It’s not so much that if you watch enough baseball, you see something new every day. It’s that if you watch enough baseball, you see something you’ve seen some other day, thus allowing you to perhaps sense what’s coming directly at you.
On the surface, the Mets’ come-from-moribund victory over the Brewers Friday night came out of nowhere. They were Dead Team Napping for eight innings, shamefully wasting another rock-ribbed effort from Zack Wheeler. Zack (6.2 IP, 3 H, 2 BB, 1 ER, 9 K) was undermined by a complete lack of offense, an absence of second base defense and, ultimately, a few too many pitches thrown. Also, it was his misfortune to be paired off against Yovani Gallardo, who was just a little better and a little better supported.
The result appeared fait accompli until the Mets didn’t make the final out of the top of the eighth as initially assessed. Eric Campbell grounded a ball up the middle that ticked off Gallardo’s glove and bounced to Rickie Weeks, enabling the hustling pinch-hitter to take first, but only after a replay challenge. Campbell had originally been ruled out by Mark Ripperger, which tentatively completed Gallardo’s eighth shutout inning and allowed him to walk off the mound with a commanding 2-0 lead.
When the out was overturned by the eagle-eyes of Chelsea Market, Gallardo’s night was undone. Or it was done but not as planned. Ron Roenicke took him out then and there, and while there was no immediate penalty to be paid (Will Smith struck out the slumping Curtis Granderson), I had an inkling the flow of the game had been irrevocably disrupted. Everything had gone the Brewers’ way thus far, but it could have gone further for them. Daniel Murphy had played an atrocious game in the field, yet only one unearned run scored from his well-meaning mishaps. Gallardo was masterful, yet he lost an out and now he was out of the picture.
Neither was more than a couple of pebbles in the shoe of things, but let enough pebbles accumulate and suddenly you’re stopped in your tracks. Think about all the games you’ve seen and how the disruptive influence arrived not without warning but rather the slightest sense of foreboding.
For example, rewind to October 11, 1986, Game Three, National League Championship Series. Bob Knepper is pitching for the Astros. Darryl Strawberry is batting fifth for the Mets. It’s a great matchup for Houston. During the season, nobody was worse against Knepper than Strawberry: 0-for-10, five strikeouts. No walks, no sac flies, no nothing. In the second inning of Game Three, another strikeout. But in the fourth inning, with Knepper having kept the Mets mute and the Astros loudly posting four on the board off of Ron Darling, Straw did something. Not much, but something: an infield single of the dinkiest variety.
Darryl, I thought 28 years ago, is not consigned to helplessness against Knepper anymore. He’s recorded a hit. He can do that again.
Two innings later, when Darryl came up with two on and the Mets down by three, lefty Strawberry vs. lefty Knepper loomed (at least in my mind) as a fair fight. And sure enough, Darryl got to him with a towering three-run homer to tie the game and (though a few more gripping innings would have to transpire) set the stage for Lenny Dykstra’s walkoff blast off Dave Smith, the one that reversed the trajectory of the series and, in essence, made the last world championship in New York Mets history possible.
Eric Campbell being ruled safe and Ron Roenicke removing Yovani Gallardo wasn’t Straw going deep at a critical juncture in the playoffs, but it was surely something. It was enough to make me think, as I did with that squib Darryl converted into a base hit nearly three decades earlier, that I shouldn’t assume nothing was going to happen next.
We get to the top of the ninth. It’s still 2-0. Murphy is due to lead off, using his bat and not his glove, a small victory unto itself. He’ll be facing Frankie Rodriguez, a notoriously unsettling presence in his Met days, though quite successful in his current go-round as a Brewer. The fact that he was being talked up as the all-time closer he’d been performing as lately reminded me of a Met encounter from a year ago with a reliever who was Rodriguez’s temperamental opposite.
Nobody could touch Mariano Rivera, right? Especially on his farewell tour, which alighted at Citi Field on May 28, 2013. The Mets gave him gifts to toss into the back of his closet, invited him to throw the ceremonial first pitch to John Franco and, presumably, would bestow upon him the honor of collecting one more save for his scrapbook.
Except the Mets had knocked out Rivera a few times over his storied career and here, in the ninth, trailing 1-0, they opted to not be impressed by his unmatched credentials. Three batters came up, the Mets scored two runs and the great Rivera left the Metropolitan midst forevermore carrying a loss.
The batters due up Friday night in the ninth against Rodriguez? Daniel Murphy, David Wright and Lucas Duda.
These guys did it once before, was my new thought. Maybe they can do it again. To be fair, I wouldn’t have been shocked had they not, but I wasn’t going to be stunned if they did.
Murphy jumps on the first pitch and doubles. We are either very much in business or about to be incredibly frustrated. Leadoff baserunners tell you some things but not everything. Still, Daniel acquitted himself beautifully from his fielding follies and it sure as hell beat not getting on base.
Wright found himself in an oh-and-two hole. The old Frankie could have reared back and struck him out. But Rodriguez hasn’t been the old Frankie since he was a young Angel. Recent spurt of excellence notwithstanding, he’s more often just an old Frankie. Having watched him overworked as an Anaheimian (when they were my favorite American League team) and struggle as a Met, I believed in my gut that if you can keep Frankie in an at-bat, the odds of wearing him down turn in your favor. Even when he was reasonably dependable, his path to prevailing was almost inevitably fraught with drama.
Maybe that’s the case with every closer, but it really always felt that way with Frankie. Thus, when David fouled off the oh-and-two delivery and then took ball two, I fastened my seat belt for a helluva ride. David did not disappoint, driving Murph in from second and me to the conclusion that not only were the Mets not doomed, but that they might be on the verge of the opposite of doom.
Duda? Has he ever had a big hit in a ninth inning? Why, yes: against Rivera. He drove in the winning run that Subway Series night. Of perhaps more relevance, Duda hit a massive home run the night before in Milwaukee. It was barely window dressing in a 9-1 loss, but he seemed so loose about it, which wouldn’t necessarily be a factor in my thinking about anybody, except Lucas always strikes me as…I don’t want to say not quite human, but there’s something about Duda’s demeanor that suggests he was developed in a laboratory, then forgotten about by science.
When it was mentioned during the San Diego series that Lucas hailed from Southern California, I was genuinely surprised. I don’t think of Lucas Duda as being from anywhere. I just assume he materialized one day on the Mets’ organizational chart and they kept routinely promoting him, sort of like Milton in Office Space.
Nevertheless, Duda is listed on the roster as real and he hit a real, long shot on Thursday night that wasn’t a big deal on the surface, but I noticed that when he returned to the dugout — and his sensors told him to cooperate with the forthcoming human horseplay — they started in with the towels. My first instinct was to scoff that trailing by eight runs, the Mets should put the kibosh on their silly celebrations. My second instinct, however, countermanded that call. I decided it was a positive sign that the bench was engaged in a game that was about to be lost. If they haven’t truly given up when down, 9-1, maybe they won’t give up as a matter of course in whatever remains of this season.
Not giving up can pay off. Rattling a capricious closer can pay off. Keeping slight but daunting deficits from widening can pay off. Insisting on a replay review can pay off. It’s the little things that become big things, and the biggest thing was Duda swinging at Rodriguez’s first pitch and beaming it toward his home planet, or at least Wauwatosa. The 2-0 defeat to which the Mets were sentenced was commuted in the space of eight pitches: one to Murphy, six to Wright, one to Duda.
One less than the same trio needed to torpedo Rivera.
Rodriguez stayed on the mound, looking less than confident and being somewhat shy of effective, but got out of the top of the ninth with no further scoring. Hence, Jenrry Mejia would be called on to preserve a 3-2 Mets’ lead.
And what does he do? He walks the leadoff hitter, Jonathan Lucroy. It’s a six-pitch battle that puts Mejia in a hole. Jenrry’s been so good for so long (in the annals of Met closing, a couple of superlative months equals an eternity), yet this is a recipe for disaster. Milwaukee’s a first-place club. They can turn this thing around as quickly as it turned around on them. Who the hell wants to play the victim on Brewers Classics?
Maybe that wasn’t going to happen. Maybe Mejia was going to dip into his multifaceted arsenal and confound the next three Brewer batters. But, boy, give an assist to Ron Roenicke for some very helpful managing. I’m not sure Jenrry Mejia has a shiny new save without him.
Logan Schaefer was sent up to bunt. I didn’t love it because it seemed like something I’d seen Terry Collins instruct far too often, but OK, play for the tie at home and all that. Maybe it’s worth a shot.
Except at one-and-one, Mejia throws Schaefer ball two, a plainly unbuntable pitch. Yet Schaefer offers and misses. It was a misguided attempt. More misguided was Roenicke’s insistence on telling him to do it again. Another desperate bunt brought Schaefer contact with only air.
The game was basically over right there. Sure, Carlos Gomez could have killed us (he’d homered in the seventh) and Rickie Weeks was as capable as anyone of burying us, but Roenicke short-sheeted his club’s bed before they could make it and lie in it. Or make Mejia lie in it. Either way, Mejia struck ’em both out and the Mets, once sure losers, were certified winners.
The clichés don’t matter. Except for the one about never saying die.