The second chapter of the perfect season completed itself Saturday, confirming that every good vibe we felt on Thursday was accurate. The Mets are 2-0 after beating St. Louis at Citi Field, 6-2 . Clearly, they’ve gotten the hang of baseball and need only repeat everything they’ve done 81 times.
Ah, if only so easy. Start Syndergaard one afternoon, deGrom two afternoons later. That part is relatively simple. Also, hit a spit ton and be helped along by the New Cardinals Way, which is probably more popular in New York than it is in Missouri. This whole season the Mets have looked formidable, the Cardinals fragile. My sample size is twice is what it was when Saturday begun. What more do you want — another 160 games?
We’ll take them, even if we won’t necessarily win them. The Mets will probably lose at some point. Pity that theory has to be proven. I’m loving life at 2-0.
Though deGrom appeared to have been dragged to the barber by his mother, his performance remained as luscious (1 run allowed, 7 Redbirds struck out) if not as long as it had when he was the Hair Apparent. Jake lasted not quite six innings, throwing 101 pitches, or more than you’d care for if you didn’t have an exceedingly well-rested bullpen. Nobody pitched (or played) Friday. The same three guys from Thursday — Gsellman, Swarzak and Familia — kept the scoreboard manageable. The versatile Asdrubal Cabrera, who floated from cleanup to leadoff, whacked three hits. Todd Frazier from somewhere in New Jersey, drove home three runs. Yoenis Cespedes stood for being walked three times. What is it they say about Trivial Pursuit? If you don’t know the answer, guess “three”. Or Vida Blue.
The Mets won on Thursday without homering, which is standard Opening Day procedure for them. The Mets haven’t homered on an Opening Day since 2014, when one of the dingers was dung by Andrew Brown. They hadn’t homered in an Opening Day win since Collin Cowgill’s difficult to discern grand slam in 2013. Having observed their tradition of abstaining, the Mets got around to going all the way Saturday. Travis d’Arnaud broke the longball seal in the fourth, taking Michael Wacha deep to left. Cespedes took Wacha deeper to left in the fifth. Rusty Staub, memorialized on well-meaning if sort of illegible sleeve patches , would approve.
Amid the offensive onslaught infecting almost everybody, Adrian Gonzalez is batting .429. He’ll probably keep that up, as long as we’re dreaming baseball games get won because we want them to. I love watching mileage-worn veterans show the stuff that carried them to the heights in their career. There’s a difference between players who weren’t much to begin with and players who get all they can get out of what little they likely have left. Gonzalez 2018 reminds me of Gary Sheffield 2009. I loved watching Gary Sheffield flex his twilight bat, even knowing that after a while there were going to be only so many hits emanating from said lumber.
I’m not looking to rush Adrian to the exit, but most of what I see when I look at him is a large man with a bad back who I’m kind of surprised to learn used to play professional baseball. I’m impressed he’s on an active roster. I’m impressed that he’s active in the older adult who takes walks in the woods now that his doctor has recommended this new bladder control prescription sense. I should talk; I’ve done nothing for two games but sit on the couch and form opinions. Gonzalez was thrown out going first to third on a Juan Lagares single in the sixth, which didn’t really hurt our sacred cause, and could be taken as evidence that Mickey Callaway is running a suitably aggressive ship. Things are so borderline giddy right now, I was convinced he was going to be safe.
Someday, somebody will be surprised to come across evidence that Adrian Gonzalez was a Met. Maybe it will be in the 2018 World Series highlight film. That would be sweet. More probable is some semi-obsessive will scroll through the list of Opening Day lineups and be jarred by the presence of “Gonzalez 1B” the same way I imagine those whose memories don’t retain all Met details are surprised to relearn that the Mets have begun seasons in this very decade by trotting out veterans from elsewhere like Willie Harris, Rod Barajas, Andres Torres, Alex Cora, Marlon Byrd and the Recidivist Met duo of Mike Jacobs and Gary Matthews, Jr. It’s names we don’t reflexively associate with our team — along with names we wouldn’t otherwise associate with any team, like the aforementioned Brown, Cowgill and immortal Brad Emaus — that make Opening Day concomitantly memorable and obscure.
You can look this stuff up fairly easily. Opening Day lineups are special because they’re the first of every year. The Mets print them in their media guide and Baseball-Reference kindly cordons off an entire page devoted to them. I spent some time with the latter on the off day Friday, even though Opening Day was already old news. I was curious about something.
I didn’t necessarily want to know who started for the Mets on every Opening Day. I wanted to know who never started for the Mets on an Opening Day. This isn’t about pitchers, a subject we mulled recently . This is about the rest of the lineup, the players who play positions, the avenues by which it becomes possible for the stray Emausesque oddities to roll briefly to the forefront of our early-season consciousness.
No disrespect intended to Brad Emaus, who has started in one more Mets Opening Day lineup than I ever will.
Thanks to Callaway’s swift deployment of the franchise’s newest entities (Gonzalez, Frazier, the already oblique-tweaked Swarzak), the all-time Mets count is up to 1,046. A little toggling of Baseball-Reference reveals 549 of those 1,046 Mets have been position players. And of those 549 Mets position players, 195 have started in an Mets Opening Day lineup at least once.
That total includes Ellis Valentine, who started only in the 1981 Second Season opener, which was the first game of a discrete slate, so I count it as its own Opening Day. It also includes Michael Conforto, who keeps missing starting seasons in the outfield but was the designated hitter on Opening Night in Kansas City in 2016. The designated hitter was and is a worse idea than the split season, but half of baseball insists on keeping it around, so I guess DH qualifies as a position.
For every generational mainstay along the lines of David Wright (third baseman every Opening Day from ’05 to ’16) or Bud Harrelson (the shortstop you could set the first box of your pocket schedule to, 1967 through 1977), there are oodles of Emauses. It just happens that way. Somebody is injured. Somebody becomes a father. A lefty is going. A hand is hot coming out of Spring Training. In some cases, talent is greatly misjudged, or the Mets wake up Opening Day morning and realize they came back from the store with only seven legitimate starters for eight positions. “Go figure — the one thing I meant to pick up was a second baseman, and I plum forgot to grab one. Hey, do you need an extra righthanded reliever? They were having a sale.”
Thus, Emaus or Cowgill or Brown. Or Anderson Hernandez when his glove loomed as large as all outdoors. Or Tim Spehr when Bobby V didn’t have Todd Hundley; thought Todd Pratt took too much for granted; and could only dream of Mike Piazza. Or Brett Butler four years after Brett Butler would have been a great idea. Or Tony Fernandez during a superstar’s interlude of being resolutely ordinary. Or Bill Pecota while briefly billed as the object of a city’s prospective affection. Or Keith Miller because it’s not like defense is something you need in center field. Or Barry Lyons and Mike Marshall because replacing Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez was apparently so easy anybody could do it.
In their moment, some of those fellows made a decent amount of sense. And had they been the starters in Game 23 or 37 or 115, their names wouldn’t be on a list. But the list for Opening Day starters exists. The list reminds us what the Mets were thinking, or at least lets us infer. The Mets decided seasons would be best started under the impression that Lucas Duda was a right fielder, that David Segui was a left fielder, that Howard Johnson was a center fielder, that Ryan Thompson was the Next Big Thing. That Mike Howard…
Well, Mike Howard started in right field in 1983, drove in the winning run and instantly vanished from the Mets’ plans. Darryl Strawberry was waiting in the Tidewater wings to start in right field for the next seven seasons. The Mets won the middle five of Straw’s Opening Day starts. As you know, the Mets win most of their Opening Days, no matter who plays where. They won Mike Howard’s Opening Day (also recalled as the Opening Day Tom Seaver returned). They won that Second Season Opening Day in 1981 with Ellis Valentine. They won the First Season Opening Day that same year, before they knew it was going to be “the First Season,” before they had Ellis Valentine. Two years before that, Joe Torre shoved future Gold Glove second baseman Doug Flynn to shortstop to make room for Kelvin Chapman. They won. One year, 1991, almost everybody lined up at the wrong position: a third baseman was at short, a left fielder in center, a second baseman played third and another infielder was in right. Worst of all, Darryl Strawberry was in a Dodgers uniform. The Mets won regardless.
There are exceptions, however. They didn’t win with Keith Miller in center. They didn’t win despite Andrew Brown’s power surge. They didn’t win the night Conforto DHed, probably because nobody wins when a Met DHes. And they didn’t win the night of Brad Emaus’s big break. You can have your Brad Emauses, but that’s just indicative that you can’t have everything.
I’m still going on about which Mets started on Opening Day. That’s not fair to those Mets who didn’t. There’s more of the latter than the former. If 195 Mets position players have been tabbed to trot out to their spots for the first game of a year, that means 354 haven’t. The haven’ts outweigh the haves, 64.48% to 35.52%.
They’re important, too. We relearned that on Saturday. Within the framework of 2018, Kevin Plawecki was the Opening Day catcher, Brandon Nimmo the Opening Day center fielder. Both acquitted themselves brilliantly. Plawecki is, six years after being drafted, kicking up his value several notches. Nimmo? Nimmo just keeps hitting and just keeps hustling. Someday Brandon Nimmo is gonna walk and be called out for passing the runner on first.
But come the second day of this season, neither was in Mickey Callaway’s starting lineup. D’Arnaud (Opening Day catcher, 2014-2016) was in for Plawecki; Juan Lagares (Opening Day center fielder, 2014-2016) in for Nimmo. The moves worked. Of course the moves worked. Callaway is a genius, we’re 2-0, everything’s groovy. D’Arnaud had that homer, Lagares a couple of hits, including the one Gonzalez couldn’t quite take third on, but, hey, look, there’s Juan landing at second and besides, do you really want Adrian’s body standing outside on a chilly spring day any longer than it has to? My back is hurting just from sympathy for his back.
You need everybody to win all 162 (or, to be a damp doily about it, compete). You need those who didn’t start for us this Opening Day, those who have never started for us on Opening Day, those who might never start on Opening Day for anybody. The only Mets bench players thus far who haven’t seen action in 2018 are Jose Reyes and Phillip Evans. Reyes has been a Mets Opening Day starter at short or third (!) every Opening Day that he’s been a Met and healthy. Evans is almost brand new. We saw him last September. He impressed Callaway in Florida. Not as much as Chapman impressed Torre, but sufficiently. Evans is here as long as there’s room for him and he can make himself useful. Part of his utility will come from conceivably catching should one too many double-switches befuddle Mickey and suddenly there’s no Plawecki or d’Arnaud.
Being the designated emergency catcher usually guarantees two things: 1) you’ll never catch; 2) you’ll rarely start at all. But it doesn’t bar you from being a Met who can make things happen. Things need to happen beyond first games and first lineups.
The Met who played the most games as a Met yet never started an Opening Day was Joe McEwing. He was an emergency catcher who never caught, but he played everywhere else. He was astoundingly competent and occasionally rocked Randy Johnson. Joe gave the Mets 502 games. The Mets gave Joe a seat on the bench every Opening Day. Somewhere in there McEwing contributed to a pennant.
Second-most games among Mets who never started on Opening Day: Matt Franco. Well, geez, now you’re talking about the ultimate Subway Series hero, he who came off the bench in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets down, 8-7, on July 10, 1999, and stroked a three-two cutter to right to bring home two runs and defeat Mariano Rivera. Matt played 452 games as a Met. None of them was an Opening Day start. None of them could have been as gratifying as that one game with that one at-bat.
The rest of the Top Ten is a blend of Super Joe types with nicknames to match (including Ready Teddy Martinez and Hot Rod Kanehl, though I just made up Martinez’s nickname) and part-timers whose timing was just a bit off. Danny Heep, for instance, is fifth, with 395 games. On paper, Heep, recently acquired from Houston for 1981 Second Season Opening Day starter Mike Scott, should have gotten the start over Howard in 1983, but the Phillies were starting not just a lefty, but Lefty — Steve Carlton. Danny was a lefty, too. Mike was a righty. George Bamberger gave him the nod before disappearing him altogether. By 1984, the Mets had Darryl Strawberry, and nobody worried much over who was pitching when making out the Opening Day lineup.
Beyond the Top Ten lie a couple of examples illustrating that Opening Day only begins a season’s personnel story. The Mets had this third baseman in the mid-80s who never got an Opening Day start for them. But did anybody close better than Ray Knight? Ray was acquired in August of ’84 and edged out for Opening Day honors by HoJo in ’85 and ’86, yet persevered pretty well for himself. He was last seen as a Met player belting the Game Seven home run that ultimately won the 1986 World Series and earned Ray the World Series MVP award. Not counting postseason (though why wouldn’t you want to in Knight’s case?), Ray played in 254 Mets games, none of them an Opening Day start.
Doesn’t seem to detract from his legend. Nor does having participated in 279 Mets games without an Opening Day start say anything definitive about the Mets career of Al Weis. Al started Game Five of the 1969 World Series and hit the home run that tied it at three. That was the game that ended the World Series in the Mets’ favor. Al batted .455 in the Series. I’d say he got over starting the season on the bench all right.
Endy Chavez played in 337 games as a Met, tenth-most among Mets who never started a Mets Opening Day. It didn’t stop him from making the most amazing catch a Met ever made. Alberto Castillo made only one Opening Day roster for the Mets, on March 31, 1998, exactly twenty years before d’Arnaud succeeded Plawecki to start this season’s second game. Castillo had to sit behind Spehr. Did he sulk? Did he wither? No, he drove in the winning run in the fourteenth inning, still the latest a Met has done anything on any Opening Day.
We look forward all winter to Opening Day. Then we look forward a day or two to the next game. Then they just keep coming, bless their hearts. Given the relentless nature of how baseball seasons operate, we’re gonna need every Met we got. We always do.