I’ve invested so much of my life into loving baseball that it would have been a shame to have completely given up the game, but as Jerry Blevins prepared to face Daniel Murphy in the bottom of the tenth inning Tuesday night with two out, a runner on first and the Mets up by one, I realized that if things went astoundingly awry (and it wouldn’t be that astounding, considering the identity of the antagonist), I might have to overhaul everything I’d previously held dear. If Murphy did to Blevins what Murphy does to all Mets pitchers, and the Nationals completed in the tenth what they nearly finished in the ninth, how could I continue to love baseball? I couldn’t even fathom liking it.
I went through a similar washing my hands of the whole thing at the conclusion of the last three-way Wild Card race in which the Mets vigorously competed. That was eighteen years ago. The Mets’ vigor vanished at the worst possible juncture. They dropped their final five games and failed to capture the only at-large playoff spot then available. I was so disgusted by the outcome of the 1998 season that I swore I would no longer have anything to do with either that team or their sport ever again.
My retirement from the game lasted about a day. But I meant it when I said it in ’98 and I meant it when I thought it in the tenth inning Tuesday. Here were the Mets, not more than a half-hour removed from the cusp of a highly satisfying victory over the Nationals. Noah Syndergaard had been his lately typical extraordinary self: 7 IP, 4 H, 1 BB, 1 ER, 10 SO and only 1 SB. Thor controlled the tops of innings, while his teammates did just enough in the bottom of two of them to stake him to a 3-1 lead. After 99 exquisite pitches, the ball was handed to Addison Reed and Reed registered his team-record 36th hold, whatever that is.
All that remained was one of the great more-or-less automatics that baseball has to offer, a Jeurys Familia ninth inning. He hiccups and we jump, but have you gotten antsy to the point of clinically anxious over Familia during the Mets’ charge into Wild Card territory? I mean really anxious? In his eleven appearances since spit got real and the season turned serious, he’d thrown ten-and-a-third innings, scattered four hits, allowed a lone walk and struck out fourteen. Saves are about as dopey as holds, but Jeurys had gathered eight of those to up his season total to 48, substantially more than any Met before him.
Despite decade upon decade of watching the Mets and their closers and the ninth-leads assigned to their particular skill sets, I was relaxed, confident and anticipating the best.
You’d think I’d know better by now.
Murphy led off the ninth for the Nats. That was at least a little unsettling. Every time the Mets play Washington, another way to say he kills us is formulated and expressed. On Tuesday, it was a comparison to Lou Brock, a Hall of Famer with whom I’m fairly certain Daniel Murphy had previously never in life had been compared. In 1965, according to Elias, Brock hit safely in each of the seventeen games he played against his shall we say alma matter from the year prior. Lou became a Cardinal in 1964 after the Cubs dealt him in what has long been referred to as one of the best/worst trades in baseball history. Your characterization of Brock-for-Ernie Broglio depends on which side of the Missouri-Illinois border you sit. In any event, long before Sweet Lou blazed a trail of stolen bases to Cooperstown, that seventeen-game performance represented a record for revenge.
Guess who tied Brock’s vengeful mark Monday and shattered it Tuesday. To paraphrase what was said in Brooklyn of another Cardinal legend, here comes that Dan again. Murphy versus the Mets in 2016 has been legendary since May. Or poison. Take your pick. He had doubled against Syndergaard in the sixth but didn’t score, which in itself could have counted as a win for Thor. Overall through eight, three at-bats, no lasting damage. Yet here we were in the ninth, with the modern-day incarnation of Stan Musial presenting the first obstacle to Familia and, maybe, the unmovable object in the path of our happiness. Get by Murph (as we called him when we were young and innocent) and we’d be fine.
Getting by Murph suggests trying to weave in and out of traffic in the Midtown Tunnel. It’s all you can do to stay in your lane with everything whooshing by. Familia gripped the wheel as tightly as he could. He threw seven pitches. Two were balls. Three were fouled off. I seem to recall Sandy Alderson wanting Murphy to adjust his approach so he would hunt and peck and take and attack and I don’t remember what anymore at the plate. Somewhere along the line while growing into a feared power hitter and a fixture on the terror watch list, Daniel got good at all of that, too. No plate appearance ends until Murphy is ready to end it. So far in September, he’s getting on base at a .469 clip.
No wonder, then, Murphy connected fair on the seventh pitch he saw from Familia and did something with it. He grounded it sharply up the middle to a spot that a second baseman like Murph probably wouldn’t get to, but a second baseman like T.J. Rivera could and did, diving, smothering, grabbing and throwing as quickly as he could. Rivera, a Tuesday starter so Kelly Johnson’s batteries don’t run down and Wilmer Flores’s neck might continue to heal (I’m wondering if Wilmer’s lingering discomfort from his contact with A.J. Pierzynski’s shin guards Saturday night will be Turner Field’s final legacy unto us), made a terrific play, but not terrific enough. Murphy beat it out for an infield single.
The hit raised Murphy’s average against the Mets in 2016 to .417. Musial hit .468 against the Mets in 1962, Brock .468 versus the Cubs in 1965. So it’s not like Murph is that great.
Bryce Harper is the National whose name is supposed to be in the same conversation with baseball immortals. He hasn’t been as nearly as valuable a player to Washington this year as his New York-import teammate, but you still have to go after him like he’s the reigning MVP. Familia got two quick strikes on Harper, then a ball, then a grounder that required shortstop-turned-third baseman Jose Reyes to charge — which he didn’t do fluidly; pick up — which he did hurriedly; and fire — which he did wildly. Jose’s throw sailed past James Loney, who stretched to no avail as the ball landed in the stands. Murphy was on third. Harper, hustling just as Jonathan Papelbon lovingly taught him, was on second. Nobody was out.
Familia was having his worst money inning in a month. If your closer has no more than one of those every thirty days, you’re probably doing all right. Alas, this was no time to count our blessings. Anthony Rendon, who slew a far less tough customer the night before, came up and grounded a ball past a diving Reyes to score Murphy and send Harper to third.
One-run game. And nobody out. And Wilson Ramos, who owns the portion of the Mets pitching staff Murphy hasn’t already bought up, grounding to Rivera, another difficultly placed ball on which there was no play. Harper scores. Rendon moves to second. Wilmer Difo goes to first to run for Ramos.
Tie game. And still nobody out. Familia didn’t excel, but he didn’t do badly. He gave up balls on the ground that hit their spots, one of which flummoxed his third baseman. But a jam is a jam and Jeurys was up to his jelly in this one. Ryan Zimmerman, the syndicated-for-Washington version of David Wright (it’s like when you stay in a motel for the first time as a kid and are puzzled why all the NBC shows you know air on Channel 8), was up to either bunt compliantly or swing away heroically. The bunting didn’t work, and neither did the swinging. Zimmerman lined out to Loney softly, allowing Familia and me to breathe slightly. Then came pinch-hitter Clint Robinson, who isn’t Frank Robinson, though I always assume he is based on some fleetingly big hit he got against us last year.
C. Robby didn’t go all Frank or Brooks on our asses, thankfully. He lined to Rivera in just a confusing enough manner — T.J. plucked it inches above the dirt — to instigate a double play, with pinch-runner Difo caught off first after Rendon rushed back to second. Irrelevant of how it happened, three outs had been secured after two runs had been scored.
The tie that was a horror show moments before was now a lucky-stars-thanked situation. Yay, we get to play some more, starting with taking on Mark Melancon, the top-notch closer the Pirates traded in an effort to confound their fans regarding their contention intentions. Melancon is headed to the playoffs. The Pirates almost aren’t. Whether the Mets were aimed truly in that direction would depend, at least for a half-inning, on how well they handled Papelbon’s successor.
Jay Bruce, whose name has been mostly absent from Met pennant race accounts, led off and grounded out. Rivera, whose name was all over the bottom of the ninth in the field and had imprinted itself upon the box score with two hits and two ribbies in regulation, batted second. As he came up, I found myself sorting through his brief MLB career to date and wondering, “Has he homered yet? I don’t think he has…has he?”
I can now answer definitively that he has. The rookie from Lehman High School showed Melancon the Bronx the best way possible, via the left field grandstand. That’s where T.J. (or “T.” as his friends call him) deposited the Washington closer’s two-strike delivery for his first major league home run. The Mets were ahead again, 4-3.
That’s where it stood in the bottom of the tenth, an inning entrusted for three batters to Fernando Salas, who has been a nifty pickup. The only helpful thing Salas hasn’t done for us is go back to the beginning of his career and train as a starter, because we could really use an extra one of those this month, but bloggers can’t be choosers. Salas’s first batter, Chris Heisey — as in that ditty of yore, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamz Chris Heisey — struck out. Trea Turner, who sources have finally confirmed for me isn’t Michael Taylor, popped out to Asdrubal Cabrera. All Salas had to do from there was take care of Jayson Werth.
Like Jeff Francoeur, Jayson Werth is mysteriously still a thing, and the thing named Jayson Werth singled to left. The de facto closer had done two-thirds of his job. Fernando still had one batter to get.
He wasn’t going to get him. Maybe if he was the actual closer, yes, he’d stay in. But Salas on the edge of the ensuing encounter did not receive the benefit of the doubt that a fully pedigreed saves artist would. He was removed in deference to a desired matchup.
Daniel Murphy, meet your match in Jerry Blevins.
Or was it going to be Blevins meeting his match? That wasn’t the idea behind Terry Collins’s decision to stride to the mound rather than let it ride. Blevins versus Murphy loomed as a mismatch in the pitcher’s favor: ten at-bats, one hit when Murph was a Met. But that was before Dani-El left his home planet of Krypton and became SuperNat.
As my mind raced back to 1998, it made a pit stop in 2012 to refuel my leaded-memory tank with visions of another extra-inning game at Nationals Park. This was June 5 four years ago, four short days removed from one of the most joyous nights in Mets history. Baseball being baseball, there was little time to rest, reflect and relax after Johan Santana’s no-hitter. More games keep coming. The one on the Fifth turned in great part on shoddy infield play. Jordany Valdespin, not really a shortstop, had been moved to shortstop in the eighth. This was the harsh post-Reyes era that didn’t fully cease until Cabrera came along. JV made an error on the first chance he saw in the tenth. A couple of batters later, another E-6. There’d be some back-and-forth with the Nats until the Mets ultimately lost in twelve. It was worse than what befell Familia artistically, though there was less to lose. It was June. It was 2012. The Mets, despite a brief uptick in first-half fortunes highlighted by Nohan, were going nowhere.
These Mets of ours right now, the September 2016 Mets, have been on the road to somewhere. It’s been one of the most scintillating trips I can remember. To have it turned around by a few balls that couldn’t quite be handled in the bottom of the ninth, then to get it back on a ball that flew off an August callup’s bat in the top of tenth, only to consider what Murphy might do in the bottom of the tenth given all he’d been doing since he donned his red cape…
If this went wrong, I could not continue to tolerate baseball. I mean I would, but I was dreading the unshakable fealty I would demonstrate in the hopes that it was just one loss, there are still seventeen to play, the Cardinals and Giants are still right there. You know — all those things we tell ourselves when a season goes to hell for a third or fourth or final time.
Blevins got two strikes on Murphy. It can’t possibly be this easy. Then followed three balls. Why does it have to be this hard? Finally, a curve that curved beautifully, away from Daniel, who swung through it an instant before it landed in René Rivera’s mitt for the third out of a 4-3 Mets win. When René dug the ball out, he may have noticed continued sole possession of the second Wild Card attached to it. St. Louis would win a bit later, but San Francisco would lose in the wee West Coast hours, leaving us a half-game from each of them in either direction as the sun rose Wednesday.
That’s absolutely critical, but somehow not quite as emotionally significant as this not having become that game we’d always remember losing. We may even remember winning it for a while. That’s probably dependent on what happens this afternoon and this weekend and clear through to October 2 and perhaps beyond.
For now, gee, it’s a wonderful game.