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Butterflies Are Free

The Mets have lost on Opening Day three times in this decade: 2011, 2014 and 2016. None of those defeats was pleasant in the moment, but with hindsight we should appreciate that they unfolded as they did. Having proof that Mets can lose on Opening Day keeps us honest. Without the occasional Opening Day setback, we’d just assume in advance that every first game of every season is in the bag.

And what fun would that be?

No Mets fan is unaware of our Opening Day mastery in broad strokes. Today, more than any day, most of us are probably able to recite the boldest stroke since it’s disseminated so widely — we are 38-12 since 1970 (39-12, if you include the second-season Opener of 1981). That’s a half-century of being welcomed with open arms, three out of every four years across fifty years when you’ve looked forward all winter to something that didn’t let you down. You can almost count on the Mets winning their Opener.

Almost. Not absolutely. Almost is philosophically better for the soul. Absolutely sounds appealing, but you wouldn’t really know you were watching your first Mets game in six months if you could absolutely count on winning. If I absolutely counted on the Mets beating the Nationals in Washington on Thursday, then I wouldn’t have been at all nervous about this first game of 2019. If you’re not nervous watching the Mets, you might not know you’re alive.

And let me tell ya, I was nervous. I was nervous that Jacob deGrom [1] would have too much swirling about his head, given the pressure of his contract extension (nice problem to have), the impossibility of living up to 2018’s unmatchable individual success and the general sensory shock surrounding Opening Day. Not that deGrom can’t deal with any and all distractions, but it’s a lot to ask of even the best pitcher in baseball that he make certain every last thing goes right.

For a little while, everything wasn’t going right, which explained the butterflies that were spending the afternoon in my abdomen and how they flapped their blasted wings. Jake put runners on. His catcher, Wilson Ramos, didn’t throw them out when they ran. I was missing Devin Mesoraco, at least in theory. “Ohmigod, they’re not clicking. This is terrible. They took Jacob’s catcher away and now we’re seeing the foolhardiness of it all. Ramos better hit .350 because our pitching staff is going down the drain with him behind the plate.”

Max Scherzer seemed unlikely to yield anything. He’s been incredibly unyielding against the Mets. Why would today, even if it’s Opening Day, be any different? “Alonso is overmatched. Everybody is overmatched.” Plus I assumed their top gun wanted to show the world beyond San Diego iconoclast John Maffei [2] that he was every bit as worthy of last season’s Cy Young as Jake was. Max was indeed very, very good, giving up only one hit to the first thirteen batters he faced. That the one hit was the solo home run produced by ol’ No. 24 himself, Robinson Cano [3], and that we led, 1-0, as a result, didn’t calm me down. “IT’S A SETUP!” I heard myself think loudly. Sure, Cano homered. So what? Bobby Bonilla homered twice on Opening Night in St. Louis in his first game as a Met in 1992, and look how that high-profile acquisition and the ensuing season unraveled. Scherzer was striking out almost everybody, including Michael Conforto twice, though he had to more or less slip a twenty to home plate ump Bill Miller to get those calls.

“Miller is against us. Everybody is against us. Jesus, what an awful start to the season. We are winning with our ace on the mound, who is unscored upon, yet I’m not fooled by this charade. Don’t you realize we’ve lost TWELVE OPENING DAY GAMES SINCE 1970?!?!?”

I’d say my Met anxieties were in midseason form, except I don’t think my Met anxieties need a ramp-up period. Yeah, Scherzer kept being Scherzer, but that deGrom gentleman, a little off in his command, plowed ahead at slightly less than his best. Slightly less than his best deGrom would have finished fourth in the Cy Young voting last season, by the way. Slightly less than his best deGrom pitched the Mets into the NLCS in 2015. Slightly less than his best deGrom battles so determinedly that had he been around in 2003, we would have simply nodded along when Art Howe said, “We battled.”

Jake battled. So did Cano, not only with that homer and later a beauteous opposite-field RBI single, but from his post at second base where the dude apparently knows what he’s doing. Half of my butterflies fluttered away in the bottom of the third as Cano, Jeff McNeil and Ramos engineered a 5-4-2-5 double play to ease Jake out of trouble. With one out, Adam Eaton on first and Victor Robles on third, McNeil made a fine stop of Anthony Rendon’s hot grounder to the left side and threw to second to nab Eaton. Robles? He could have dashed home on the ground ball but didn’t. Good thing for us, because Cano saw Robles tried to overcompensate by taking off to score as the forceout was being completed. Robbie (my first sign of getting used to a new Met is referring to him by first name) fired home to Ramos. Robles was so cooked they had to scrape the grill marks off him. Wilson and Jeff got the kid in a rundown, and though Robles nearly outsprinted McNeil, a tag was made and disaster was averted.

Disaster? On Opening Day? Technically, a 1-1 third-inning tie was averted, but who needed to find out if floodgates were penetrable? DeGrom (6 IP, 5 H, 1 BB, 10 SO, 0 R) rounded into form, gave no ground to Scherzer (7.2 IP, 2 H, 3 BB, 12 SO but two earned runs) and pitched like it was 2018, which is to say like the Mets weren’t going to score more than a run on his behalf. He left after throwing 93 pitches. His bullpen — Lugo, Familia and Diaz — did not abandon him. The run Jake got and the bonus run the pen received held up in tandem to forge a 2-0 triumph [4]. A fella whose ERA reads 0.00 also sports a won-lost record that registers as 1-0.

I know we swore off pitcher wins and losses in deGrommian solidarity in 2018, but if somebody was gonna get credited with a W, of course Jake was our first choice. Second would have been any other Met. It wasn’t inevitable, just because we’re packing that 38-12 since 1970 mark, that the universe of potential Opening Day winners would include only Mets. It could have been a National.

But, again, what fun would that be?