The Mets all but screwed up a game started by Mike Pelfrey and it had absolutely nothing to do with Mike Pelfrey.
Now that’s what I call progress.
Other events covering the bottom of the eighth through the bottom of the ninth inning Saturday afternoon…now that’s what I’d call retrogression.
It was going to be such a simple and beautiful win. Big Pelf was at his beguiling 2008/2010 best. I didn’t know if it was indicative of long-term problem-solving, some strange Saberhagian alternating-year tendency or the Giants’ confusion at being greeted as one of two home teams all weekend, but it was lovely. Pelf was pitching as well as you could imagine any No. 1 pick the Mets made of a righthanded starter out of college between 2004 and 2005 pitching on Saturday. The top of the eighth was the loveliest half-inning of them all. Pelf throws six pitches, records three outs, barely cracks 100 pitches overall and is perfectly poised — even if “perfect” was on the verge of becoming a loaded word to toss around where former No. 1 Mets picks from between 2004 and 2005 who were collegiate righthanded starters are concerned — to go seal a Mets win with a complete game effort.
Even in this bullpen-crazy era (with nobody more crazed from bullpen management than Bruce Bochy), it didn’t seem too much to ask Pelfrey to attempt to finish what he started. Terry Collins used Ramon Ramirez, Jon Rauch, Tim Byrdak and Frank Francisco for an inning apiece the night before. According to my newly obtained 2012 pocket schedule, the Mets don’t have an off day until May 3. Pelf was going to have four days’ rest regardless. Everybody else in Terry’s late-inning relief corps could figure to use one extra day.
And Pelfrey was winning, 3-1, as he left the mound after his six-pitch eighth. The lead increased to 4-1 on some scratching and clawing among Daniel Murphy, David Wright and Ike Davis in the bottom of the eighth. Could have been more, but Davis got picked off first and Wright got thrown out at third immediately thereafter. When those two utterly unnecessary baserunning miscues went down (Ike Davis picked off?) it seemed unfortunate and a little foreboding, but c’mon, what was I worried about? We’d be taking a three-run lead to the ninth and putting in the hands of our horse of a starter who was toying with the opposition, giving us the best start any Met had produced yet this year.
What’s that? We wouldn’t be doing that? Terry was pulling Pelfrey? Because why? Because, per Gary Cohen, Collins very much wants to build an “aura of success” around Pelfrey, and those eight solid innings should serve as a requisite boost to the big fella’s confidence not merely a prelude to a successful ninth? And pitching genius Ron Darling agreed with that?
The first time I can remember a manager managing to a pitcher’s mental state was Davey Johnson 28 years ago when he didn’t push rookies Darling and Dwight Gooden to go nine because he wanted to establish them as big leaguers, get them a good taste from each start and nudge them in a positive overall direction for their next turns through the rotation. Like everything else about Davey and 1984, it seemed brilliant. Gooden’s and Darling’s growth, as part and parcel of nurturing a team in bloom, spoke for itself.
Mike Pelfrey isn’t a rookie. Mike Pelfrey is in his seventh major league season, his fifth full major league season. No one’s gonna argue he couldn’t use all the TLC he can get, but our resident TLC — Terry Lee Collins — can tend to his psyche by showing professional confidence in Pelf’s abilities to find three more outs without giving up three additional runs on a day when he’s his own grounds crew and truly mowin’ ’em down.
That’s how you build an aura of success, according to my amateur assessment.
Sometimes you may be better off being a blank slate about your team, the way (to borrow a phrase from one of our Saturday commenters) some hipster chick in a panda hat probably approaches her Giants. But no Mets fan is a blank slate. We all carry around a 50-year syllabus in our mental backpacks. Mine is heavier than most. Thus, as I filtered the “aura of success” Collins endeavored to fashion around Pelfrey, I instantly recalled another of Mike’s starts, from four years ago. It was, to that point, the best start of Mike Pelfrey’s career. He stifled the Diamondbacks for eight innings and was allowed by Willie Randolph to protect his own 3-0 lead in the ninth after having thrown 112 pitches. “Pitch count, shmitch count!” Howie Rose exclaimed in approval.
On June 11, 2008, I knew it was the right call. But I also had a feeling of dread wash over me that it didn’t matter, that something was going to go terribly wrong in the ninth. If Randolph stuck with Pelfrey, Pelfrey’s aura was going to take a hit…though I desperately wanted him to stick with Pelfrey. If Randolph gave up on Pelfrey, the game was going to be in peril…and I wasn’t particularly anxious to find out if Billy Wagner was going to prove me prophetic or paranoid.
Everything that could go wrong did go wrong in that ninth. Pelfrey allowed a leadoff single to Stephen Drew. Randolph allowed him to go no further. Wagner allowed a double to Conor Jackson and, eventually, a tying home run to Mark Reynolds.
Worst. Aura. Ever.
So that incident raced from deep within my mental backpack straight to the front of my mind when Frank Francisco replaced Mike Pelfrey. Something didn’t have to go wrong, I attempted to reason. I’m trying real hard to convince myself that the Mets are in the slow but sure process of turning a corner, that even if they never catch Davey Johnson’s first-place Nationals (or whoever succeeds them at the top of the East) this year, we’re inching into a new and better era for Mets baseball. Or at least we might be living in the year on which we look back and explain to those who don’t remember it, “Their record may not look that great, but they were really coming together for what followed.” To use the lingo of Saturday, I really want to believe the aura and era of Met success is in its larval stages.
Neither is close to fully formed, however. Frank Francisco did not put his lousy Friday or Wednesday, for that matter, behind him. Rather, he extended his sudden stretch of miseries with the kind of performance that gives richly compensated, highly accomplished closers a bad name (a name like “Wagner,” for example). As on Friday night, Frank generated a leadoff baserunner and the elements of disaster commenced to come into view. After four Giant hitters, there was one Giant out, one Giant run and two Giant baserunners.
Frank Francisco had become a giant pain.
In came Tim Byrdak, who struck out pinch-hitter Hector Sanchez — the Giant pain from Friday — to move us within one batter of escape. Of course I was rooting for Byrdak to end another game with a K, but matchups being what they are, Tim was removed for Jon Rauch. Brandon Belt landed at the plate as Bochy continued to juggle his personnel. (I can’t tell if Terry and Bruce are managing these affairs like they’re the seventh game of the World Series or the seventh game of Spring Training.)
Rauch, as he has tended to do all month, did his job, coaxing a seemingly harmless mid-level pop fly to short left-center. It flew a little more than it popped, however, and its whereabouts in the traditionally breezy sky San Fran brings with it appeared uncertain. Into the mental backpack I involuntarily dove, summoning two images, one vague, one alarmingly specific.
Vaguely, as Daniel Murphy jogged out from second, Ruben Tejada pedaled back from short and Kirk Nieuwenhuis rushed in from deep center, I recalled the kinds of trouble that used to occur amid Flushing’s original Iron Triangle of Dave Magadan at first, Tim Teufel at second and Darryl Strawberry in right. Balls fell in regularly between Teuf and Straw, and though those were hit to different sections of a different nearby outfield, this play was clearly developing into something Strawfeul. (And what kind of fate are we tempting by allowing Timmy to coach third in Darryl’s 18?)
Specifically, Castillo — obviously. We’re not nearly far enough removed from “Castillo” to require further delineation.
Well, Murph was out of the picture by the time Tejada realized he had no angle on the damn thing and Kirk, who had lunged and tumbled so spectacularly in the other direction Friday night, was rumbling from too far away to do anything admirable with Belt’s bloop. The best way to describe what happened is if Kirk was trying to not catch it, he made a helluva play.
Two Giants scampered home as the ball eluded everybody. The aura of success had crumbled.
Strangely, the remnants of the bad baserunning from the bottom of the eighth, the idiotic decision to remove Pelfrey between innings, Francisco’s continued implosion at the outset of the ninth and, at last, the two-man Castillo didn’t kill the Mets, though I’ll withhold judgment for a while on whether it made them stronger. Sometimes stuff like that is overcomeable in the short-term. That Pelfrey/Wagner debacle from 2008? The Mets won it in thirteen on a Carlos Beltran home run. It wasn’t at all satisfying — they blew another ninth-inning lead the next afternoon and hot-seated Randolph was fired within the week — but it was a win. Without shaking off that horrible ninth almost four years ago, the Mets wouldn’t have been in a position to blow a playoff spot on Shea Stadium’s final day.
One more image from the backpack hit me in the bottom of the inning as my team strove to extricate itself from its Met-made mess. Gary and Ron were making much of Aubrey Huff playing second base for the first time ever. When I heard that, I thought of the legend of the 23-inning game in 1964, which also featured the Mets and the Giants. Of the many things that made that twinbill nightcap noteworthy, it marked the only appearance of one Willie Mays at shortstop. Like Bruce Bochy, Alvin Dark found himself shy of players. Unlike Alvin Dark, Bruce Bochy would pay for playing somebody incredibly out of position.
Aubrey Huff is no Willie Mays, in case you were wondering. As the Mets mounted a rally, Huff didn’t get in their way by knowing where second was on a potential double play ball, certainly a sure fielder’s choice on Justin Turner’s grounder. We’re always happy to watch somebody else implode. Then we’re requisitely ecstatic when Scott Hairston, pinch-running from third, jars just enough of Buster Posey on a slide into home so that Posey can’t make a clean throw to first on what is otherwise going to be a 3-2-4 (Huff covering first) DP that seems certain to send this stupid game into the tenth and onto the thirteenth or twenty-third. As Posey’s fling made like Dennis DeYoung and sailed away, Tejada steamed in from second with the, if you’ll excuse the improbable expression, winning run.
The Mets deserved to win for the better part of eight innings. They deserved to lose for a wretched top of the ninth. But they were crafty enough to let the Giants redefine torture into something self-inflicted.
It was about as dumbass a win as the Mets could have cobbled together. Yet it beats a brilliant loss every time.