Final Score: Braves 13 Mets 5.
Time of Game: 3 minutes and 41 hours. Experientially, that’s not a typo.
Attendance: Well, I sat my ass on the couch and watched the whole thing, though my mind wandered off into other Met Septembers whenever it was given the proper reminiscent cue.
Monday’s Belabored Day matinee was played on the 41st anniversary of the greatest and most underknown mammoth comeback in the Mets annals. On September 2, 1972, the Mets spotted the Astros an 8-0 lead — what a great cliché that is, as if the team that roars from behind intended to bury itself underneath a daunting deficit — and then scored 11 runs to win. The Mets celebrated the anniversary of their unlikely triumph by now and then stirring thoughts that they weren’t completely out of it against the Braves, managing to trail at various intervals by margins of “only” 2-1, 6-3 and 10-5, with runners on base and batters at the plate and hallucinatory possibilities in the on-deck circle.
They were out of it all day, though. Daisuke Matsuzaka started. They were out of it from there.
This Matsuzaka thing may not work out. Drove in a run in the second; pitched a 1-2-3 third; yet his manager couldn’t wait to pinch-hit for him when the opportunity presented itself in the fourth the day after using three relievers and then arriving in Atlanta with dawn on the horizon for a 1:10 first pitch. So no, this Matsuzaka thing and its 10.95 ERA may not work out.
Daisuke Matsuzaka is this September’s George “Doc” Medich. For all the washed-up, post-glory, WTF? veterans the Mets traditionally collect for the purpose of handing baseballs and inevitably spotting large leads, Medich is the proper precedent here. Doc, who was studying medicine when not going over signs, had been a competent pitcher for various clubs for several years. M. Donald Grant splurged $20,000 of waiver fees to give Joe Torre a closeup look at the potential free agent righty in late September 1977. The Mets were 37 games out of first place as they asked this rented stranger with the familiar name to start the 157th game of their sorriest season in a decade. Medich and the Mets lost in Pittsburgh, 5-2; the Phillies also lost, so the Mets remained 37 back with five to play.
Doc didn’t pitch again in 1977 and signed with Texas in the offseason. Despite getting to try on the Mets’ uniform for seven innings on September 29, Medich turned down the Mets’ contract offer so he could test free agency. Grant’s reaction to this perceived breach of loyalty from his weeklong employee, according to Medich: “Well, it looks like we wasted our $20,000.” Medich’s reaction to Grant: “That was a hell of an attitude to have.”
Object of Dickeyan gratitude Aaron Harang has an excellent chance of becoming the Mets’ second Doc Medich this month, unless Sandy Alderson is forced to swing by the Home Depot parking lot and see if he can find somebody who’ll pitch for hire cheaper. How does a team run low on pitchers in September, the month when you can carry oodles of them? Why, I haven’t seen anything like this since — since 2010, actually, when injuries and whatnot conspired to compel Jerry Manuel to assign the second-to-last start he’d ever manage to reliever Raul Valdes. Valdes acquitted himself quite decently, but how does this keep happening to the Mets after the rosters expand?
Maybe it’s because the Mets aren’t just any major league club. They’re a major league club that entered September with a potentially terrific pitching staff under contract, albeit in various states of unavailability: Harvey, Santana, Mejia, Hefner, Parnell, Francisco, Edgin, Familia, Byrdak…
Hey, Tim Byrdak returned post-September 1! I suppose it was heartwarming, if not quite on the level of John Stearns rehabbing for two years and getting a big hit in what was left of the 1984 pennant race following all those seasons he spent as the hardest charger on the perennially lousy pre-’84 Mets (catching, among many others, Doc Medich). Still, Byrdak, 39, endured anterior capsule surgery, rehabbed his buttocks off and pitched for the Mets again Monday. With so many guys coming and going since he last answered the call from the dugout phone, I’d kind of forgotten how busy Terry Collins kept him in 2011 and the first two-thirds of 2012.
To be honest, I generally overlooked “Byrdak” at those moments I would stop and try to count the bullpen. “Who am I missing…oh, right, Byrdak!” (I also regularly forgot “Beato” in this intermittent exercise.) Terry said something after Tim’s first appearance in 13 months about what a big part of the team he’d been. I guess that was intended as a compliment, even if these were the 77-85 2011 and 74-88 2012 Mets to which he was intrinsic.
The Mets are now harnessing their three most recent lefthanded specialist workhorses in one bullpen: Scott Rice, Byrdak and Pedro Feliciano. Can Eric Gunderson be far off?
Also seeing Met action for the first time in 2013 Monday was Vic Black, who has declared himself all in for the closer’s job (don’t tell Parnell; he seems so fragile). Black looked good for the one batter he faced, so sure, why not, give him a shot. We will pretend that whatever he does well in September is a solid indicator of Vic’s ceiling and write off his shortcomings as proof that you can’t trust what you see in September. Seventeen Septembers ago, the Mets were warming up a new closer, too: Derek Wallace. On a Friday night late in the 1996 season, Derek came on to preserve a 6-4 lead and struck out four Braves in the ninth inning to earn his second save. The first K got away from Todd Hundley and the batter, Terry Pendleton, took first. The next three strikeouts (surrounding a non-RBI double from Fred McGriff) were all handled cleanly.
Derek Wallace went on to save one more game and strike out two more batters that September before injuries prevented him from ousting John Franco from his closer-for-life sinecure. Yet before his brief audition went for naught, I found time to associate a hit song of the day with Wallace. “Machinehead” by Bush played at the Vet while he warmed up the weekend after his four-strikeout inning, moments before Stephanie and I bolted the ballpark so we could make sure we made our train home out of 30th Street Station. “Derek ‘Machinehead’ Wallace,” I thought, and then promptly forgot, as Wallace went the way of Beato and so many other Met relievers who had their moments but hardly their hours. Yet in early July of this year, at one of those extra-inning games the Mets were so expert in contesting versus the Diamondbacks, “Machinehead” came on the PA at Citi Field in the tenth or eleventh and I thought it again: “Derek ‘Machinehead’ Wallace”.
If your potential warmup music is still playing, you’re not necessarily done. Tim Byrdak turns 40 on Halloween. LaTroy Hawkins will be 41 a few days before Christmas. Good ol’ Pedro Feliciano has embraced Perpetuity. Scott Atchison remains a dead ringer for the 1963 version of the late Duke Snider. Thus, I’m thinking Vic Black, 25 and Cholulish, may not be as good a fit for this crew as Derek Wallace, who turned 42 on Sunday.
It’s September. We need pitchers.
Most of my September reminiscences have veered toward the less stellar Septembers in Mets history, probably because this isn’t shaping up as a great one and the Mets have been involved so many of this ilk. But there have been a few fantastic Septembers, and arguably the best of them — if, in fact, people argue such things — is now in milestone territory.
I’ve withheld my participation in most of the “This Date In…” action where 1973 is concerned to this point because until literally the other day, there was no point to it. The 1973 Mets of pre-August 31 were not worth commemorating; the1973 Mets of pre-August 31 were dreadful. But on August 31, 1973, the last-place Mets strung together five consecutive singles in the tenth inning at Busch Stadium to top the Cardinals, 6-4. Combined with the Phillies’ 5-2 loss to the Expos, the win pushed the Mets out of the cellar and into the most competitive fifth place position imaginable. They trailed the division-leading Cards by 5½ games entering September. They trailed three other teams by lesser amounts. They were next-to-last, yet clearly not out of it.
It is no wonder, then, that on Labor Day 1973, which was forty years ago today but on my mind yesterday, I was carrying a radio around with me to listen to the suddenly all-important Mets-Phillies holiday doubleheader. My sister and I were on the boardwalk in Long Beach getting a last blast of carefree afternoons before twelfth and fifth grades, respectively, would conspire to conscript us that Wednesday. Down on the sand, somebody had thought to decorate a bedsheet with a pertinent message: not “YOU GOTTA BELIEVE” but “GOODBYE SUMMER ’73”. On a radio that wasn’t airing Jerry Koosman’s 5-0 shutout, I could hear the group Stories — No. 1 on Billboard and WABC’s Super Hit Survey — lament the doomed romantic fate of “Brother Louie”. Summer’s swan song needed only a bit of tinkering to apply to the standings. The Mets’ hopes had been black as the night, but now their pitching was righter than right.
Unfortunately, Labor Day’s real Swan song faded in the nightcap as callup Craig Swan lost his major league debut and the Mets remained in fifth, 5½ back with four weeks to go. By the time young Swannie was pulled by Yogi, we were off the boardwalk and into the car, whisked to TSS to secure school supplies. And if that didn’t tell a 10-year-old fall was bearing down, nothing could.
GOODBYE SUMMER ’73, perhaps, but it was hello to the September of a baseball lifetime.