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(Almost) All The Way

You know you’re having a good night when you can get picky over what kind of mammoth win you’d like your team to post. For those of us who remained to the bottom of the ninth inning at Citi Field Wednesday night of an obviously settled affair — and why would you leave when your team has hung up 11 runs and 19 hits? — we picked one ending as preferred above all others: Noah Syndergaard [1] throwing the final pitch.

Imagine that. Imagine Thor going the distance. You had to imagine it in advance of Wednesday night and, alas, you still have to imagine it [2]. That sort of achievement, so prevalent in the heyday of Shea, has grown remarkably uncommon in the yard the Mets now call their own. A Met pitcher sticking around to bookend his own evening is a rarity anywhere, but it really gets your attention when you realize how little it’s happened at Citi. The 42 in the Rotunda dwarfs the number of complete games Mets pitchers have thrown in the ballpark’s eight-season history.

How many CGs for the homestanding NYMs since 2009? The answer lies not within the monument to Jackie Robinson [3], but is implied at the joint that grills burgers in the name of Keith Hernandez [4]. The number is 17, or approximately 2.9% of the 595 regular-season home games the Mets have played since shuttering Shea. I’ve been to 218 of those games and witnessed nine completed by our starters, or roughly 4.1%. A person really has to hit his spot to see one these Flushing Routegoers in flight.

As endangered species go, they’re almost as rare as the Gunnison sage-grouse [5]. My Citi Field complete game life list encompasses Livàn Hernandez [6] and Nelson Figueroa [7] in 2009; Jon Niese [8], Johan Santana [9] and R.A. Dickey [10] in 2010; Miguel Batista [11] in 2011; Dickey in 2012; and Matt Harvey [12] and Niese in 2013. Neither I nor any fan has seen one in ages.

Niese, a Pirate watching from the third base dugout as his old teammate thoroughly throttled his new teammates, holds the distinction of being the last Met to throw a home complete game. His came twenty days after Harvey’s, the same week Matt went on the shelf that eventually led to Tommy John surgery.

It’s probably not a coincidence that in a Met era defined by young, imposing starting pitchers, the current administration shies away from letting them complete their own business. It took four months of an absolutely dominant 2013, when Harvey was presumed healthy, before Terry Collins allowed his undisputed ace to go all the way (though there was an earlier nine-inning effort in game that went into extras). It wasn’t until the final game of 2015, the postseason edition, that we saw another Met — Harvey — given such a chance again…and that took quite a bit of histrionic lobbying on the part of the pitcher. Matt hasn’t come close to nine full innings since.

Jacob deGrom [13] has never pitched a complete game. Steven Matz [14] has never pitched a complete game. The only two of the past two years were from Zack Wheeler [15] and Bartolo Colon [16], each in Miami. Wheeler is only now preparing to make minor league rehab starts. It seems safe to wager he will not be throwing any major league complete games for the Mets in 2016.

Colon better fits the profile of starters the Mets might let finish with limited qualms: he’s someone whose future they’re not immensely invested in. If Bart can get to a ninth inning, sure, knock yourself out. Dickey was a knuckleballer, so his length in any given game where he was rolling along was subject to effectively the same school of thought. Batista’s complete game versus Cincinnati on September 28, 2011, made total sense. It was the last game of the year, he was 40 and every Red’s back foot was planted squarely on the bus to the offseason. Before Collins, it wasn’t as if Jerry Manuel [17] was handing out passes to the ninth, either. Hernandez and Figueroa (another Closing Day performance) were permitted to go extremely deep because what was there to lose in the club’s eyes? Same could be said for the August 2011 night journeyman Chris Capuano [18] mysteriously mystified the Braves.

When a Niese or a Mike Pelfrey [19] (in one of the eight Met CGs at Citi Field that I was not on hand to observe and applaud) got on a roll, they were just pretty good pitchers having very good nights, more power to them. Santana, his bouts of fragility notwithstanding, was from another time to begin with, when aces were aces and it was ludicrous to remove them from fierce competition. It’s fitting that Shea Stadium stayed vital to its very last game because of how far Johan went into its next-to-last game.

But the current Fab Four is treated with kid gloves and René Rivera [20]’s mitt. Harvey appeared Olympian in 2013 and it was inferred he was indestructible, as long as he was handled with care. The Mets didn’t care to extend his innings any more than they had to. When he had a shutout going after eight against the Rockies on August 7 of his breakout year, and his pitch count wasn’t dizzyingly high, he couldn’t be denied. Not even a two-out line drive off his knee in the ninth would budge him. After subsequently having to miss the last month of ’13 and all of ’14 to have his right elbow repaired, you can imagine a helicopter being summoned to swoop in and remove him if he didn’t budge from the mound in a similar situation these days.

(Game Five of the World Series was different. It was Game Five of the World Series [21].)

Harvey remains the last righthander among Mets to throw a complete game at Citi Field, and that was nearly three years ago. Syndergaard, a towering figure even within the community of larger-than-life Met pitchers of 2016, had gone eight innings three times in his brief career prior to Wednesday, including one start at home last year. To look at Thor, whether standing or pitching, is to understand why he came to the majors with a Norse god nickname already attached. What could possibly hurt Thor? He has the powerful repertoire, the offbeat temperament [22], the fire of a thousand kilns, the physical stature…if this were 1916 or 1976 or maybe 1996, you would assume a substantial percentage of his 36 starts prior to Wednesday would have been complete games, not to mention shutouts.

In 2016, even with all his successes, both categories yielded zeroes on Thor’s ledger through June 8. But on this Wednesday, June 15, he was the one assigning nice, round nothings to just about every Pirate batter he faced. There was a leadoff single and then there was total silence, punctuated only by our cheers for his strikeouts (eleven, enough to keep Subway on its toes [23]) and, not to go unnoticed, tons of Met hits.

You know how the Mets almost got no-hit on Tuesday night and we all assumed — because we retain absolutely no memory that what happens in our worst games isn’t necessarily destined to occur in all our games — that the Mets would never hit again? Consider our assumptions rent asunder. Every Met (except Syndergaard, somehow) hit and hit forcefully. Left fielder Kelly Johnson [24] homered. Third baseman Wilmer Flores [25] homered and drove in four. Rivera was as lethal at the plate as he was nurturing behind it, contributing three hits. Matt Reynolds [26] showed signs of being ready to challenge Ichiro Suzuki [27] for the title of most prolific hitter the world has ever seen [28].

It was exhilarating to watch the Met offense cut loose on a night the wrist of Michael Conforto [29], the back of Neil Walker [30] and the thumb of Juan Lagares [31] made each of them invisible. An early version of Collins’s lineup, before Lagares had to be scratched, listed Asdrubal Cabrera [32] as his cleanup hitter. Cabrera has batted cleanup in his career — he socked 25 homers for Cleveland five years ago — but a Met shortstop in the four-hole was cognitively dissonant to the eye. Howard Johnson [33] filled that dual role now and then in 1991, but he was Howard Johnson, 30/30 man extraordinaire and never quite the full-time shortstop. Flores batted cleanup as shortstop twice in 2015, during the injury-ravaged mangy mutt days of May and June, but Wilmer wasn’t retrofitted into a major league shortstop to get his glove in the game.

The only Met shortstop to bat cleanup in the starting lineup between HoJo and Wilmer? It wasn’t anyone you’d picture of as you scroll the shortstop spreadsheet of your mind. It wasn’t Jose Vizcaino [34] or Rey Ordoñez or Mike Bordick [35] or the incredibly available [36] (if not overwhelmingly desirable) Jose Reyes [37]. According to the Baseball-Reference Play Index [38], it was John Valentin [39], twice deployed by Bobby Valentine [40] that way in 2002. The Baseball-Reference Play Index needs to come with smelling salts for those instances when information such as the Mets batting shortstop John Valentin cleanup twice knocks you out.

“Bobby is not looking for me to hit home runs or anything like that,” Valentin said the first time the unorthodox tactic was tried, making one wonder whether John opted for a white flag over a Louisville Slugger when he stepped in to face Darryl Kile [41].

Back in the makeshift present, Cabrera wound up batting second, recording two hits and scoring two runs. That’s what more or less everybody in the Met lineup did. With it adding up to eleven runs, you only noticed a little that the Mets made twelve outs with runners in scoring position and left ten men on base.

For that matter, you only noticed the eleven runs a little, because all your focus was on Noah Syndergaard. Over eight innings, he registered as many strikeouts as the Mets plated runners: eleven K’s to go with no walks and no runs. There were three Pirate singles scattered, one in the first, two in the sixth. By the sixth, when Syndergaard shrugged off the mild threat by fanning Andrew McCutchen [42] looking for Strikeout No. 8, the Mets led, 7-0. There was no danger. There was only Thor, tossing what could be best described as a Thor-hitter.

Come the bottom of the eighth, Syndergaard batted, an excellent sign of what he’d be doing in the ninth. Sure enough, in the ninth, we got what we stayed for. We got Thor on the mound for another inning.

All he needed was three outs to add to his previous 24. If he could proceed in mussless, fussless fashion, we’d be telling each other on the way out that we had just seen Noah Syndergaard’s first complete game and Noah Syndergaard’s first shutout. We already talk of Thor so much we need new material.

We wanted it like he wanted it. We would have accepted simple groundouts or pop flies, though if it were put to a text poll, we would have entered “K” for another round of emphatic door-slamming, Pirate-pounding strikeouts. We wanted him to go out in blazes of glory and flourishes of phenomenal. We wanted Rivera cradling that last 97-MPH fastball, leaping to his feet and embracing his pitcher. We couldn’t wait to tweet that perfect-partnership image and hashtag it #Thorvera.

That would have been something, but it will have to be something for another game. Noah ventured into his very first ninth inning, but there was a leadoff double to John Jaso [43], a ground ball that advanced him to third, then a double to David Freese [44]. There went the shutout and, with it, the eighteenth Met complete game in Citi Field history, not to mention the tenth I could have Logged. With opportunity eroded, Terry approached the mound and Thor departed it to a standing ovation. Jeurys Familia [45] came on to protect a ten-run lead in what we shall refer to as a non-save situation. To service his own narrative properly, Jeurys gave up a difficult ground ball that Flores made a nice play on but threw away. It allowed Freese to score (how could Terry use him in a non-save situation?) and reduce the Mets’ lead to 11-2. That’s not terribly significant to report, except for the delight inherent in noting the Mets had a ninth-inning lead reduced to nine runs.

There it stayed. Familia got the next two outs. Syndergaard got the win, going a career-longest eight-and-one-third innings. One of these days we’ll see him go nine. Several of these days, you’d have to think.