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Here Comes The Pen

What a marvelously well-behaved afternoon the Mets provided those of us who filed into Citi Field on Sunday. Our Ron Darling bobbleheads awaited us in a pleasing stack; our fish tacos didn’t take any longer than the “few minutes” the notoriously pokey Catch of the Day promised; our shadow-situated seats were convincingly but not excessively chilled; and our pitching completely shut down a prospective division champion [1].

Dillon Gee finally lived up to his No. 3 starter potential, which was a gratifying sight. He’ll never be as electric as Matt Harvey [2] (or as acoustic as Jon Niese), but we’ve seen him bulldog his way past batters and out of jams more often than not since late 2010. The guy who couldn’t do anything with the Phillies or the Rockies wasn’t Gee. The Gee who tamed the Nationals was more familiar and most welcome. Post-clot, expectations for Dillon are necessarily leavened with patience, which one can magnanimously draw upon when the pitcher has earned your faith and your team is still in the exploratory stage of its season.

Given Dillon’s ongoing quest to find the feel of competitively throwing every fifth day again, perhaps the 98 pitches he compiled across 5⅔ innings were as far as he needed to be pushed, particularly since the last 11 he delivered resulted in walks to Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. Ball four is sometimes the better part of valor where these two Met-killers are concerned, but I suppose it was reasonable to infer Gee was kind of losing it at  that point. Nevertheless, my inner Ojeda was beseeching Terry Collins to let a young pitcher pull himself from his own quicksand and to break him and all Met starters who drift into trouble out of the habit of looking over their shoulders at the bullpen.

I also didn’t want to look at the bullpen because it rarely behaves marvelously well.

Gee’s 2-0 lead, built on a John Buck blast (I’m assuming he has now passed Johnny Bench and is bearing down on Carlton Fisk for most home runs in a career by a catcher) and a Mike Baxter sac fly, appeared ready for shredding. Did it matter who was coming in? Do you trust any reliever Collins brings in during any inning, particularly if you’d never been forced to think about him before this season? If Jerry Seinfeld was using his luxurious box Sunday, he would have asked as I’m certain we all have since the new fellas flew up here from St. Lucie, who are these people?

To date, they’re Mets relievers, which is a terrible thing to call any group of human beings, but if the epithet fits, by all means spew it. We’re used to it. We’re so used to Mets relievers, particularly of the nebulous “middle innings” variety, exacerbating shaky situations that it’s almost not worth memorizing their names and numbers. You figure they’ll all be delisted from our roster soon enough.

Hence, when Gee left and LaTroy Hawkins made his 880th major league appearance (his first occurred against Baltimore, when Cal Ripken was still behind Lou Gehrig on the consecutive games played list…but, surprisingly, not while Gehrig was still active), I prepared not so much for the worst but for the usual. It was Hawkins versus Ian Desmond. It could’ve been Hawkins vs. Ian McKellen. The point was it was another Met bullpen retread tasked with preventing an opponent’s rally from reaching fruition. How was that gonna work?

Quite well, it turned out. Hawkins struck out Desmond to end the sixth and the Nationals’ threat.

No, really, he did. And Brandon Lyon, who I thought was supposed to be the “setup man,” came on in the seventh and set down the Nats in order. And Scott Rice, whose fifteen minutes as a feelgood story [3] elapsed weeks ago as he settled into the role of one more bullet in the Mets’ ongoing game of bullpen roulette (in which Aaron Laffey was Saturday’s unluckiest victim [4]), put his left arm to extraordinary use, allowing two baserunners before making with his bread and butter, grounding Jayson Werth into a slick 6-4-3 double play, striking out the prodigy Harper — “Marty,” screams Doc Brown in the upcoming Back To The Met Future, “don’t let Bryce Harper’s parents meet!” — and leaving LaRoche to fester in the on-deck circle. Inning over, Mets lead in progress.

Finally, with the lead still 2-0 (because who needs more runs anyway?), it was Bobby Parnell in for the save, and am I crazy, or has Parnell actually become something akin to a dependable closer? I was going to say “lights-out closer,” but I figured that’s asking for trouble from the bullpen gods. However one measures Parnell’s effectiveness, it was in effect. The ashes of the Nats’ hopes scattered into the ninth-inning wind in order.

Big, bad Washington lined up Strasburg, Gonzalez and Zimmermann for a weekend in the outer boroughs and left losers of two of three. Succumbing to Harvey, as the rest of organized baseball is learning, is standard operating procedure. The Nats’ one win was a function of the Mets’ putrid relief pitching [5]. But their second loss? It was a function of the Mets’ sublime relief pitching. It took four relievers working 3⅓ innings, which in a vacuum is too many doing too much on a given day given how many days there are in a season and how quickly it all adds up, but it worked. One day after even the say-no-evil Captain expressed his polite disgust [6] at the Mets’ inability to hold an opponent in check, they did it. Hawkins, Lyon and Rice neutralized the Nationals, validating Gee’s effort and paving the way for Parnell.

Almost flawless relief pitching from the New York Mets…they should keep it on the Citi Field menu. It’s even better than the fish tacos.