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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

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Rafael’s Rare-ish Gem

The Mets won by shutout. Their starter went at least eight-and-a-third innings. He gave up no more than three hits and got the win. According to Baseball Reference, those specific boxes have been checked 119 times in franchise history, about twice a year since 1962. It’s a total that includes some of the most memorable starts a Met pitcher has ever thrown, alongside some really good games that didn’t seem like that big a deal in their time. Tom Seaver threw seventeen such starts. One of them was the Jimmy Qualls Game. A bunch were simply Tom Seaver games.

On Wednesday night in Cincinnati, Rafael Montero, who has expertly eluded comparisons to Tom Seaver every time he’s touched a baseball while wearing a New York Mets uniform, pitched the 119th of those games. It can be classified as a really good game and, within the context of who pitched it, a pretty big deal.

Rafael Montero doesn’t normally pitch into the ninth inning. Rafael Montero doesn’t normally limit his opposition to no more hits than there are bases. Rafael Montero doesn’t normally get a Mets fan excited, except to see what else is on. To be fair, almost nothing gets a Mets fan excited at this juncture of the current Mets season, save for the knowledge that the current Mets season will eventually give way to a different Mets season.

But Rafael Montero and what we’ll refer to as the Rafael Montero Game (at least until we have another one remotely like it) did. You wouldn’t have thought any Met starter whose last name begins with an upper-case letter could, but Montero was as good as any Met not named Jacob deGrom could possibly be. Against the Reds, he was sublime. He flirted with a one-hitter for more than eight innings. On most teams, you talk about a pitcher who flirts with a no-hitter. Met tradition, however, demands reverence for the one-hitter, even more than five years after Johan Santana transformed our once-mightiest feat into a relatively quaint achievement.

Montero couldn’t quite deliver the one-hitter. Nor could he quite complete his gem without bullpen assistance. With one out, nobody on and a shutout tantalizingly within his grasp, Rafael gave up a single to Phillip Ervin. Then Zack Cozart doubled, pushing Ervin to third. The demi-magic of almost a no-hitter had dissipated. You still wanted Rafael to get the shutout, not to mention the win. Mets, too, but mostly Montero. He’d been building toward this. The kid had pitched better lately than he had earlier this year. Few could pitch worse than Montero had earlier this year, though the Mets seemed to keep sending out pitchers who did. It was a lack of pitchers who were definitively better than Rafael that solidified Rafael’s spot in the rotation.

Joey Votto, who’d recorded the only other Red hit, a double back in the fourth, was up next in the ninth. In another era — even in this era — you’d yearn to leave Montero in. “His game to lose” and all that. In the previous 118 starts in which the Met starter did all that was mentioned above, 117 were wire-to-wire affairs. The one incomplete game win belonged to Jim McAndrew, who rose to the majors in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, and was continually undone by a Mets team whose hitters barely contested the calendar. In his first four starts, rookie McAndrew allowed two runs twice and one run twice. The Mets scored zero runs for him each time. His first victory was a 1-0 routegoing squeaker over Steve Carlton and the eventual league champion Cardinals. The fireballing righthander from Lost Nation, Ia., got himself a run and worked with it. It was Jim’s only way to fly in ’68.

A couple of weeks later, sporting a won-lost record of 1-7 accompanied by a cognitively dissonant earned run average of 2.53, McAndrew was again battling a future Hall of Famer, in this case Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs. Once more he had an entire run’s worth of support from his teammates — half as much as Montero received — and was making it stand up. Like Montero 49 years later, he’d allowed only one hit through eight-and-a-third. Also like Montero, he’d see the next two batters reach base: Don Kessinger on a single, Glenn Beckert on an infield error. And though you won’t hear these two names mentioned in the same breath often, Gil Hodges did in 1968 what Terry Collins would do in 2017. McAndrew’s manager, like Montero’s manager, removed a starter who had brought a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning. For what it’s worth, both editions of Mets sat seventeen games under .500. When caught up in the moment of preserving a slim lead constructed primarily from one pitcher’s brilliance, it’s not worth much. You don’t necessarily need a pennant race to inject urgency into your bloodstream when you’re trying to win a game that would be emotionally wrenching to lose. When you’re seventeen games under .500, a game like this spiritually becomes your pennant race.

Unlike Collins with Votto, Hodges couldn’t just point to first base to put the next batter, Billy Williams, on. Besides, Gil eschewed the intentional walk. He brought in lefty Bill Short (sort of the Jerry Blevins of his day, except used a lot less, which I suppose means he wasn’t that much like Blevins) to face Williams, as dangerous from the left side during his career as Votto is in his. Short popped out Williams. Then Hodges made another move, bringing in righty Cal Koonce to take on righty Ernie Banks. Those Cubs were stitched from Hall of Fame fabric, but Koonce, like McAndrew and Short, wasn’t intimidated. Cal drew a pop fly from Banks, and McAndrew — 8.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 7 SO — was able to bank a 1-0 win.

Back in the present, AJ Ramos was Collins’s choice to serve as Bill Short and Cal Koonce rolled into one. McAndrew had already proven himself promising enough to keep pitching on a staff led by Seaver and Koosman and bolstered by Ryan. Montero, prior to Wednesday, had proven nothing except that he could find the mound every fifth day, admittedly a heroic undertaking on a staff led by deGrom and populated otherwise by happenstance. He’d gradually ascended to a state approaching competence during his previous August starts, but not enough to convince you he could nurse a 2-0 lead from the first until the ninth. Yet that’s exactly what Montero had done. It would be a shame for that lead to be lost now. It would also be a shame if Montero — 8.1 IP, 3 H, 4 BB, 8 SO — didn’t come away with more than a tough luck, kid pat on the back for his effort.

Ramos, pitching with a pinch of something extra on the line for the first time since joining the Mets, definitely exudes that closer persona, which is to say he makes me very nervous. Three men were on, one man was out, Adam Duvall was up, to be followed by Scooter Gennett. Everything had gone so well for eight-and-a-third innings. The Mets, the Mets fan assumed, were due for an implosion.

Montero, however, was due for an unambiguously good night, and no Red was gonna take it away from him. No closer, either. The reliever who took over for him threw eleven pitches. Eight of them were strikes. Duvall went down looking, Gennett swinging. When Ramos notched his save, Montero had his win, the bulk of a combined shutout victory in which he went about as far as they’ll let a pitcher go these days. It wouldn’t stand out in the portfolio of a Seaver, but like we said, nobody’d been comparing Montero to Seaver. Earning a comp with McAndrew is a pretty encouraging development for a pitcher whose career until Wednesday might have been accurately described as a lost nation.

Rafael will need more outings like this one to be considered seriously for inclusion on a choosier Mets staff. When McAndrew spun eight-and-a-third innings in 1968 like Montero did in 2017, his ERA dropped to 2.19. When Montero spun eight-and-a-third innings in 2017 like McAndrew did in 1968, his ERA slid only to 5.12. One flourished in the Year of the Pitcher. The other was nobody’s idea of a pitcher this year. But this year isn’t over yet, and maybe Montero is finally just getting started.

22 comments to Rafael’s Rare-ish Gem

  • UpstateNYMetfan

    I tuned in very late (bottom of the 9th, Ervin already on, Cozart about to smack his double to left). Perhaps due to my late “arrival” to the game, I got a swift flashback to Harvey’s Game 5 in the World Series. As meaningless as this game was, I found myself actually yelling at the TV, incredulous that Terry hadn’t “learned his lesson” from that still fairly recent November night. Take the guy out after the first batter gets on base, dammit! “His game to lose/gut out” be damned!! Glad to see Montero ended up coming out on the clean end of this one. What I wished for Harvey and Game 5 need not be uttered.

  • Dave

    Not only a very encouraging outing from Montero, but a real save by Ramos. They used to call relievers “firemen,” because their job used to be coming into tough situations and extinguishing whatever danger was imminent. I was very nervous about Ramos entering under last night’s circumstances, bracing myself for a what would’ve been a headbanging 3-2 loss were it not such a meaningless game (I’ll bang my head when it matters), but he doused the flame.

    Montero has already had 8 lives, but maybe the 9th one is when he flourishes. If he keeps this up over the next 5 or 6 starts he has left, he’s at least earned a chance to be in next year’s roration. If we’re going to be realistic, he has to be ahead of Wheeler at this point.

  • LeClerc

    A rare game in a lost season.

    Montero – somehow not timid, not intimidated, not neurotically cautious – but actually cheerful, confident, eager to face the next batter, pitch the next pitch – pitched the first great game of his MLB career.

    And Ramos was the classic closer. “Ice water in his veins” is the operative cliché. He lives for high drama – and he delivered it last night – complete with a happy ending.

  • Kevin From Flushing

    I love this write-up; though I’m hesitant to call this “The Rafael Montero Game”. “The Rafael Montero Game in Cincinnati” would be more appropriate. The reason I say that:

    “The Aaron Heilman Game”

    Sure, maybe you’ve surmised by context that I’m referring to his one-hitter on 4/15/05; but without said context I imagine your mind would go in the opposite direction.

    • Looking at Baseball Reference’s list of now 119 8.1 IP+ wins as described above, I was taken by the scattered Jeff D’Amico, Pedro Astacio and so forth performances, mainly that they didn’t necessarily live on in Met lore. I hope there are eventually too many Rafael Montero Games to keep straight, and not for Heilmanesque reasons.

      That one-hitter vs FLA only grows in its capability to mystify.

      • Kevin From Flushing

        The D’Amico Game is pretty much the only thing I remember about him. More specifically: struggling to get a radio signal in my dorm room and my roommate coming in and asking, “why are you listening to the game in the dark?” My response of “DON’T TURN ON THE LIGHTS,” confused until a few minutes later when he said, “ohhhhh, d’Amico is pitching a no-hitter.” Items were thrown in his direction.

        I would have thought The Capuano Game had made the list (aka the Game Score Trivia Stumper), but I see he narrowly missed the parameters.

        • Chris Capuano is in there one time a la Rafael Montero for the game you suspect: CG SHO W, 2 H (and the killer pitching score).

          Here’s the full membership of the Once and Only Once segment within the three hits or fewer, 8.1+ IP SHO W club…

          Astacio
          Batista
          Bomback
          Capuano
          D’Amico
          Estes
          deGrom
          Espinosa
          Fisher
          Hamilton
          Heilman
          Jones
          Kobel
          Lary
          Montero
          Sadecki
          Schourek
          Soler
          Stallard
          Viola
          Wheeler

          One who has never made it is Matt Harvey, whose most dominating 9 IP performance — 1 hit allowed — was in service to a no-decision. Mets, you no doubt recall, won in 10, with Bobby Parnell getting the W. I wouldn’t argue that’s not one of the best performances in relatively recent memory, but for the purposes of this exercise, no dice.

          Also off to the side, Ron Darling’s legendary 9 IP, 0 R vs STL, aka the HR off the clock game. He had the nerve to give up four hits and have no runs scored for him, thus getting ND’d in a game the Mets won in 11.

          More than once, so they get first and last names:

          Don Cardwell (2)
          David Cone (6)
          R.A. Dickey (2)
          Sid Fernandez (5)
          Gary Gentry (5)
          T#m Gl@v!ne (2)
          Dwight Gooden (7)
          Al Jackson (5)
          Jerry Koosman (4)
          Terry Leach (3)
          Al Leiter (2)
          Mickey Lolich (2)
          Jon Matlack (6)
          Jim McAndrew (3)
          Jon Niese (2)
          Bobby Ojeda (3)
          Rick Reed (2)
          Nolan Ryan (2)
          Bret Saberhagen (2)
          Johan Santana (4)
          Tom Seaver (17)
          Craig Swan (3)
          Steve Trachsel (3)
          Carl Willey (3)
          Pat Zachry (3)

          R.A., incidentally, only gets two of his three one-hitters in here because one saw a run score. That’s right, we’re stringent here.

          Al Jackson, who shows up plenty here, pitched 15 innings vs PHI on August 14, 1962, and lost. Six hits, three runs (two of each in the 15th). Hard-luck losses and NDs are a whole other category that I haven’t had in me to mine, but geez. But as you see, a guy who pitched on horrible Mets teams threw some gems.

          • Kevin From Flushing

            OK, thoughts:
            -I’m sometimes amazed at the laziness I set forth in my research. Case-in-point, I looked up how many hits Capuano allowed in his pre-Irene gem, but I didn’t feel like scrolling up in the gd post to confirm the parameters. It was easier to just remember it as “one-hit allowed thru 8 and a third, but anything goes after that as long as the Mets won”–which is fucking insane. Why would THAT have been the parameters?
            -Batista? Jesus that was Closing Day wasn’t it?
            -Shawn Estes would’ve actually been the best example to give re: games named after them not necessarily meaning good things.
            -That run-scoring RA game ended his scoreless streak, didn’t it? Or am I thinking of a different game?
            -Is there room for Al Jackson in the Mets HOF? I’d like to hear both sides of the argument.
            -I have been to a shocking number of these games, including both of Jon Niese’s efforts, somehow. (:smh:)

  • Eric

    Ramos’s clutch pitching was comforting in showing he can be an adequate replacement for Reed. Showing control more like Reed’s would be comforting, too.

    For what it’s worth, Montero’s about the same age now as when deGrom won his RotY in 2014.

    We entered this season with the hope that the injury problem for the staff of aces was resolved, and we’d finally see Harvey, Wheeler, deGrom, Syndergaard, and Matz show up together, with Lugo and/or Gsellman stepping in as needed, perhaps only to track Wheeler’s TJ-comeback innings limit. That hope won’t be repeated next season. I’ll be surprised if Montero doesn’t have a rotation spot (or two or three) open for him next season. Lugo and Gsellman didn’t take a step forward this season, either.

  • Pete In Iowa

    And another one of those Seaver gems was the “Leron Lee Game” in 1972. Game one of a July 4 doubleheader. Recently, I came across my folded-up scorecard sheet torn out from an old Spalding scorebook. The buck thirty for the ticket and the 70 cents for bus fare was all I could spring for in those days. A 25 cent scorecard was out of the question.
    Lost Nation, eh? I’ll have to go there someday to pay my respects to the boyhood home of Mr. McAndrew. Problem is, I don’t know where Lost Nation is, and I’ve lived in Iowa since 1990! But, Google is my friend….

  • Pete In Iowa

    Got it now. Lost Nation is one hour south of Dyersville — the movie location for Field of Dreams. Figures.

  • Lenny65

    Inexplicable thus typical in our always-bizarre blue and orange world. I assumed Montero was dead and buried months ago. I likewise assumed Jose Reyes would have been long gone by now, shows you what I know. The rest of the season will be a death march, no doubt, but you know they’re guaranteed to make it weird somehow too.

  • Something I THINK I remember… when Terry was watching Montero closely for a while in St. Lucie a couple of years ago…. and wanting to bring him up…. didn’t Montero refuse — saying he didn’t feel ready… or, did I make that up?! Hope someone remembers and replies…. Thanks!

  • […] still have the rejuvenated (or perhaps just juvenated) Montero — probably not a No. 2 anywhere else — who will go Monday, and they still have deGrom, […]