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Back With a Vargas

For the diehard Mets fan who pined away through 1,725 regular-season games awaiting the return of Jason Vargas [1] — and there’s bound to be one of you out there somewhere — congratulations. You got exactly what you were missing.

On July 3, 2007, Vargas started for the Mets at Coors Field and surrendered nine earned runs in three-and-a-third innings en route to an 11-3 Mets loss.

On April 28, 2018, Vargas started for the Mets at Petco Park and surrendered nine earned runs in three-and-two-thirds innings en route to a 12-2 Mets loss [2].

It’s like he never left.

Nobody coming off a good night ever gets the “to be fair” preamble the next day, but to be fair, it wasn’t as if Vargas Capistranoed back to us with a towering Met profile in his past. The intensely aware among us could tell you without looking it up that 24-year-old Jason started the oft-aired Mets Classic from May 17, 2007, the eminently watchable 6-5 ninth-inning comeback over the Cubs. Every iota of that matinee shocker is worthy of heavy basic cable rotation, including the seven innings in which Vargas gave up five runs on six hits to Chicago, two of them on a homer hit by former Mets minor leaguer and future Mets major leaguer Angel Pagan. The game doesn’t get Classic until the last half-inning, when the Mets storm from behind for five runs, destroying Ryan Dempster, Scott Eyre and Lou Piniella in rapid succession, but for the element of surprise to take resounding effect, somebody has to execute the mundane task of digging the hole from which others climb out. That was Vargas’s role.

For eleven years amid multiple airings, we’ve marveled at the offensive work put in by Mets transcendent and obscure. David Newhan led off the ninth with a single; Carlos Beltran and David Wright pinch-hit; Endy Chavez and Ruben Gotay carried home the respective tying and winning runs, each of them driven in by Carlos Delgado. Willie Randolph’s expertly selected hitters provided however many of us among the 42,667 who stayed to the end with an indelible memory [3], SNY with three dependable hours of repeat programming, Ambiorix Burgos with his only National League decision and Jason Vargas with the best start of his Met career.

The next one, 47 days later, was an abomination [4] that even the intensely aware among us, save for those with a Vargas fetish, couldn’t have recalled without looking it up. Jason got lit up in Colorado, sent down to New Orleans and eventually traded to Seattle. Then Vargas went about his American League business, much of it competent, a slice of it stellar. We played 1,725 games sans Jason Vargas. Except for the eleven in which Claudio Vargas pitched for us in 2008, our existence could be described as benignly Vargasless.

Then came the most recent offseason, the signing of now grizzled 35-year-old veteran starter Jason Vargas [5] and the aura of stability he figured to bring. Jason Vargas was as much a reaction to 2017 as he was a plan for 2018. You might remember 2017 from such starting pitchers as “Adam What?,” “Tyler Who?,” and “Not Tommy Milone Again!” Sure would have been nice to have had a guy who would go out there every fifth day sans drama, take the ball and pile up the innings.

Sure would. Given a second start in 2018, that has a chance to be Vargas’s role still. Despite none of his three Met starts being the kind you’d leave a candle in the window eleven years for, we can cut him some slack for this most recent one. Like nearly every Mets pitcher extant, he’s coming off some kind of injury. Unlike the rest of them, his didn’t involve a body part essential to his throwing. He took a liner off his right hand in Spring Training, the one he keeps in his glove. Supposedly it has nothing to do with his ability to throw lefty. But let’s give him the benefit of the doubt that pitching against major leaguers for the first time this year — and having little runway in the way of competitive rehab starts — might have had an impact. Perhaps once he gets comfortable, Jason’s soft stuff will regain its effectiveness for something other than Western Division batting practice.

Never mind Vargas not being any more vibrant in 2018 thus far than he was for the extent of his 2007 visit. For those of us who keep track of such things, Jason Vargas just being a Met again is a trivia bonanza. I’ve already slipped in the bit about 1,725 games between Met appearances (1,740, counting the fifteen postseason games the Mets played without him in 2015 and 2016). That’s the fourth-longest Metless gap for a Recidivist Met, trailing only Jason Isringhausen (1,848/1,882), Bob L. Miller (1,776/1,784) and Kelly Stinnett (1,760/1,784). Izzy’s first and Miller’s and Stinnett’s second stints included years when the Mets went to the playoffs. Let’s hope Vargas, signed through 2019, brings that kind of luck. He didn’t in 2007.

Of the 45 Recidivist Mets to date, fifteen have been pitchers. Ten of them started at least one game during their first go-rounds as Mets. Three of them came back exclusively in relief: Izzy, Miller and Ray Sadecki. Seven started as Mets both Before and After, though three of them — Frank Lary [6]Al Jackson [7] and Jon Niese [8] — made their Recidivist debuts as relievers. Bill Pulsipher [9] returned as a starter in 2000 after having made his final Mets 1.0 appearance as a reliever in 1998.

Thus, Jason Vargas joins an extremely exclusive club. Only three Mets pitchers started to end their first Mets tenure and started to begin their second Mets tenure. Vargas is the third. The first two were Tom Seaver [10] and David Cone [11].

Seaver. Cone. Vargas. What a strange stratum of exclusivity; good thing we’re not insisting on a 19-strikeout game for membership.

Seaver’s return couldn’t have been any more triumphant: April 5, 1983, Opening Day, a packed Shea Stadium rubbing Tom’s 859-game absence out of its eyes. No Met was ever greater than Tom Seaver, so it follows that no Met’s return was ever grander [12]. Tom — on the mound in orange and blue for the first time since June 12, 1977 — went six innings and allowed no runs to the Phillies. He didn’t get the decision in the Mets’ 2-0 victory, but he didn’t have to. He was back. He could have pitched like Jason Vargas and it would have felt like a win. Of course Tom Seaver pitched like Tom Seaver.

David Cone’s homecoming on April 4, 2003, wasn’t quite so celebrated, but it was statistically every bit as effective. Coney, gone for 1,596 regular-season games (plus 24 postseason contests, one of which, in the 2000 World Series, cast him as a combatant in the wrong uniform), was coming back from more than not being a Met for more than a decade. David had taken off an entire season from pitching in 2002. He was retired until prospective teammates John Franco and Al Leiter convinced him otherwise. The 2003 Mets were as desperate for a veteran arm as the 2017 Mets would prove to be and David certainly possessed one of those. Cone was never exactly drama-free [13], but by the time he returned to Shea as a Met, the man was 41 (three years older than 41 was in ’83). The only back page attention the quadragenerian Cone was likely to attract would be for pitching.

He certainly earned every headline he got the morning following his first Met start since August 23, 1992: five innings of shutout ball, accented by his bases-loaded strikeout of Vladimir Guerrero to escape the fourth. Shea wasn’t nearly as full for David that frosty Friday night as it had been the day the sun shone on Tom, but the feeling was every bit as warm. Our ace who never should have been traded was back where he belonged.

The downside to even the happiest returns is these second times around for starting pitchers don’t have the lengthiest of shelf lives. Time will do that when we’re talking about pitchers who’ve already had substantial careers. Cone really didn’t have much left after that initial outing against the Expos. David started three more games, came out of the pen once and was done by May. Seaver gave the Mets a full season of professional pitching in 1983 — 34 starts — before the general manager outsmarted himself and allowed Tom to be plucked off the roster by the White Sox via a process that existed only long enough to rip apart Mets fans’ fragile hearts [14].

Lary, the very first Recidivist Met, started all of seven games for the 1965 Mets before he was traded to the Pale Hose. Jackson, the second Met to return, spot-started nine for us in 1968, worked out of the pen only in 1969 and was sold to Cincy in June, thereby missing out on the season’s miracle finish. Pulse got two shots at recapturing past fleeting glories (neither of them successful) before being let go again in 2000, traded to Arizona for fellow Recidivist Met Lenny Harris four months ahead of the franchise’s fourth pennant. Niese had two starts in 2016, the second of them encompassing an injury that snuffed out the last active ember of our relationship with him. Though Jon has signed a couple of minor league deals since, his departure from the mound as a Met on August 23, 2016 [15], stands until further notice as his final major league start and appearance. As with Jackson and Pulsipher, the deletion of Niese coincided with a surge that landed the Mets in the postseason.

Vargas’s return to Met action made it 59 starts in all for former Met pitchers who became Met pitchers again. To paraphrase Al Jackson’s and Frank Lary’s manager Casey Stengel, if Jason doesn’t get hit in the hand in the next five days, he has a helluva chance to make it 60.