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” 158th game in any Mets season, the “best” 159th 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 158: September 27, 2000 — METS 6 Braves 2
(Mets All-Time Game 158 Record: 17-29; Mets 2000 Record: 90-68)
The Mets have never “backed in” to a playoff spot, if one can, in fact, be said to have not earned something it takes the bulk of 162 games to achieve, no matter where you happen to be standing when the achievement becomes statistically official. No losing when somebody else beat their closest competitor; no word filtering into a clubhouse or onto a team flight; no accidental-tourist type of qualifying for this franchise. The Mets have actively secured everything they’ve ever clinched.
But this one time, circumstances dictated the process couldn’t be made to feel a whole lot more anticlimactic.
Welcome to the Lost Clincher. Welcome to the night the Mets won the berth they needed the night after they lost the berth they wanted. Welcome to the night when the Mets didn’t quite know what to do with themselves when the obvious answer was “celebrate”.
Welcome to late September of 2000. It’s the Mets and the Braves at Shea, or shall we say the Braves and the Mets. That was the order that irked the Mets for too long, right up to and including the night before, when the Mets were still ever so slightly capable of derailing the Braves’ streak of umpteen consecutive division titles. For that to have happened, the Mets would have had to have beaten the Braves and then kept beating the Braves. But if the Mets could have done that with any kind of regularity, then the Mets would have been more than slightly alive in the final week of the year. Instead, they lost to Atlanta, 7-1, ensuring their own elimination as well as the Braves’ inevitable corporate coronation.
When Wednesday evening arrived, the team that had just seen its tragic number for the N.L. East reduced to zero turned around to tackle a different, generally cheerier task. The Mets’ magic number for the N.L. Wild Card was a mere 1. They led the Dodgers by five with five games to play. All it would take was a motivated Mets squad sticking it to a Brave bunch that didn’t have that much at stake (which Mets fans with memories that stretched back to the final weekend at Turner Field in 1998 knew wouldn’t stop Atlanta from trying to stick it to the Mets). Again, if it were that easy to beat the Braves on command, maybe it would have been Bobby Cox’s team angling for the consolation prize. Instead, it was Bobby Valentine’s, and they were resigned to making the playoffs in whatever guise the invitation came.
They might even enjoy it.
“No restrictions,” Steve Phillips responded when asked if the Mets were going to throw a clubhouse gala if they clinched what was essentially the best second-place record in the league against the team with the best record in their division. “I’ll pour champagne over somebody.”
When the game began, the Braves were mostly throwing cold water on the Mets’ celebratory ambitions. Andruw Jones homered off Rick Reed with one out in the first and the Mets were in the familiar position of trailing Atlanta. But the unflappable Reed settled down from there, keeping the Braves off the board long enough for his teammates to tie it when Todd Zeile worked a bases-loaded walk versus Kevin Millwood in the fourth. The Braves’ bid to retake the lead on another long Andruw Jones shot to right was short-circuited when Derek Bell leapt at the wall to rob him to close the top of the fifth. Bell’s knee took one for the team on the play, crashing as it did into the blue padding.
“I knew,” Bell said, “I had to go out there and catch that ball and keep us close in the game.”
Derek’s determination paid off, even after he was taken out to protect his leg. The Mets scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth, one coming on Bell pinch-hitter Darryl Hamilton’s single and two more on Edgardo Alfonzo’s 25th home run of the season. Bolstered by a 4-1 lead, Reed continued to chug along. The Mets would add one more run off Millwood and another against reliever Scott Kamieniecki to make it 6-1. Reed pitched through the eighth, allowing no more runs. His line for the night featured seven strikeouts and only four hits.
The Mets closed in on the berth they needed when Armando Benitez succeeded Reeder on the mound in the ninth. After allowing an obligatory solo home run to Andres Gallaraga, Benitez struck out old Shea friend Bobby Bonilla, gave up a single to Wally Joyner and struck out Reggie Sanders. The only obstacle standing between the Mets and their interim goal was second baseman Keith Lockhart.
Gary Cohen called the final pitch of the forgotten clincher:
“Benitez ready, the one-two pitch…SWING and a miss, he struck him out! The ballgame is over, and the Mets have clinched the Wild Card in the National League, and for the first time in franchise history, the Mets are goin’ to the postseason for the SECOND CONSECUTIVE year. And everybody comes out of the dugout, handshakes all around, and the guys from the bullpen are running in as well to be part of the celebration, as the Mets congratulate each other on clinching the Wild Card for a second consecutive season.”
There was sustained cheering, and music blasted, and the scoreboard lit up, and in case anybody had an out-of-control case of Wild Card fever, there was somewhat heightened security on hand. But 1969 wasn’t about to break out down on the field. Still, the Mets had done something they had never done before (and something time would prove difficult to do again) by punching their ticket to the postseason twice in a row. They knew from experience that once you’re in the playoffs, whether by division title or Wild Card, all that mattered was that you were there. It was worth the heartiest of handshakes and the spilling of the most sparkling of wines.
That said, it wasn’t quite Studio 54 revisited. More mild card than Wild Card.
Reed: “This is just one step.”
Mike Piazza; “It’s good just to get it over with.”
Al Leiter: “I think everyone knew we were going to clinch, it was just a matter of when. We kind of knew that coming out of Spring Training.”
If the Mets sounded a little world-weary about becoming one of only eight major league clubs that would be playing beyond its 162nd game, it was because they had as their goal the World Series, a destination they neared without making a year earlier. “We’ve been at this step before,” Reed said. “We’ve been to the next step. We have to get to the step after that.”
Nevertheless, this was the step that had to be taken, a step that sometimes seemed ready to trip the Mets up, no matter that they were more or less expected to get back to the postseason in 2000. Losing another season series — and thus division title — to Atlanta colored perceptions about these Mets, as did their high-profile four losses in six Interleague meetings with the omnipresent Yankees, along with the usual Chicken Little contretemps (Mike Hampton’s shaky start, Rickey Henderson’s fadeout and Rey Ordoñez’s season-ending broken left forearm, to name three) that are magnified tabloid-fold by playing in New York. A worrisome 1-7 stretch to open September further lent credence to the idea that the Mets and October were something less than inevitable. Yet here they were, assured of getting to a brand new starting line.
“Everyone said we’ve struggled,” Valentine said as the champagne flew outside his office, “and this is our 90th win. This team is made up of a fabulous group of individuals who are strong and talented. They proved to me, time and time again, how good they are. I’ll take my chances, I guarantee that, against anyone.”
There would indeed be Met chances to take, starting in San Francisco a week later.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 29, 1999, the Mets heeded the words of wise old inmate Red from The Shawshank Redemption. After seven excruciating games when the Mets did nothing but die, they decided to get busy living…and they chose quite a pitcher to jump out of the grave against.
Eight days earlier, the Mets alighted in Atlanta for an anticipated showdown with the Braves for first place. One game separated the two rivals. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong for New York in Dixie, and three games later, the Mets were four out of first. Three games after that, following a set in Philadelphia, the Mets were officially out of contention for the division title. It was a stunning trend: the Braves won six straight as the Mets lost six straight. Worse, the Cincinnati Reds had caught fire and now led the Mets for the Wild Card, a spot the Mets had viewed as a safety net.
A hole had been cut through their failsafe, however. The Reds had gotten so hot that as the Mets were losing their seventh consecutive game — the opener of a three-game series at Shea to the Braves — Cincinnati was passing Houston for the National League Central lead, and thus sported a record 2½ games better than the Mets. This meant the heretofore first-place Astros, who were taking on Cincy in Cincy, were suddenly the Mets’ key concern, and they were a game-and-a-half up on New York. It was a little confusing to sort out from one day to the next, but what was bloody apparent was there was little time left in the Mets’ season, and none of it could any longer be squandered on losing without interruption.
What a treat, then, that the Mets were not only facing the Braves who had left them in the dust, but had to figure out a way to beat Greg Maddux, he who entered Wednesday night’s action at 19-8…and he who benefited from the bonus status of being Greg Maddux, four-time National League Cy Young Award winner. Maddux had faced the Mets three times previously in 1999 and beaten them with little support (1-0), with loads of support (16-0) and, just the week before, with as much support as he needed when he wasn’t incredibly sharp (6-3).
This is a way to halt a seven-game winning streak and revive your disappearing postseason hopes?
As a matter of fact it was. It didn’t appear promising when Brian Jordan nicked Al Leiter for a two-run single in the top of the third and erased an early 1-0 Met advantage, but Leiter steadied himself and kept the Braves from inflicting any more damage through four. Unfortunately, the Mets came to bat in the bottom of the fourth trailing, 2-1. There was ample evidence to suggest any lead would be sufficient for Maddux to nail down his 20th win and all but nail shut the Mets’ 1999 coffin.
But hold that obituary…
Darryl Hamilton led off the Mets’ fourth with a single to right.
Roger Cedeño followed with a single to left.
Rey Ordoñez beat out an infield hit to load the bases.
Al Leiter, who began the evening as an .078 hitter, dropped the Mets’ fourth consecutive single into center field. Hamilton scampered home to tie the game at 2-2.
Rickey Henderson slapped a hit to the right side to bring home Cedeño and Ordoñez. The Mets led, 4-2.
Edgardo Alfonzo found a hole between second and third. With Leiter the baserunner at second, that meant nobody was going to advance more than 90 feet. Thus, Fonzie’s hit served to reload the bases.
John Olerud came up and totally unloaded them. He unloaded on Maddux with a grand slam home run that stunned everybody in attendance, particularly those in Atlanta uniforms. After drip-drip-dripping the Atlanta ace dry with six consecutive singles (none of them hit particularly hard), Mount Olerud erupted. Shea followed suit. At last, the Mets stopped being dead. They led, 8-2, and after a Mike Piazza single that threatened to restart the carousel of Met baserunners, Maddux left the game.
Leiter and the Mets went on to an easy 9-2 win. At Cinergy Field, the Astros beat the Reds, 4-1. That meant a tie for first in the Central and even less clarity in the Mets’ chase of the Wild Card. But what counted was the Mets, 1½ behind both teams, were up and actively in the chase once more.
GAME 159: September 25, 2008 — METS 7 Cubs 6
(Mets All-Time Game 159 Record: 21-25; Mets 2008 Record: 88-71)
On May 8, 1964, the Mets went to the bottom of the ninth inning locked in a 4-4 tie with the St. Louis Cardinals. George Altman led off against Bobby Shantz with a single. Amado “Sammy” Samuel bunted Altman to second. St. Louis manager Johnny Keane ordered pinch-hitter Jim Hickman intentionally walked. Casey Stengel sent up another pinch-hitter, Joe Christopher, and Christopher shot a grounder into left field. It scored Altman with the winning run.
That became Shea Stadium’s first walkoff win. There would be another 328 in regular-season play plus seven in the playoffs and World Series between 1964, when Shea opened, and 2008, before it was to become no more than a memory. When the first one occurred, there was no doubt it was the first, even if the phrase “walkoff win,” was decades from creation. When the last one would occur…well, that couldn’t be known until all 45 seasons, up to and including Shea’s final homestand (and maybe more), were complete.
What was known during that last scheduled week of Shea, which encompassed a four-game series against the Cubs and a three-game set against the Marlins, was the Mets needed every damn win they could get, no matter how long it took to get it. In the midst of a pennant race, the sooner, the better, but the 2008 Mets were in no position to be choosers. Score the necessary runs and cruise to victory, and nobody would complain. Play out the suspense until the final swing of the game determined a positive outcome…well, that would be the Met way, wouldn’t it?
What wasn’t what anybody wanted was how the final game of the Cub series was going for quite a while. After losing two of three to Chicago (who had already clinched the N.L. Central title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs), Thursday night presented a desperate situation for the Mets. They were a game-and-a-half in back of Philly for first in the East and tied with Milwaukee for the Wild Card. With echoes of the 2007 collapse still resonating in the memory of everybody at Shea, all any fan could ask for was for the Mets to take a lead as soon as possible and never give it up.
Ask, and ye shall not necessarily receive.
In another season, the idea that your manager could hand the ball to Pedro Martinez to start a humongous game would have been comforting. In 2008, it was a recipe for immediate disaster. Pedro was still Pedro in terms of reputation and heart and bearing, but he was just another guy named Martinez when it came to literally starting games. In a seemingly constant state of injury rehabilitation, Pedro was a horrible first-inning pitcher in ’08. He pitched 20 of them in the course of the season and gave up 23 earned runs. That made for a first-inning ERA of 10.35 and an almost rock-solid guarantee that you’ll be digging your team an immediate hole, especially at home.
Sure enough, Pedro’s first inning against the Cubs was like most of his first innings in 2008: instantly dreadful. With two out, he gave up the first home run of Micah Hoffpauir’s major league career. The Mets were down, 1-0. Three batters later, after a walk and two singles, the Mets were down, 2-0.
The Mets got one of those runs back in the bottom of the first, when David Wright lifted a sacrifice fly to center off Rich Harden to score Jose Reyes from third. While nobody was about to throw back a Met run, there was some modestly cruel irony in who recorded the RBI and how he did it. Less than 24 hours earlier, when the Mets and Cubs were tied at six, rookie Daniel Murphy led off the Mets’ ninth with a triple. The next batter was Wright. All he needed to do was lift a fly ball of Cub reliever Bobby Howry. The Cubs, it bears repeating, had nothing to play for. The Mets had everything to play for. And Wright didn’t have to be a hero — as he had been when he popped a game-ending, ninth-inning home run at Shea against Heath Bell of the Padres on August 7 in the Mets’ second-to-most-recent walkoff win. He didn’t even have to collect a base hit — as he did when he doubled at Shea to set up Carlos Delgado’s game-ending, ninth-inning single against Vladimir Nuñez of the Braves on August 21 in the Mets’ most recent walkoff win. He just had to lift a moderately deep fly ball to score Murphy and win a crucial game for the Mets.
But he couldn’t. Or he didn’t. David struck out. Murphy stayed glued to third base. Lou Piniella ordered two intentional walks, and Howry squirmed out of trouble with no Met scoring. In the tenth, Luis Ayala gave up three runs and the Mets went on to lose, 9-6.
So you could understand if the large, chilled, rain-soaked crowd applauded David Wright’s first-inning sacrifice fly with less than outright enthusiasm.
Martinez, meanwhile, got through the second without incident, but the third was another story. It was another Hoffpauir inning, actually, and Hoffpauir had quickly become synonymous for lethal where Pedro Martinez was concerned. Ryan Theriot led off the frame with a walk, and Micah followed with a booming RBI double. The Mets, having learned that Hoffpauir had power, trailed, 3-1.
Then Pedro, because he was Pedro, even in a diminished state, called on reserves of greatness few other pitchers could have summoned. He struck out Jim Edmonds and walked Mike Fontenot before striking out Casey McGehee and Kosuke Fukodome.
The fourth didn’t include quite so dramatic a flourish, but Pedro went unscored upon, allowing the Mets to pull even in the bottom of the inning as Ryan Church doubled in Wright and Carlos Beltran.
Given a tie to defend, Pedro did what he could with the indefatigable Hoffpauir, limiting him to a single to lead off the fifth, and then used only four pitches to retire the next three Cub batters, keeping the score knotted at three apiece.
The visitors’ sixth was just as effective for the home team’s pitcher: Fukudome grounding to second; Koyie Hill striking out looking; Harden striking out swinging. Martinez had turned around his early-innings troubles and kept the Mets (who weren’t scoring) in the game.
The Mets didn’t put anything on the board in their half of the sixth. Jerry Manuel sent his starter back to the mound to commence the seventh. For the fourth time, the Cubs got their leadoff man on, this time on a Felix Pie single. Pie then stole second with Theriot at the plate. On a three-one count, Theriot walked. That was Pedro Martinez’s 99th pitch of the game, and Manuel came out to let him know it was his last.
And, pending theoretical tiebreakers and playoffs, it was also his last as a New York Met.
Pedro Martinez signed a four-year contract in December 2004. This was the fourth year, the end of it. For about a season-and-a-third, he was everything Mets fans could have desired. Then injuries began to bite him and sideline him. Nearing the age of 37, it was getting tougher and tougher for the three-time Cy Young winner (once with Montreal, twice with Boston) to reach let alone maintain his characteristic high standard.
In the heart of the steroid era, in the designated hitter league, Pedro posted consecutive season earned run averages of 2.07, 1.74, 2.26 and 2.22. In his final mostly injury-free season, 2005, he led the Mets out of mediocrity and into respectability. He finished in the Top 5 in a dozen different pitching categories that year — including coming in first in WHIP and K/BB Ratio — and, intangibly but definitively, made an impression on Mets fans. He was Pedro Martinez and he was theirs. It was a sensation that multiple trips to the disabled list and a plethora of bad first innings never quite erased.
It was no wonder, then, that once Manuel pulled Martinez, the more than 40,000 in attendance rose as one and applauded what they all assumed was the last they’d see of this immortal in their midst. It was also no wonder that Pedro, who may have had the strongest intrinsic feel of any modern player for his place in the game, acknowledged the response as only Pedro would. He gestured toward the sky and seemingly to every fan in every section of the stadium on his walk to the dugout, as if to applaud those who were applauding him.
“What went through my mind actually,” he said, “was the fans and to appreciate their support just in case I did pitch my last game as a Met or my last start as a Met.” Shea had been Pedro’s park for only four of his 17 big league seasons, but he had certainly made himself at home: “It’s been a fun place for me.” As for the realization that this could very well be it for him and Shea, he admitted a 3-3 seventh-inning tie may have been “the wrong time to think about those things, but when they started to clap for me, I thought they might be thinking the same thing.”
On a night when he was “not very happy” with his performance, the Mets’ starter nonetheless kept his team in the game. He struck out nine in six-plus innings. It was indeed something for Shea Stadium to applaud.
What happened one pitch after he left, however, was a whole other ball of wax.
Martinez was succeeded to the mound by journeyman lefthander Ricardo Rincon, wearing Kenny Rogers’s old lucky number of 73. The ten-year veteran, whose primary claim to fame was as one of Billy Beane’s trade deadline chess pieces in Moneyball, materialized in the Mets’ beleaguered bullpen on September 5. He had made seven appearances to date and hadn’t done anything terribly wrong in six of them. Given the state of Mets relief pitching, that made the 38-year-old specialist — someone who did not appear in the majors in all of 2007 — as a good a bet for Manuel to bring in as anybody warming up beyond the right field fence could have been with two on and nobody out.
That was before the first pitch Rincon threw his first batter, mighty Micah Hoffpauir. When Hoffpauir swung, every one of Ricardo’s reliefmates could see the result, because the ball soared over their airspace and likely landed on the L.I.E. Just like that, Pedro’s poignant farewell became another piece of rained-on Shea debris. The Mets trailed the Cubs, 6-3. Rincon faced two more batters, got an out and gave up a double. He left the mound to a much different critical reception from the home crowd. Like Pedro, though, he would never pitch for the Mets again.
“Never” was emerging as the theme of the evening. There would never be any more baseball at Shea after this weekend if the Mets didn’t get their act together. There would never be any chance of the Mets getting their act together if some relievers didn’t start providing some relief. There would never be any forgiveness if the Mets, who had blown a 7-game lead with 17 to play one September earlier, continued to blow the 3½-game lead they had been in the process of blowing with 17 to play this September.
Oh, and it felt like it was never going to stop raining. Just cheerful as all get-out during this, the second-to-last night game slated to ever be played at Shea Stadium.
Brian Stokes came on to pitch and got out of the seventh. Chad Gaudin replaced Harden and allowed a leadoff double to Robinson Cancel, perhaps the most unlikely starting catcher any playoff contender could come up with in the 159th game of a season. Cancel (who battled Gaudin for seven pitches) had garnered a handful of key pinch-hits across the summer, but what was most noteworthy about him was that he was batting in the major leagues at all. He sipped a cup of callup coffee with the Milwaukee Brewers in September 1999 and then spent the first eight seasons of the 21st century in the minor leagues. He didn’t make it back to The Show until June of 2008, with the Mets.
It was as much a comment on Robinson’s perseverance as it was on the Mets’ desperation that he was starting behind the plate in the game the Mets absolutely had to have. There was more than a bit of that going on amid the Mets lineup card day by day. On one hand, Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado missed virtually no time at all from April to September. On the other hand, the identities of the other half of the Mets’ position players were shrouded in a Shealike fog of mystery. Rookies, has-beens, concussion victims…everybody was getting a shot from Jerry Manuel. Tonight, among others, it was Robinson Cancel.
Tonight it worked. Cancel advanced to third on pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson’s groundout and scored on Reyes’s groundout. The Mets had closed to within 6-4. Scott Schoeneweis, another anxiety-inducing lefty, came on to pitch the eighth. Despite a walk to Theriot and a single from Hoffpauir (now 5-for-5, for crissake), he didn’t give up any runs.
On this soggy night, the bottom of the eighth would bring with it the air of water torture for Mets fans. Wright singled to lead off, but then Delgado — who had fastened the Mets to his back in late June and proceeded to carry them for most of the second half — grounded into a 5-4-3 double play. With that, the Mets were four outs from dropping three of four to a team that truly had nothing to play for. Without a change of direction, they’d fall two behind the idle Phillies with four to play and not keep pace with the Brewers, with whom they were deadlocked in the Wild Card division. While the Mets were trailing the Cubs, the Brewers were tied with the Pirates at Miller Park (they’d win in ten on a Ryan Braun grand slam).
Against lefty Neal Cotts, the Mets tried to light a fire in the rain. Beltran scratched out an infield hit. Ryan Church sent a liner into short left. The Mets had two on with two out. Piniella removed Cotts and brought in Howry to face Ramon Martinez, the Mets’ fourth-string second baseman behind various combinations of Luis Castillo, Damion Easley and Argenis Reyes. As with Cancel and Rincon, there was little reason to believe heretofore disregarded almost 36-year-old Martinez (first MLB game this season: 9/7/08) would be playing in the majors right about now (last MLB start: 9/18/07), and surely you wouldn’t have pegged a team fighting for its playoff life as the one to be deploying him. Nevertheless, it was Ramon at the plate as the Mets tried to overcome their self-inflicted September inertia, and it was Ramon who was up as Beltran stole third.
Then it was Ramon producing his second run batted in of the season (his first, on a bases-loaded walk, came the night before). He poked Howry’s fourth pitch into left, sending home Beltran to cut the Cubs’ lead to 6-5 and advancing Church to second. Ryan, who had suffered two concussions in his first season as a Met, was still able to use his head when the next batter, Cancel, guided a 1-2 pitch into right. Having thought to keep running from second, doom seemed to await him at the plate, as Fukudome’s throw to Hill appeared on time and on target, but Church made one of the brainier non-slides Shea had ever seen. He wound wide of Hill’s tag and then managed to grab a piece of the plate with his hand as he slipped on the wet ground. It didn’t look textbook, but it registered a fourth Mets run on the big Shea scoreboard.
“We practiced that in Spring Training,” Church winked.
The 6-6 tie was subject to the usual round of Met bullpen roulette Manuel was forced to play in these waning weeks of ’08. Billy Wagner was done in by injury and nobody the manager called on could be considered remotely reliable. Jerry tried his luck with Pedro Feliciano to start the ninth. Lousy luck: Fontenot reached him for a single. Out went Feliciano, in came Joe Smith. The sidearmer wild-pitched the baserunner to second but struck out McGehee. An intentional walk of Fukudome was ordered, and it paid off when he was forced at second. Pinch-hitter Daryle Ward then grounded out to Smith.
A Met reliever hadn’t given up a go-ahead run in a ninth inning. Maybe there was hope yet.
If the Mets were going to win, they would have to follow in the spikemarks of Joe Christopher and all those who effected Shea’s storied walkoff past. The phrase “walkoff,” as it applied to baseball, wasn’t coined until Dennis Eckersley came up with it to describe what he did after giving up Kirk Gibson’s winning home run in the ninth inning of the first game of the 1988 World Series, though Eck was thinking more in terms of a walkoff loss. Those could only befall you at home, thus Mets fans had to be optimistic if they were going to think walkoff at all. They had to conjure some of the indelible images from 45 seasons and postseasons in this stadium that was about to shutter.
It didn’t have to Gibsonian. Mets fans would accept any kind of favorable result that would send them home happy.
Somebody could turn a sacrifice into a non-interference call when the ball he bunted hit his elbow en route to first.
Somebody could tap a little roller that got through the first baseman’s legs.
Somebody could slam a bases-loaded pitch over the wall only to get tackled before making it around the bases.
Shea had exploded for all kinds of unconventional walkoff wins. J.C. Martin (1969 World Series, Game Four), Mookie Wilson (1986 World Series, Game Six) and Robin Ventura (1999 National League Championship Series) were revered for their skewed October exploits, events that turned postseason ties into postseason wins. Right now, all that was wanted was maybe somebody running inside the baseline and not getting noticed; or provoking an E-3; or getting gang-tackled shy of second (provided he touched first). Conventionally great endings — evocative of home runs hit by Lenny Dykstra (1986 NLCS, Game Three), Todd Pratt (1999 NLDS, Game Four) and Benny Agbayani (2000 NLDS, Game Four) or the twelfth-inning single that jumped off the bat of Gary Carter (1986 NLCS, Game Five) — were all right, too. If anybody could add or re-add his name to the annals of Shea Stadium Walkoff History, he might be the one to provide a pathway to one final postseason in the old ballpark.
Who could it be now?
First up, Jose Reyes — one walkoff hit to his credit, April 13, 2005. Jose’s main job, even in a tie game in the bottom of the ninth, was just to get on base. And that he did, with a single versus the latest Cub reliever, Kevin Hart.
Next up, Daniel Murphy — no walkoffs yet in his nascent career, and the freshman left fielder didn’t get his first here. Hart struck him out.
Next, David Wright — an old hand at touching off celebrations around home plate. Seven times since 2006, David had swung and put the Mets in the win column, including twice this season…even if he couldn’t bring Murphy home from third the night before. Redemption was certainly available right now. Except David struck out as Jose stole second.
After him, Carlos Delgado — the man who had done it four times in the past two years, including twice to the Cubs in 2007, once on a bases-loaded walk, once on a seeing-eye single. Think Piniella was going to give him any kid of chance? Sweet Lou ordered him passed.
First and second, two out, the batter was Carlos Beltran, author of three Mets walkoff wins since joining the club as the most desired free agent of the pre-2005 class.
• His first was a 16th-inning bomb over the right field fence to beat Ryan Madson and the Phillies, 9-8, on May 23, 2006 in the midst of a month when the Mets won seven games in their last time up.
• His second was the capper in a battle of cannon blasts on August 22, 2006. Delgado and Albert Pujols had each launched a pair of home runs, including one grand slam per slugger, but it was Beltran who exploded the two-run, come-from-behind, ninth-inning exclamation point on what became a rousing 8-7 win over the Cardinals.
• His third was a welcome 13th-inning antidote to a Billy Wagner blown save on June 11, 2008. Mike Pelfrey had thrown eight delightful shutout innings, but Wagner gave up a sickening three-run dagger to Mark Reynolds in the ninth. With Willie Randolph already on managerial deathwatch, the Shea reaction was particularly sour. Beltran couldn’t undo Wagner’s gopher ball — or, ultimately, save Randolph’s job — but he could take Edgar Gonzalez deep to temporarily save Met face, 5-3.
Could Beltran rescue the Mets once more? And if he couldn’t, could anybody? A night that began with the team leaning on a past-his-prime Pedro Martinez to get them to the seventh inning and detoured to reclamation projects Robinson Cancel and Ramon Martinez providing them with their brightest sparks; and Ryan Church figuring out how to not be out at home when there was no way he could have been safe; and the much (and deservedly) maligned bullpen collecting clutch outs after a drifter named Ricardo Rincon was torched by a match-wielding neophyte named Micah Hoffpauir…a night like this begged for satisfying closure. It was, per Bonnie Tyler on the original Footloose soundtrack, holding out for a hero.
“I have to come through,” Beltran copped to thinking as he stepped in to face Hart.
On a 2-0 count, Carlos Beltran cut loose. He lined a ball toward first. It was hit hard, but what about its sense of direction? Could it possibly elude the glove of…Micah Hoffpauir? This, after all, had been the night of Micah Hoffpauir.
But it wasn’t anymore. Beltran’s ball ticked off Hoffpauir’s mitt and into right field. That was all the invitation Reyes needed to motor home from second with the run that created a jubilant 7-6 final. As their teammates flocked to congratulate Jose at the plate and Carlos at first for ending this must’est of must-games favorably, it probably wasn’t noticed by any of the rain-soaked revelers that the Mets had just taken their first lead of the night.
And they couldn’t have possibly known that they had experienced the last walkoff win in the life of Shea Stadium.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On September 26, 1971, the most irresistible force in all of baseball was on the mound at Shea Stadium, seeking his penultimate win…penultimate in the sense that it was a step toward his ultimate goal. When Tom Seaver was pitching as he was down the stretch in 1971, could there be any doubt he’d get exactly what he sought?
As of the first of August, Seaver was having his typically brilliant season, except where the all-important (for forty years ago) won-lost listings were concerned. Despite an ERA of 2.26, Seaver found himself dragging around a pedestrian record of 11-8. “One thing is clear,” Jack Lang wrote in the Sporting News at that juncture. “It is not Tom Seaver’s year.”
True to Lang’s analysis, Seaver was “pitching well enough to win, but was not winning” consistently across the first four months of the season. He had the same number of losses as his primary pitching rival Ferguson Jenkins — and a demonstrably superior ERA — but the Cub ace had six more wins.
Why? Essentially, the Mets never scored for Seaver. Four of his previous five losses as a starter were absorbed by scores of 3-2, 2-0, 2-1 and 3-2. Tom’s 1971 no-decisions included an outing in which he shut out the Reds for nine innings (the Mets won 1-0 in eleven) and held the Braves to two runs in 9⅔ before allowing a tying home to Ralph Garr (the Braves won 4-3 in thirteen). After being supported lavishly in a 9-1 complete game on August 6 to boost his record to 12-8, Seaver rediscovered what it was like to be starved for runs when he went ten innings, scattered three hits, struck out fourteen Padres…and had to depart for a pinch-hitter in the eleventh because it was nothing-nothing (the Padres won in twelve).
Much as fictional Lou Brown, manager of the Major League version of the Cleveland Indians somehow calculated his club would require 32 wins to capture its division, one can picture Seaver deciding after that August 11 start at San Diego what it was going to take to win 20 games. They can only do that in the movies, maybe, but it sure appeared Seaver scripted himself a purposeful beeline straight to that milestone of excellence.
Tom Terrific clearly wanted that round number next to his name. “It takes 20 victories for people to recognize you as a great pitcher,” he said as 1971 wound down. “I’d have been satisfied with my season even if I didn’t win 20. But this proves something to all those people who may not know baseball as some of us do. All they do is look in the ‘W’ column.”
Seaver was worried about what casual fans thought? Or was he mostly concerned with living up to his own standard? “I feel I’m the best pitcher in baseball,” the five-time All-Star and 1969 Cy Young Award winner said. “I really do.”
Might as well remind the rest of the world.
In the six starts that followed his no-decision in San Diego, Seaver went 6-0, all of them route-going efforts, only one of them with as many as two earned runs allowed. The Mets gave him six or more runs to work with in five of those starts, but before he could feel comfortable about making a mistake, his supporting cast went back to its previous offensive stupor. Seaver lost a 1-0 complete-game heartbreaker to the Cubs at Shea when opposing pitcher Juan Pizarro homered in the eighth. “I pitched very well,” he said of his effort. “I didn’t win, though, did I? I didn’t win. That’s all that counts.” Tom gave up three hits in seven innings five days later at Wrigley but was bested when rookie Burt Hooton two-hit the Mets, to beat him, 3-0.
The back-to-back losses in which the Mets scored nothing for him left Seaver at 18-10. Never mind that his ERA was a mere 1.81. Never mind that he had 266 strikeouts. He wasn’t going to get to his goal of 20 wins unless he won his 19th and came back on short rest to go for the big one.
Nineteen, it turned out, was plenty big on its own steam. Taking on the division champion Pirates on a Sunday afternoon at Shea, Seaver could have been working with his groundskeeping pal Pete Flynn — he was mowing down batters like they were blades of grass. Three up, three down in the first; three up, three down in the second; three up, three down in the third.
Seaver was relentless. Given a run in the first on a Donn Clendenon RBI single and two more on hits by Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee in the fifth, the Franchise went about owning the Bucs and this game. Three up, three down in the fourth; three up, three down in the fifth; three up, three down in the sixth.
Tom Seaver was pitching a perfect game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente had the day off, but Danny Murtaugh had started several of his dangerous-hitting regulars: Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Dave Cash. Seaver was setting down every Pirate he saw. The strikeouts were piling up. He had fanned ten in the first six innings. Win No. 19 was in sight, and it might come on the wings of the first no-hitter in Mets history…the first perfect game in Mets history.
Those particular wings were clipped as soon as the seventh got underway. Cash walked to end the bid for perfection. Then Vic Davalillo, playing in place of Clemente, stroked a clean single to center that chased Cash to third. There went the no-hitter. Oliver’s run-scoring fly ball to center spoiled the shutout, too. Now there was the matter of holding on to the lead. A runner was on, only one was out and Stargell, who already had 47 home runs (and had been clobbering the Mets literally since the day Shea opened) was up next.
Tom opted for a sinking fastball. His desire was to get Wilver to pound one into the ground and set up an inning-ending double play. True to the way Seaver planned and executed his pitching over the last two months of 1971, that’s precisely what happened: 1-6-3, Seaver to Bud Harrelson to Clendenon.
“That’s exactly what I was trying to do,” Seaver said. “I know that sounds egocentric, but that’s damn good pitching.”
Tom and the Mets stayed ahead. And Seaver returned to flawlessness thereafter. He retired the final six batters to win his nineteenth, 3-1. His only blemishes were that walk to Cash and that single to Davalillo. Because of the DP, he wound up facing just one batter over the minimum.
But he was one victory under the minimum for what was universally accepted as part and parcel of the definition of greatness…even though nobody was arguing Seaver wasn’t as great a pitcher as could be found.
“The numbers come close to saying, yes, George Thomas Seaver is the best pitcher in baseball,” Vic Ziegel wrote in the Post. “There is, Seaver understands, only one more number he must add to the list. Seaver will be trying for his 20th victory against St. Louis Thursday in the final game of the season.”
That date was only four days away from the third one-hitter of his career, meaning Seaver would go on three days’ rest…which struck some Seaver-watchers as a little too Seaver-centric for a team game. Tom had established he was at his absolute best pitching every five days, something less on his fourth day. He had indicated he’d only go on short rest if it was a really important contest. The Mets were long out of the race by the end of the season. Obviously, the cynics muttered, it’s important to Seaver that he wins 20.
Single-mindedness, of course, is what lifts a competitor above his peers, and Seaver’s drive elevated him to a plane where he had few, maybe no peers. (It also elevated the Mets to a World Championship two years earlier, when nobody outside of Baltimore seemed to mind how badly he wanted to win.) Of course Seaver wanted to pitch the final game of the year. Of course Gil Hodges would let him. And of course he’d win it, attaining No. 20 in a brilliant complete-game stifling of the Cardinals, 6-1, striking out 13 Redbirds along the way.
From a deceptively middling 11-8 through two-thirds of the season, Tom Seaver finished 1971 at 20-10. His 289 strikeouts set a record for most K’s by a righthanded National League pitcher. His 1.76 ERA was the lowest in the league since Bob Gibson’s 1.12 in 1968 and wouldn’t be bettered until Dwight Gooden’s 1.53 in 1985. Nobody struck out more batters per inning. Nobody gave up fewer walks and hits per inning. It may very well have been the greatest year turned in by someone acknowledged far, wide and forever as one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game.
But Ferguson Jenkins, who posted an ERA a full run higher, went 24-13 and was voted the Cy Young Award by a pretty wide margin. All those writers must have done was look in the “W” column.