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Purest and Simplest Joy

My pal Will likes to strip away the sepia Valhalla folderol around baseball and replace it with a simple rule: “When my team wins, I am happy, and when they lose, I am sad.”

Pretty much. But there are degrees of happy and sad. There’s the sad of losing a ho-hum game in August when you’re a dozen games up and next month’s call-ups won’t be any better than what you have. And balancing it, there’s being happy because it’s May and you left your coat at home without checking the weather and you had hot dogs and ice cream and sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and the team looks a little better than you thought and they won 5-1, or maybe it was 6-2, you’d have to check but they definitely won.

A lot of games during a typical year are like that — thumbs up or thumbs down, part of the day. But some are exceptions. For instance, there’s the sad — some would rate it devastating, others merely disappointing — of having everything come down to a single game in which your veteran starter gives up seven in the first while recording one out. You know it’s just baseball, but that kind of sad gets into your guts and bones somehow and sticks there, to seep back out at 3 AM or ambush you in your car or breathe down your neck while you’re minding your own business walking down the street. Did you really just spent 20 minutes muttering “fucking Timo” or actually cackle at the idea of Kenny Rogers [1] sitting on a tack? Of course you did — and it’s not the first time either.

Fortunately that kind of sad has its opposite too.

Tonight was why we act stoic amid fizzled comebacks and stare heavenward after extra-inning stumbles and bear witness to second and third hours of laughers in which our guys are the laughees. Because every so often your stubborn, even stupid faith is rewarded, and baseball hands you a night of pure and utter joy — a gift that makes you remember that one audacious, world-turned-upside-down comeback feels better than a dozen gag jobs feels bad.

And every so often, one of those every so oftens comes when it matters most to a team, a season and a fanbase.

A billion years ago, at the beginning of Tuesday night, the story was Matt Harvey [2], seeking redemption amid a self-created storm about his innings limit, his commitment to his team and whatever the hell it is his agent thinks he’s doing. Harvey actually didn’t pitch that badly — he didn’t give up an extra-base hit, for instance, and a lot of balls found holes. Not to say that he was blameless by any means: His location was off in the early innings and he compounded a physical error with an unwise play to get that awful sixth snowballing. But turn Yoenis Cespedes [3]‘s error and the resulting Little League grand slam for Michael Taylor [4] into the RBI single it should have been and Harvey’s line might have looked a lot different.

None of this would have mattered if the night hadn’t taken many incredible turns. But before we go on to subsequent events, let’s take a minute to point and laugh at this dummy:

Actually I was playing to the Twitter cameras there. Yeah, it was 7-1, but the Mets had gnawed away at Jordan Zimmermann [7] with relentless at-bats and would get into the Nats’ highly flammable bullpen. And, well, there’s something about the ’15 Mets 2.0 that makes you hope even when things seem bleakest.

Harvey was excused from scapegoat duty because of his teammates; the Mets’ seventh delivered redemption for Cespedes and then brought me back to another risen-from-the-dead inning that was a slow-motion nightmare for the other team, an endless parade of ball fours and a slow wheeling of baserunners that kept grinding along, with a third out seemingly at hand but repeatedly postponed. I’m thinking, of course, of the 10-run inning [8] — a Shea night rivaled only by the Grand Slam single and Mike Piazza [9]‘s post-9/11 blast in terms of sheer transformative joy experienced at a ballpark. And when Travis d’Arnaud [10] stepped up to the plate with Drew Storen [11] having unraveled into a pile of red and white yarn on the mound, the parallel seemed perfect. Surely this catcher would blast one over the fence, releasing the accumulated tension in a crazy big bang of an instant, just as that catcher did 15 years ago.

D’Arnaud got his pitch and clobbered it, but this line drive didn’t go over the left-field fence. It vanished into Bryce Harper [12]‘s glove.

Storen had looked like there wasn’t enough air out there on the mound — I felt sorry for him, enemy status and all, as I think you feel for anyone struggling in the grips of a nightmare. That looked like it was happening to Addison Reed [13] too, but the latest Met reliever auditioning for seventh-inning duties found enough on his fastball to escape a jam. Ironically, Jonathan Papelbon [14] — the closer who displaced Storen and was summoned to pitch the eighth — was the only reliever out there for either side who didn’t look like he had a bit of jelly in his knees. Amid all this ludicrous drama Papelbon was his usual self, hunched over and glowering at home plate like a vulture.

Up stepped pinch-hitter Kirk Nieuwenhuis [15], whose 2015 has been ridiculous even by the standards of wacko baseball narrative: a three-homer game bracketed by not much. Kirk failed as a pinch-hitter in New York and was sent through waivers so he could be sold to the Angels, which worked out so well that he came back through waivers and got stashed in Las Vegas. And now here he was, pinch-hitting again.

Papelbon missed with a fastball for ball one, then aimed another one at the inside corner. It slid over the heart of the plate instead and the moment bat hit ball you knew it was gone. Nieuwenhuis raised his head, appreciated the trajectory for a moment, set his bat down gently and floated around the bases and into Met lore.

Magic, though, isn’t magic until there’s an F by the score. The Mets had six outs to get. Tyler Clippard [16], whose little squint and lip curl always makes him look perturbed, put down his old team in the eighth. The Mets rather meanly refused to put up four or five runs worth of insurance in the top of the ninth, and so in came Jeurys Familia [17].

It didn’t start out well — Jayson Werth [18] lined an 0-2 quick-pitch slider up the middle for a single, barking at Familia as he went. But Matt Williams [19] then inexplicably handed the Mets one of his three precious remaining outs by having Anthony Rendon [20] bunt and then keeping the bunt on with Familia struggling to find the plate. Rendon, perhaps protesting having to be a party to Neanderthal idiocy, bunted so poorly that Lucas Duda [21] forced Werth at second. The Nats probably don’t have enough season left to salvage things by firing Williams, but if I were their GM that’s what I’d do posthaste.

Familia dueled Harper, trying to tempt him into swinging at splitters that sought at his ankles, but walked him instead — which baseball orthodoxy deplores but I didn’t particularly mind, because I’d had visions of Familia hanging a splitter and Harper doing cartwheels around the bases, after which I’d have to spend thirty or forty years reading about how Harper’s ascent to the Hall of Fame and every American home’s Wheaties box really began the night he saved the Nats’ 2015 season and kick-started their dynasty.

Up came Yunel Escobar [22], who whacked an 0-2 fastball into the ground, a high bounce to David Wright [23]. When Wright returned in Philadelphia you could see the game was too fast for him, and it was painful to watch him struggle to force his brain to speed up and command his body properly. But that was a while ago; Wright’s glove shot up to spear the ball and he flung it to Murphy, who surrounded second and heaved the ball to the mitt waiting at one end of the massive outstretched bulk of Duda. It found its target for the most beautiful two outs we’ve seen around here in a very, very long time.

Remember this one [24] when baseball makes you sad, when cold rain’s falling and you’re huddled under a plastic poncho that smells like a refinery, or when it’s sunny but a Met starter’s trudging off the mound with one out in the second and the stands a-growl. On that day, remember this night and have faith that good things can happen, that this may be the game where the misery is but a prelude to a bolt of joy out of the blue. And even if it isn’t that day, take solace in the fact you’re closer to the next improbable burst of happiness that will make all of all of this worthwhile — the day that will remind you of why you love this confounding, unpredictable and beautiful game so much.