- Faith and Fear in Flushing - http://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

Here’s to the Winners Who Wait

Out of view of the practiced mayhem unfolding at first base — a back-pounding, seed-showering, powder-pouring, jersey-excising exercise in joviality befitting an eleventh-inning walkoff walk that capped a five-run comeback and staved off postseason eligibility elimination for one more day — there was another, more muted celebration at Citi Field Tuesday night. The cameras didn’t pick any of it up, but my sources tell me it happened.

A handshake line formed in a fairly bare room deep inside the Met clubhouse, where media isn’t permitted and most of the players rarely enter. Zack Wheeler [1], who didn’t participate in the Mets’ 5-4 victory over the Marlins [2], was ushered within its cramped confines by Jay Horwitz, who diligently handles alumni affairs for the ballclub. It had already been a big day for Horwitz, what with the announcement that Jerry Koosman’s number is going to be retired [3] next year, but he had another event to take care of postgame.

Jay had arranged the handshake line for Zack and Zack alone. One after another, a string of retired pitchers who used to pitch for the Mets waited to congratulate Wheeler. Zack didn’t want to seem rude and admit he was familiar with no more than a few of them by face or name. He also wasn’t sure why he was the only Met brought into this room. It’s not like he had anything to do with tonight’s win over the Marlins.

Still, he politely accepted their grips, their grins and their greetings.

“Hi Zack, I’m Jay Hook. Got the first win for us. Betcha didn’t know that. Way to go, kid.”

“Mike Scott, Zack. Excuse the sandpaper between my fingers. I still carry it around for some reason. Nasty habit I picked up in Houston after I left here.”

“Please to meet you, Zack. I’m Galen Cisco. I used to work over where that parking lot is now. Congrats.”

“Zack, I’m Roger Craig. I threw the very first pitch for the ballclub and lived to tell about it.”

“Maybe you remember me, Zack. My name is Bret Saberhagen. I won a couple of Cy Youngs. Not here, but like I was telling Jay, they all count.”

“Pete Falcone, Zack. Lefty, but I’ll shake righty with you. Good goin’, pal.”

“Hey Zack, I’m R.A. Dickey. How fortuitous that our respective paths converge this splendid evening.”

“Good to see ya, Zack. We sort of have the same name. My last name is Zachry. First name is Pat, though.”

“Hello, Zack. I’m Jack Fisher. I threw a ton of innings in these parts. You have, too, I suppose. Nice job.”

When each of the nine men was done wishing Wheeler well, they formed a circle around the slightly befuddled pitcher and broke into applause. Then they departed the room via an unmarked side exit, leaving Wheeler and Horwitz alone.

“Say, Jay…” Zack hesitantly asked the former PR director.

“Yes, Zack?”

“Um, at the risk of sounding clueless, what was all that about? What was R.A. Dickey [4] doing here? And all those older gentlemen?”

“Oh, right, I never told you. I can be forgetful sometimes.”

“Told me what, Jay?”

“Well, you know how you’ve been on the Mets since 2013?”

“Uh-huh.”

“And all that time, the Mets had never had a winning record in the seasons when you pitched [5] — and how the only times we did have a winning record, you were out with injuries?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, you and those guys were the only living Mets pitchers who had started fifty or more games for Mets teams that had never finished with a winning record. Some of them, like Roger and Jay, go back to the very beginning. Galen and Jack came along a little later. R.A. was only a few years ago. Maybe more than a few by now. Time really flies. Pat and Pete were here in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when I first got here. Mike, too, come to think of it, though not a lot of people remember him trying to help the Mets. Oh, and Bret was here in the ’90s. He’s not making up the part about Cy Youngs, but like he said, he got those for somebody else. Anyway, I thought it would be nice for you to meet them now that you’re no longer in their club.”

Zack admitted he didn’t realize he was in a club with any of them, but as Jay explained it, he got the picture. The Mets had just captured their 82nd win of 2019 on Brandon Nimmo’s bases-loaded base on balls, ensuring a winning record for the season. Zack was, of course, part of the 2019 Mets, a statistically winning ballclub, the first he’d ever been fully a part of since coming to the big leagues six years before. He didn’t think about it much these days, what with being busy trying to keep pace with the Brewers and whoever else the Mets were chasing into the last week of September. It bothered him not to pitch for the Met playoff teams of 2015 and 2016, but he focused on getting healthy again and doing as best he could when he came back.

On this night, Zack was only concentrating on the Mets trying to catch the Marlins, who had taken a 4-0 lead amid Noah Syndergaard’s latest confounding outing. Wheeler and his teammates had faith in one another and that neither this game nor this season was quite over yet, even as they were losing, the Nationals were clinching one Wild Card and the Brewers were relentlessly closing in on the other. Sure enough, the bullpen proved uncommonly solid in shutting down Miami and Michael Conforto came through with a pair of two-run homers to push Tuesday into a tenth inning. Eventually winning this game seemed inevitable.

Zack couldn’t say the same about the trajectory of his career and how it intersected with the fate of his team. Had he never been traded from the Giants, he might have pitched in the 2014 World Series for them. Had the Mets traded him on any number of the occasions it was rumored he was going somewhere, he might have playoff experience already or at least a reservation to get some next month. Instead, he stayed a Met, put his head down and kept working to get back on the mound and then get the Mets back on course.

Spurt of second-half excitement notwithstanding, the 2019 season didn’t necessarily follow the course Wheeler or any of the Mets would have preferred. A winning record is swell unto itself, but there clearly weren’t enough wins to guarantee the season going into October. The chances the scaldingly hot Brewers were about to embark on a five-game losing streak (never mind the odds against the Mets concurrently going undefeated the rest of the way) seemed remote. These Mets likely wouldn’t be a playoff team, and that was too bad, but they knew they had been a winning team, and that wasn’t too bad.

For the first time, Zack Wheeler felt it. He got it. He pitched for a winner. It was good to know.

“Thanks Jay. I really appreciate this. Thank all those guys for me. That was real nice of them.”

“Sure thing, Zack.”

The two were about to leave the room, when a dazed Paul Sewald [6] wandered in. He’d never seen this room before, but there were lots of things the third-year Met had never seen. After having been the losing pitcher fourteen times but never the opposite, not even once, since the Mets first promoted him in 2017, Paul was enjoying a new sensation of his own. By pitching a scoreless top of the eleventh, Sewald was in line to be the winning pitcher should the Mets score. Once Nimmo drew the bases-loaded walk that brought Amed Rosario home from third, Paul got the win.

“Guys! Guys!” Sewald asked Wheeler and Horwitz excitedly. “Did ya see? I’m a winning pitcher — a winning pitcher at last. I’m one and fourteen, but I got one! I finally got one!”

The starter and the alumni affairs chief smiled and nodded, telling the heretofore hapless reliever how happy they were for him.

“I was beginning to think this would never happen,” Paul confided. “But it has. Finally. Hey, Zack, I can’t tell you how great it feels to be a winner for the first time.”

“I hear ya, Paul. It’s not bad at all.”