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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 [1] threw seventeen such starts. One of them was the Jimmy Qualls Game [2]. A bunch were simply Tom Seaver games.

On Wednesday night in Cincinnati, Rafael Montero [3], 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 [4], 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 [5] (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 [6], 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.