But, Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet. Look at him. He’s going to do something and you know it’s going to be good.
—Homer Simpson, “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson”
Mets fans of a certain age…essentially my age…have been giving themselves over to repeated cases of the goose bumps for the last couple of weeks, thanks to the wonders of YouTube and the archival sharing of a fellow traveler named MrMetsfan41 (with a name like that, he has to be good). Their presentation of “1970’s New York Mets WOR-T.V. Channel 9 Game Broadcast Intro,” as aired in 1973 from the looks of it, is setting geese abump and hearts aflutter because it encapsulates everything great about being a Mets fan from when we were allowing the Mets to tighten their grip on our psyches and their hold on our souls.
What I like about it now is the pure nostalgia of it, but what I liked about it then was how contemporary it seemed, especially when the Mets would make a major player move and update the reel. Because the same guys stayed Mets for years at a time in those days, you got used to Jones and Koosman and Harrelson entering to their cues — swear to Gil, I knew exactly when Buddy was going to leap to snare that liner despite not having seen it or much thought about it for decades. The bonus excitement came when the Mets got a Rusty Staub or a Willie Mays (as if there were more than one of each) and inserted a clip of the new star Met doing wondrous Met things. It brought the montage up to date and convinced me our newly reconfigured team was going to be more exciting than ever.
To the hypothetical introductory highlight package of today, please add footage from last night.
Please add Jordany Valdespin socking it to Jonathan Papelbon. Please follow that ball into the right field stands, its flight both instant and eternal. Please evoke the shock that a minor league callup who was a minor league senddown rescued only by physical setback to another Met chose this moment for his first major league hit, a pinch-hit three-run home run that broke a 2-2 tie with two out in the ninth inning in a ballpark where very little good has occurred over the past five years. Please don’t cut away until we see Jordany Valdespin round first base and shake with delight, one innocent fist briefly raised, because for all the standard jockish admonitions to act like you’ve been there before, Jordany Valdespin hadn’t.
Jordany Valdespin was called up to the Mets on April 23, meaning that the Channel 9 clip had been on YouTube longer than he’d been in the big leagues. His presence to date had been noteworthy mostly for his having composed, on April 26, one-ninth of the Mets’ first all-homegrown lineup since 1971. His impact in left field was underwhelming enough so that he was removed from the game before its incredible, unbelievable ninth-inning rally, the one in which Heath Bell threw 46 pitches (13 to Justin Turner alone) in defense of a one-run Marlin lead destined to melt in a steady drizzle of Met patience. Valdespin batted three times that day and one time each on three other days. Nothing good happened in any of those at-bats. When a sequence of events that had nothing to do with any of the several positions he occasionally plays unfolded — Pelfrey out, Schwinden down, Batista shifted, Carrasco required — his preliminary audition seemed to end with a whimper and a demotion Saturday.
But in baseball, things aren’t necessarily as they seem, you might have noticed again and again and again in your life. Ruben Tejada took a great fall on Sunday, landing on the uncomfortably crowded DL, and the Mets needed another infielder pronto. Valdespin was recalled to provide bench depth if not what one would have projected as bench strength in time for Monday night in Philadelphia. The Mets’ strengths are scattered, and their depth as measured by conventional means appears shallow, but in whatever advanced statistic you can rustle up to measure depth of character, I’m beginning to believe they are among the league leaders.
They withstood a revitalized Roy Halladay, for starters. Halladay’s status among the most elite starting pitchers going had come up for examination of late, his velocity not what it once was, his previous outing, against Atlanta, the stuff of the merest of mortals (5.1 IP, 8 ER). Doc Halladay found his cure in the visitors’ dugout. He hadn’t lost to the Mets since…had he ever lost to the Mets? He had, but not for a whole lot of starts. When Howie Rose is invoking Larry Jackson to illustrate an opposing pitcher’s longstanding domination of the Mets, you’re not wrong to assume it will be a quick, painful night. Throw in that wealthy young Jonathon Niese — pitching sometimes like he has to instantly justify his lucrative contract extension — was searching for command and seemed more than a little lost, and you’re pretty sure that if you want to be satisfied by watching the Mets this Monday night, you’re going to have to lean pretty heavily on YouTube.
Yet with Halladay on top of his game and Niese struggling for a while to find his, the Mets weren’t out of it. They were down by two, which can be an enormous deficit for a lineup on Halladay, but these Mets don’t easily submit to the insurmountable. Sometimes all it takes is one perfectly placed hit…say a double just inside the third base line, like the one David Wright snuck into fair territory in the sixth (two batters after Andres Torres worked Doc for his only walk of the night), and you have not a 2-0 blowout but a 2-2 tie.
By then, Niese was done, but honorably so, having not given the Phillies any more than single runs in the first and second. Now, though, it was the Mets’ bullpen’s turn, a unit so strapped for success that it was decided D.J. Carrasco would improve it. Nevertheless, Manny Acosta pitched an easy sixth and Bobby Parnell…
Well, nothing would be easy for Bobby Parnell, who always has this look about him that he’s waiting for something to inevitably go wrong. Maybe it comes from having a dad who’s a firefighter. You know an alarm is going to sound, you know there’s going to be trouble and you grow used to a faint whiff of smoke in the air.
There was trouble. Juan Pierre, a spark to Met flames for a generation, walked to lead off the seventh. Jimmy Rollins, long the personification of Hades, singled. After an out, damnation himself, Shane Victorino, was safe at first on an infield hit. The bases were loaded with three of the least appealing Phillies to ever draw breath (though to be fair, Pierre’s been a turnoff since he was a Marlin).
Parnell gets an irritatingly slow grounder to second out of Hunter Pence. Murphy (c’mon, c’mon, c’mon, get it over there) flips to Turner (I know you’re not really a shortstop, but c’mon, relay it already) who flings to Davis and…
Pence is safe?
I don’t think so, at any rate.
Maybe he was safe, but let’s see that again.
The newfangled, intuitively confusing SNY score box is understandable enough at this moment to post the state of things as 3-2, Phillies. Terry is coming out to argue, though I don’t know what that will do. I really do think Pence beat the play by a distressing hair. Now we’re behind and the bases are still loaded and…
Oh, never mind. It’s a double play, not because Turner’s throw nipped Pence (it didn’t) but because human canker sore Victorino barreled into Turner in the car pool lane of the Ben Franklin Bridge, or nowhere near second base. Interference…lovely interference was called on the Wailuku Pest and all I can say, in the name of Marlon Anderson being thumbed out when sliding much closer to second base in 2007, is fuck you, Shane Victorino, and enjoy it.
So it was 2-2 again. The Mets had a little action in the top of the eighth, but 26-year-old Lucas Duda proved to have feet of lead and hit into a 5-3 double play that a younger man might have beaten out. Thus it was back to Parnell and the visage of dread — his as well as mine. Ty Wigginton singles and augurs the worst if only because Ty Wigginton’s survival as the lone remaining major leaguer to have been a 2002, 2003 and 2004 New York Met proves there is something frighteningly unkillable about this guy. Sure enough, Carlos Ruiz bunts and Parnell practically falls on his face in a futile attempt to make a play. Two on. Placido Polanco bunts and it’s less dangerous but still effective. The same two are on and advanced to second and third. And now it’s Freddy Galvis with another ball that travels a distance calculated as easily in inches as it is in feet.
Parnell pounces. Wigginton approaches. Thole braces.
Parnell releases. Wigginton thunders. Thole snares.
Wigginton is out.
Thole is down.
But Wigginton is out.
Clean play. Clean, hard play. I watched the replay probably a dozen times and looked for a reason to snarl at that Phillie bastard Wigginton, but no, good ol’ Wiggy slides like he does everything: at 100% and a little clumsily. He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody, just beat somebody fair and square. He is the anti-Hamels as a person and a player. Thole’s head was collateral damage amid the tag Josh applied to Ty. Thole plopped to the ground, sort of like Tejada did Sunday, sort of like Parnell did in the seventh. Regardless of the episode, Terry Collins’s people are spending as much time sprawled out on the floor this season as Matt Weiner’s.
Josh, no tender cookie, looked crumbled and had to exit, but he didn’t give up the ball until after the play was over. Wiggy was out, the Mets were closing in on escaping another fine mess. Parnell, having absorbed as much stress as one fatalistic-looking Met reliever could take, exited for Tim Byrdak, who’s sensational when not facing Todd Helton. He fanned Eric Kratz to end the inning.
Wow! So much intriguing stuff! And it was all only prelude to the really big moments.
That’s “moments” plural, because before Jordany Valdespin floated around the bases on a puffy, cumulus cloud of sheer joy, there was the matter of withstanding Papelbon, who inveterate Mets Classics viewers will recognize for his role as the foiled villain in 2009’s “The Omir Santos Game” (as if there was more than one of them). The Red Sock I found hardest to root for, even when the Red Sox were doing things of which I approved, is now a Phillie, which makes him prohibitive to root for…except to fail.
And I gotta tell ya, as soon as Daniel Murphy wasn’t out after three or four pitches, I got a very good feeling about this ninth inning. The Mets are sometimes too shy about swinging, but when their core competency of running long, industrious counts is played to, it takes a ton out of the opposing pitcher. Murphy saw nine pitches. Six of them he fouled off. The last of them he swung through. Yet if there could be said to be such a thing as a productive leadoff strikeout in the ninth inning of a tie game, this was it. Papelbon had worked his ass off. He wasn’t going to be his usual 2012 smooth self out there.
Therefore I wasn’t surprised when Ike Davis and his — what, .032 average? — were walked on six pitches. Ike remains in a state where he begs to be retired, so when you hand him a base, you’re handing yourself a gratuitous heap of trouble. Besides, it was the perfect setup for Justin Turner, who is an ordinary batter except when you really need him. He’s the guy who drove Bell into the ground by refusing to go gentle into that good ninth. He was the guy I wanted up there more than anybody.
But because you can’t immediately get what you want from your baseball instincts, Justin Turner struck out on three pitches. Sometimes you’re sure you know the game, and the game informs you you’re no more the seer than Sgt. Schultz; you know nooothiiing!
Unless you knew that losing lefty-swinging Thole for however long he is out wasn’t going to hurt the Mets as soon as his turn in the order came up. If you knew that, brother/sister, why are you reading this? Why don’t you pick up a MegaMillions as soon as you log off from E-Trade? You have fabulous, fortuitous forecasting ability if you knew righty Mike Nickeas was the man we wanted up there against righty Jonathan Papelbon with two outs. Yet, damn, Nickeas was doing a mini-Murphy, falling behind one-and-two, fouling off a couple until getting something less than Papelbon’s “A” material and belting it to as deep a left as Nickeas is capable of reaching.
“GET ON YOUR HORSE!” I screamed at Ike, forgetting the poor, barely ambulatory lad has no horse, settling for the sight of our two-legged first baseman chugging into third on Nickeas’s surprise double. Man, it would have been nice to have had a pinch-runner for Davis, I thought before remembering we don’t have the horses for that, either. In this 2-2 game, with Thole having taken that blow from Wigginton and Terry having removed Niese a wee bit early for Mike Baxter, our bench was down to…
Jordany Valdespin and Vinny Rottino. Valdespin might have been an excellent choice for pinch-running duties, but he had to be saved as the last lefty bat (“how about Santana here?” I genuinely wondered) to face Papelbon should it come to that.
It came to that. The big-time closer — rattled and put through the wringer some, but still certifiably big-time — versus the kid who experienced Bison interruptus only because of Tejada’s quad strain. Jordany was below the Mendoza Line. He was below the Davis Line. He was stalled at the .000 starting line of a big league career whose content was yet to be published.
But now he has a helluva first chapter.
I’d love to tell you I saw it coming, but my first spoken reaction to seeing Jordany Valdespin stride to the plate was “nothing good can come of this.” Valdespin would tap out weakly and Rollins would lead off the bottom of the ninth and wreak havoc, Victorino would make us eat our satisfaction from the interference call and Citizens Bank Park would smirk like it always does. My countervailing reaction, though, was to think it would be a sensational story if the callup who was a senddown got the big hit, not totally unlike Mike Jacobs at Shea in 2005 (who homered in his first at-bat, albeit in a losing cause, just before a return to Norfolk that never came) or Benny Agbayani in Tokyo in 2000 (whose post-dawn grand slam saved him from a roster numbers game ostensibly stacked against him). And then I reminded myself it’s when you decide something unexpected is going to happen that you’ve screwed everything up.
Or have you? Let’s ask Gary Cohen.
“He hasn’t given up a hit with a runner in scoring position yet this year. VALDESPIN HITS IT TO DEEP RIGHT FIELD! BACK GOES PENCE, AND IT’S OUTTA HERE! JORDANY VALDESPIN’S FIRST BIG LEAGUE HIT IS A THREE-RUN HOMER, AND THE METS TAKE A FIVE-TWO LEAD IN THE NINTH! A bolt from the blue, Valdespin, back from the minors, and a huge hit, gives the Mets the lead!
“Now THAT’S how you get your first big league hit.”
As if the night needed a coda, Frank Francisco and Ike Davis teamed to forge an improbable putout of Rollins in the bottom of the ninth, and that louse Victorino grounded to Murphy to end it. The Mets of Mike Nickeas and Jordany Valdespin were winners; the Phillies of Roy Halladay and Jonathan Papelbon resembled nothing of the kind.
It’s tempting to read waaaaaaaaay too much into this kind of Monday night baseball. After a little more than a sixth of a season, the Mets hold the new and ridiculous second Wild Card position in the National League. The Phillies — avenged for Marlon Anderson for an evening — are dead last. The first-place Nats just lost their Phillie, Jayson Werth, for quite a while. One can feel the N.L. East scrunching up a bit. It’s only one-sixth of a season, but still it’s something. The Mets haven’t fallen apart. And Jordany Valdespin just made himself part of this franchise’s highlight montage, if just a fraction of it.
When Channel 9 was showing Buddy leaping and Cleon sliding and all that good 1970s stuff as a matter of course, I would have processed a win like this as opening all kinds of competitive possibilities. But I’m older now, more mature, more experienced. I see a game like last night’s and…
…and man, am I excited!