
One of the beleaguered relievers the Mets outlasted, Motte, admired his tormentors, even in defeat: “You’ve got to give credit to those guys. Those guys went up there and they took good at-bats, good approaches. They didn’t go up there and swing at balls. Those guys did their job, too.”
St. Louis recovered, or more accurately, Atlanta kept self-destructing. Within the week, the Cardinals would win the National League Wild Card — maybe because the Mets beat them only once after beating Atlanta twice down the stretch, maybe not. The Mets, meanwhile, evoked their own memorable past with their New York inning when everything did change.
It was the first time since May 17, 2007, that the Mets recovered from as much as a four-run deficit (when they trailed the Cubs, 5-1) to win a game in the ninth inning.
It was the Mets’ biggest ninth-inning comeback on the road since they overcame the Braves’ 7-1 lead on July 17, 1973, to prevail, 8-7.
It was right in line with the kind of improbability that the Mets had been pulling from their bag of tricks for a half-century, whether their exploits involved overcoming a ten-inning no-hitter, running out a ninth-inning inside-the-parker, blasting a last-ditch grand slam, or coaxing a ball off the top of a wall. It was the kind of Mets Magic that had captured two World Championships, and millions of hearts in lesser times. It was why devoted Mets fans kept tabs on a rain-delayed Thursday afternoon game at the tail end of a season in which the Mets weren’t going anywhere but home.
It was why Mets fans, after a half-century of Mets baseball, remain Mets fans.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 23, 1962, the Mets said goodbye to the only home they had ever known…or so they thought. They were playing their final scheduled game ever at the Polo Grounds. Come 1963, the Mets were destined to move to their new home in Flushing Meadows, Shea Stadium. Hence, the big horseshoe-shaped yard on the edge of Harlem, site of baseball history since the Giants rebuilt it after a devastating fire in 1911, was about to host its last baseball game.
The Mets may not have made much history there in their one year at the Polo Grounds — certainly not the triumphant kind — but they treated the occasion with requisite significance. Public address announcer Jack E. Lee provided an appropriate soundtrack of pop standards throughout this sentimental Sunday afternoon, starting with “This Ole House” and heart-tuggingly proceeding to “Auld Lang Syne”. In between, the Mets placed their own punctuation on 48 seasons of Manhattan baseball when, in the bottom of the ninth, Frank Thomas singled home Choo Choo Coleman with the winning run to create one final great New York victory under Coogan’s Bluff, as the Mets beat the Cubs, 2-1.
That it was only the Mets’ 39th win of 1962, and only their 22nd in this ole house, didn’t make it any less marvelous. That Thomas, the man who got the final hit, was the same man who (as a Pirate) caught the final putout in the first “final” game played there five years earlier as the Giants vacated certainly made it more intriguing. That it included the first hit in the career of 17-year-old rookie Ed Kranepool couldn’t help but make it hopeful. That it came against Chicago on the 54th anniversary of Merkle’s Boner (which was committed by the young Giant against the enemy Cubs at the version of the Polo Grounds that predated this one) made it all the more historically poignant. Not that poignancy was in short supply, per Robert Lipsyte, in the Times:
“After the game, as Thomas and the Mets and Cubs ran toward the center field clubhouse, the spectators merely stood. They did not rush off to exits or cheer. They merely swayed to the strains of “Till We Meet Again,” and perhaps thought of [Mel] Ott, of Christy Mathewson or Carl Hubbell … With great respect, they watched [Casey Stengel] dogtrot, alone on an empty field, 475 feet to the clubhouse with his right hand in his back pocket and ‘Auld Lang Syne’ filling a stadium that someday must be torn down to make room for new housing.”
What a perfect way to go out…which probably explains why the Mets, who were indelibly imperfect from they day they played their very first home game (they were already 0-1), stepped on their graceful farewell. They had to — Shea Stadium wasn’t going to be ready for Opening Day 1963. It wasn’t going to be ready at any time in 1963, thus the final baseball game ever at the Polo Grounds that 10,304 thought they’d attended was actually the 82nd-to-last.
The actual final game ever at the Polo Grounds came to pass on September 18, 1963, an unceremonious 5-1 defeat at the hands of the Phillies in front of 1,752. Counting the Giants’ departure in 1957, this was the third time in a six-year span New York was compelled to bid “Auld Lang Syne” to the PG, so it wasn’t really a very big deal at that point. No pomp or circumstances attached itself to Goodbye III — “I don’t remember any fanfare,” Craig Anderson recently told Nick Diunte of examiner.com — but a legend was born even as a ballpark was being given its third set of last rites.
The Times reported, “Movies were taken as part of a Met promotional film. Casey Stengel waxed eloquent Stengelese all over the place for a couple of hours prior to and following the game.” That alleged rambling was, in fact, the classic “Metsie, Metsie, Metsie” rant that has lived on in the Mets fan consciousness for most of a half-century (and remains in heavy rotation, thanks to SNY’s Mets Yearbook: 1963).
For the record, the final Mets win in the Polo Grounds came a week earlier, on September 11, as the home team defeated its predecessor in this space, the now San Francisco Giants, 4-2. Tim Harkness went 3-for-5 that Wednesday with a pair of RBIs and Al Jackson went the distance on a seven-hitter. Of course there was no way of telling that was the final Mets win in Manhattan, even though that would have been a reasonable guess, considering this was a 49-97 club. They had seven more home games remaining and they lost all seven. Their subsequent nine-game road swing to end the season brought them another seven losses, consigning the Mets to a 51-111 sophomore season.
Not that everybody minded. As Gordon White noted in the Times, “What seems most amazing is that this club, though still a sad bunch of major leaguers, drew 157,754 more fans than in 1962, when the newness of the Mets was the main factor in their good showing.” Indeed, these cellar-dwelling Mets of 1963 cracked the one-million mark in attendance back when that sort of thing simply wasn’t done by last-place teams. Obviously, Mets fans would be back for more in ’64, which led White to extend a helpful bit of commuting advice after the final final Polo Grounds game was over:
“For those New Breeders who want to see the next Met game, remember, don’t take the D train to 155th Street; take the IRT to Willets Point.”