- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Two Fastballs, Still Going

It’s good to know, in some perverse way, that with only two weeks remaining in the flat-out, most embarrassing second half the Mets have ever matriculated down the field [1], a given Mets loss can still rankle me enough to make me kick a plastic beer cup until it makes a thwack almost as loud as the one Ryan Howard generated against Josh Edgin. I’d have kicked Jonathan Papelbon instead of the cup when this given Mets loss was fully gifted away, but they probably arrest you for that (although in Flushing, I don’t see why punting Papelbon should be a crime).

So many Mets losses at Citi Field since July 8, 2012. What’s one more [2]? My answer would be one more is disgraceful when it robs your legitimately thrilling pitching phenom [3] of the win he earned when he threw seven one-hit innings to bid premature adieu to the starting rotation — the Mets have 14 more starts, yet Matt Harvey will have none [4] — and it’s distasteful when it breathes another 24 hours of life into the Philadelphia Phillies’ mostly hopeless, totally unforeseen playoff chase (amid a multiplicity of Philadelphia Phillies fans, oh joy). The Phillies commenced charging toward the bonus Wild Card slot far too late and from too far back for their ongoing lunge to be taken terribly seriously, but then again, I root for a jest of a team, so who am I to say anything?

How close did the Mets come to not losing a home game for a change Wednesday night? They came so close that there was something historic about how they pulled this particular sickly rabbit from its threadbare hat. Two outs, nobody on, Edgin loses Chase Utley on the slowest-occurring three-two pitch in human annals (Bob Davidson called ball four and Utley mysteriously instigated Occupy Batter’s Box for seconds on end). Then up steps Howard against the rookie reliever you’re not sure should be entrusted with the ninth-inning situation on the line until you are reassured by a companion who shall remain nameless that this is the right call, Howard never hits lefties.

Howard then hits a lefty. Boy does he hit a lefty. 2-1, Mets, becomes 3-2, Phillies, and there’d be a bottom of the ninth, but you didn’t really see any point to it, Mets’ previously established Stengelian “whommy” on Papelbon notwithstanding. These Mets weren’t blowing a 2-1 lead one out from books-putting only to get it back. That would’ve required a third and a fourth run. The Mets rarely do third runs at Citi Field and they never do fourth runs.

But here’s the historic part, and I had an inkling about it even before I had a “baseball source” confirm for me that my Metsie sense wasn’t tingling simply out of justifiable disgust [5]. I’ve been witness to my share of Met meltdowns, just as has any humble citizen of Metsopotamia who spent the 1990s and early 2000s subject to the Franco/Benitez Reign of Terror. Yet having survived Johnny and Armando (and their successors in sadism), why did this specific episode of ninth-inning follies feel so unusually awful?

Because nothing exactly like it had occurred in 23 frigging years. My “baseball source” tells me the last time the Mets lost a home game in which the visitors stuck it to them from behind with a lead-grabbing home run when the Mets were one out from victory was on August 20, 1989. And, oh yeah, of course I remember the incident, ’cause that was the day the Mets’ brief pennant race resurgence died.

We led, 3-1, going to the ninth. Don Aase was pitching versus the Dodgers; he got two quick outs; then he gave up singles to Lenny Harris and Alfredo Griffin; then Willie Randolph — yes, that Willie Randolph — hit his first home run of the year. The Dodgers led, 4-3, tacked on another run and brushed off a Met rally in the bottom of the ninth to hold on, 5-4. It was a bitter loss. The Mets had won 15 of 19 after acquiring Frank Viola and seemed poised to ascend to the top of the National League East. Instead, they got smacked with Terry Pendleton Lite and soon faded from contention.

But at least they had been in contention in August of 1989. In the jury-rigged double-Wild Card world of 2012, where seemingly toasted teams like the Brewers and Phillies stay alive well into September, the Mets evaporated in July and have produced only condensation to prove they ever existed.

To their credit, the Mets have also produced Matt Harvey, and upon my first up-close inspection of the young man, I am willing to confirm that he is the goods. It’s no wonder that before the game, as I watched a haggard Terry Collins listlessly go through the media motions (he’s at that stage of his tenure when, like a president after two years in office, you can’t believe how much he’s aged), the manager suddenly perked up and actually smiled when asked about Harvey being special. Yes, Terry was only too happy to assert, Matt Harvey is special.

Our special young man gave up a cheap leadoff home run to cheap leadoff hitter Jimmy Rollins and then, for seven solid innings, he decommissioned the jukebox: no more hits for the Phillies. If the Mets were going to unplug Harvey, the kid wasn’t going to go out with an acoustic set. He threw hard, he threw deep and he threw great. When he was through, he was en route to being the winner we already consider him.

Matt Harvey was actually able to leave with a lead. Thank David Wright and his delightful detonation of a Cole Hamels pitch in the sixth…and maybe a karmic assist of sorts. David is chasing Ed Kranepool for most hits ever by a Met and has almost tracked him down. He came into this game six behind the Krane’s 1,418. I happened to notice Eddie in the house, sitting in what my friend Sam Maxwell [6] calls the Raymour & Flanagan seats behind home plate. Now and then I’d gaze down there from the Champions Club — of which Ed is a member in good standing since 1969 — and see what the man who has ruled as Met hit king since 1976 [7] was up to. As David approached the plate for his third at-bat of the evening, I spied Ed getting up and leaving…perhaps to go home, perhaps for a refreshment in the Romney Sky360 Club. The moment Ed Kranepool disappeared, though, David Wright homered and moved to within five of 1,418.

Maybe the man who’s held the record for 36 years didn’t want to see it inch that much closer to oblivion. Or maybe Ed just had to use the John or something.

Speaking of Met champions, Wednesday’s blogger night festivities brought my blolleagues and I into substantial pregame contact with an honest-to-goodness 1986 Met, Barry Lyons. Barry was Gary Carter’s backup early in that championship season (before giving way to Ed Hearn) and would return to the roster as a Met mainstay until 1990. I’ve had the good fortune to meet several Met alumni over the past couple of years, but nobody to date has been more giving of his time nor more gracious in his manner than Mr. Lyons of Mississippi, whom I will always remember for one hit that stands out among the 131 he collected as a New York Met.

I asked him if he knew the one I was thinking of. I said “home run,” “Giants” and “pennant race,” and he took it from there.

Barry knew the home run — a grand slam, the only one Lyons launched in the bigs; it lifted the Mets from a 4-3 deficit to an eventual 7-4 triumph.

Barry knew the date — August 20, 1987 (precisely two years before that ghastly Aase-Randolph business), when the Mets desperately needed to make up ground on the Cardinals and did, once their catcher’s sixth-inning salami definitively garnished the David Cone victory that pulled the team to within 2½ games of first place for the first time since May 8.

Barry knew the pitcher — Kelly Downs.

Steve Keane (of the Eddie Kranepool Society [8], appropriately enough with Eddie in the vicinity) asked Barry if he knew what the pitch was.

“Forkball, I think,” Barry said a quarter-century after the fact.

Well, maybe not. According to Lyons’s quote in Joe Durso’s next-day story [9] in the Times, Downs “threw me a fastball inside on one-and-two, and I got it.”

Twenty-five years later and a competitive universe removed from the halcyon days when the Mets could win 92 games and have it rationally viewed as a subpar season [10], Josh Edgin threw a fastball, “middle up,” to Ryan Howard. No, actually, Josh corrected himself. It wasn’t a fastball.

“I gave him a meatball.” [11]

Or as Casey Stengel advised one of his beleaguered relievers in 1962 after a key home run had been surrendered, “It couldn’t have been a perfect pitch. Perfect pitches don’t travel that far.”

The Phillies desperately needed to make up ground on the Cardinals, but didn’t. Howard’s hammer blow — the 297th of his career but the first time he’s ever hoisted a two-out, go-ahead homer in a ninth inning — ruined Edgin’s night and deleted a “W” from Harvey’s ledger, but St. Louis won again. Philly’s four behind the Cards, trails L.A. and Milwaukee besides and have only 13 games remaining…and only one against the Mets, a.k.a. the contender’s best friend.

If the Phillies somehow unspool a miracle finish from their remote standing, then what Howard did to Edgin’s fastball will live on in Philadelphia lore. If they don’t, it will be just one home run of hundreds to an accomplished slugger.

In which case, it will never quite compare with what Lyons did to Downs’s fastball that behaves like a forkball in memory. Shoot, 25 years have passed, and Barry and I are still talking about it.