The ball struck by Carlos Delgado on an 0-2 pitch from Eric Gagne in the eighth kind of floated out to right-center. It wasn't one of those tracers that vanishes at a sharp angle suggesting it was hit by a 20-foot-tall man, as the Other Carlos's shot did off Kevin Gregg a couple of nights ago. No, this one drifted. And drifted. And kept on drifting, until Corey Hart surrendered and watched it settle into the seats: Mets 3, Brewers 2, just like that.
The Brewers' hitters are scary — but so's their bullpen, a blueprint we know all too well. This one looked like trouble early, with a triple bouncing off Daniel Murphy's glove, after which he fell down. That led to a 1-0 lead against Johan Santana, who then gathered himself in the second and was flawless until the sixth, when he somehow balked in a run. I was amazed. So, by the expression on his face, was Johan.
Part of that amazement had to be that the Mets seemed stuck in another offensive brownout, doing absolutely nothing against Ben Sheets. (David Wright looked particularly lost — it was painful watching him get eaten alive by Carlos Villanueva and Gagne.) But Sheets was betrayed, first by his groin and then by his relievers. Murphy continued to build his legend with a pair of cool, steely-eyed at-bats, singling off Villanueva on a full count to move Jose Reyes to third in the sixth, then taking Gagne to 3-2 before doubling to lead off the eighth. Carlos Beltran had himself a pretty good day, aside from taking out home-plate umpire Ed Rapuano, who kicked him in the knee. And Ryan Church rifled an opposite-field double for a key insurance run and a hopeful September sign.
With Santana excused after sixth, though, there was the small matter of our bullpen and its continuing misadventures — slapstick Johan has seen all too much of this year. But none of that was in evidence this time. First old friend Nelson Figueroa led the 10-strong corps of New Orleans recallees (is this an official holiday for Mets by the Numbers ?), pitching in with a scoreless inning that gave him a W. Then Pedro Feliciano crushed Prince Fielder (whom I'd like to see in a sumo ring with Robinson Cancel) with sliders, and then Joe Smith turned in what might have been his most impressive performance of the year, carving up Hart with sliders and then outguessing Mike Cameron, a sequence that ended with Cancel catching Smith's final fastball and pumping his fist, his weight shifting toward the dugout before Rapuano even punched Cameron out. And closer-for-the-moment Luis Ayala was spotless in wrapping up a very satisfying Labor Day victory .
But this was Delgado's game, as so many have been recently. Taking the field against the Yankees on June 27th, Delgado was hitting .229 with 11 HR and 35 RBI, and we all wanted Marlon Anderson or Xavier Nady or Mike Carp or Anybody Not Named Carlos Delgado to report to first base ASAP. Since then, Delgado has 20 home runs and 60 RBI. Forget good and great — that's otherworldly.
It would be easy to turn this into a moral that we shouldn't be so hasty in counting out a proud player with a history of impressive numbers — easy, but not terribly accurate. Because if the Carlos Delgado of June 26th wasn't done, he was sure offering an excellent imitation of a baseball player who was. We all could see it: His bat had slowed, he was naked before any pitch on the outer half of the plate, and his defense, while never terrific, had decayed to embarrassing levels. It was terrible to watch a fiercely intelligent man baffled by evidence that he'd gotten old a couple of years ahead of schedule — hardly a unique tragedy in baseball, but deeply sad nonetheless, and a huge blow to the Mets' chances in 2008.
What's happened since then? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe Delgado's workaday explanation is right, and it really did take all that time for him to make adjustments and eliminate some bad habits. Maybe he really did hate Willie Randolph that much, and Jerry Manuel's combination of pats on the back and challenges
(remember the dig about Delgado getting his uniform dirty?) helped him find a higher gear. Given our times, I'm surprised more-cynical hypotheses haven't made the rounds — I'll take it as testament to Delgado's sterling reputation that they haven't.
Whatever the answer is, the results have been extraordinary. Delgado has gone from a guy with about as much chance of playing for the 2009 Mets as I do to the presumptive starter and a $12 million bargain. Not so long ago, he was a black hole in the lineup. Now, he's the New York Met — not Reyes or Wright or Beltran — whose spot you pray will come back around. Because you know there's a real chance he'll rescue us yet again.