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It Takes a Bullpen of Millions to Hold Braves Back

It's fairly standard procedure for Jerry Manuel to go through as many as a half-dozen pitchers to cover one regulation game. It's a union rule, I think. Thus, I suppose it doesn't necessarily matter if he wants to spread members of his eight-man bullpen out per usual, like with a starter pushing himself overboard by the fifth, à la Big Goofy Pelf Friday night, or have them pop out of the Volkswagen Beetle Bozo-style one after another as he did in the eighth Saturday.

Actually, it works better when the starter provides seven innings of stellar work in the fashion of a Johan Santana. It likely means things are looking good for the Mets or, considering it's the Mets we're talking about, not so bad. It was indeed not so bad going to the eighth after Johan continued his Santanalicious pitching of recent outings. The Braves didn't appear any stronger offensively than we did the night before (when we were yet again [1] two-hit [2], though for what it was worth, we could have been no-hit — honestly, would have you noticed a difference?). Problem was the Mets of Saturday hit like the Mets of Friday who have been hitting without connecting in any particularly meaningful manner for the past 38 games.

Just get Johan a couple of runs, we've been pleading approximately every fifth day since March 31, 2008. This time the Mets took us literally. They got him a couple of runs in the sixth via five baserunners, two basehits and one baseball that reached the outfield. We don't ask the runs be scored in a forceful nature. We just want the numbers. And we — Johan — got 'em.

When a starting pitcher comes to the plate, we suggest he “help his own cause.” Johan must always help his own cause, no matter where he stands on the diamond, because nobody else is going to do it for him. When it came to the bottom of the seventh, that immense 2-0 lead in his pocket, the only man who could help the cause of Johan Santana was Johan Santana. His cause was getting out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam. That it was Johan's own jam didn't matter. The key was leaving it to The Man, not to the pen. Jerry Manuel's smartest move in ages (smarter than his deciding to skip those manager-optional media-interaction training sessions [3]) was letting Santana find his own way out. And he did. Struck out McLouth, got Prado to ground weakly to Wright at third. Wright picked it up and stepped on the bag, which was fine. I would have preferred Johan had done it as I'd prefer Johan do everything on this team, but even The Man can only do so much.

One-hundred fifteen pitches in the books — 75 of them strikes — meant Johan couldn't help anybody's cause going to the bottom of the eighth. I'm not certain why not, considering he was going on six days' rest and Tony La Russa didn't make him do anything more strenuous in St. Louis than tip his cap, but in the 21st century, you don't ask an ace of a floundering team to go more than 115 pitches unless the season is on the line (which is where this season dangles every single game until it inevitably plops to the ground). Alas, it was July 18 now, not September 27 then [4]; therefore, Santana's done and it's up to the bullpen to accumulate three little Brave outs in the eighth. Just get those three outs without surrendering two runs. Just get it to Frankie Rodriguez.

Easy to say. Less so to do.

• Feliciano comes in and Chipper homers as Chipper will. The margin of error has been reduced to one run.

• Feliciano stays in and gives up a single to McCann.

• Green comes in and Santos throws out the pinch-runner for McCann at second in what all — even those unlistenable, irrepressible, weather-vane schmucks Thom Brennaman and Eric Karros Fox hires to ruin its Game of the Week telecasts — agree was the result of a missed sign. One out.

• Green walks Escobar.

• Green, still in, gets Diaz for the second out.

• Misch comes in and, after the schmucks make much of Misch not allowing any of his first batters to reach since joining the Mets, allows his first batter, Kotchman, to reach via single.

• Misch stays in and walks good ol' Ryan Church on four pitches.

The runners are three. The outs are two. The lead is one.

Stokes comes in. Fourth pitcher of the inning. It's taken three pitchers to collect two outs, a twist on the defunct NBA “three to make two” free throw rule. It's both amazing and completely predictable it would come to a fourth pitcher after two-thirds of an inning. Of course the shutting out that Johan did is fading fast. Of course the bases are loaded and it's so close to a tie or probably a deficit that we can taste it. We can taste a tie or a loss. It tastes like lima beans.

Oh, look, it's Greg Norton coming in. My spine has been replaced by a shiver.

Greg Norton hit perhaps the most instantly obscure death blow [5] home run in Mets history last September. In its time, approximately 4:00 PM last September 14, Norton's ninth-inning, pinch-hit, three-run blast off rent-a-closer Luis Ayala blared the trumpet that for a second consecutive denouement, The collapse is coming! The collapse is coming! The Mets entered that Sunday afternoon in first place, two games ahead of the Phillies. Ayala had been getting the job done [6]…as had Stokes. So much would transpire between September 14 and September 28 [7], with so many Met relievers blowing up innings left and right, it's easy to forget the Norton bomb helped detonate 2008 every bit as much as the Pendletons and Scioscias of yore [8] did damage to their seasons. Plot points can be similar, but narratives tend to vary.

We don't have Luis Ayala anymore. But we do have Brian Stokes. And September's crush has clearly come early this year. Our viability has vanished [9] and our plausibility is mostly pretend. But if Brian Stokes lets Norton address the ball as he did at Shea ten months earlier…after Johan has bequeathed the bullpen a shutout…after the two-hitter the night before…after every hollow bat and fallen star and thundering blunder in 2009…well, if Stokes can't get Norton out, the season is truly and completely over save for 72 games' worth of dog days.

A ball.

A foul.

A ball.

Another ball.

It's three-and-one on Greg Norton. The run that's scored was off Feliciano. The man on third was put there by Green. First and second are filled by way of Misch. Now Stokes will make it a true team effort by walking in the tying run. Or, probably, worse. The camera picks up Buffalo Bison oughta-be Bobby Parnell preparing to mop up this mess in the pen. Jerry Manuel is about to call on his fifth reliever of the eighth inning, none of whom can be legitimately considered his eighth-inning man, none of whom is his closer. Frankie, apparently, must not be unwrapped until Christmas.

But Norton, hitting a cool .116 despite whatever residual haunting he has going for him, swings through strike two. Then he does the same through strike three.

Inning over. The Braves don't tie the score.

Holy smokes! Something went not wrong!

Then the Mets go out and mysteriously add three runs to their side of the ledger. It's accomplished so oddly — it involves both a successful suicide squeeze and Alex Cora not making an automatic out — that maybe it should be included in the next book of sports conspiracy theories [10]. Nothing theoretical about these additional tallies, however: they're real and they're spectacular, or at least as spectacular as 2009 is capable of getting. The Mets have tacked on enough runs to make this, irony of irony, a non-save ninth. Frankie does us the courtesy of pitching it anyway, and the Mets win 5-1 [11]. Rain in South Florida ensures we'll end the night having picked up a whole half-game on Philadelphia. We're eight out of first, six from the Wild Card. We still have virtually no chance at either, mind you, but it doesn't cost anything but a few shreds of sanity to keep track.

Last year it was a bumbling bullpen (plus Daniel Murphy left standing at third with nobody out in the bottom of the ninth of a tie game in the unlikely event you've let it go [12]) that essentially ended everything. This year the bullpen's easy to overlook as a root cause of systemic failure because it hasn't been the prime culprit too terribly often. But geez, Feliciano to Green to Misch to Stokes to almost Parnell just to escape one inning with a one-run lead…as the Beatle not it don't come easy [13].

And — as somebody else kind of big might have added — that's the way it is [14].

The first of three AMAZIN' TUESDAYS is coming to Two Boots Tavern July 21. It will be a Mets night devoted to reading, rooting and Randy Tate. Get all the details here [15]. And get your copy of Faith and Fear in Flushing: An Intense Personal History of the New York Mets from Amazon [16], Barnes & Noble [17] or a bookstore near you. Keep in touch and join the discussion on Facebook [18].