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Endangered Species: The Dual Complete Game

Friday night was an extraordinary pitchers’ duel [1]. The only thing that would have made it perfect would have been a better result, both in terms of reversing the identities of the winning and losing teams and if Johan Santana had, like Yovani Gallardo, pitched all nine innings in the process.

This is not a rant about Jerry Manuel using rusty Ryota in a game-determining spot (though I question bringing him in when he did). This is a lamentation that we just don’t see sublime duels come to their logical conclusion anymore — we don’t see dual complete games anymore.

1969 has been referenced a good deal of late thanks to the precedent it provided for the already iconic [2] Goose Egg Sweep. Well, there were no dual complete games as the Mets took it to the Phillies thrice late that September, but ’69 was a very good year for dual complete games between a Met starter and his opposite number. Like Brooke Shields and her Calvins [3] circa 1981, nothing got between those pitchers and their decisions on eight separate occasions. No relievers, certainly.

In April alone, the Mets played three games in which our guy went the distance and their guy went the distance. Not surprisingly, our guy was Tom Seaver in two of those dual complete games. Tom Terrific outpitched (if not outlasted) Bob Gibson of the Cardinals on April 19 and Mike Wegener of the Expos on April 30, winning both times by 2-1 scores. Tom would beat Woodie Fryman of the Phils by the same score under the same mutually complete circumstances on June 24.

Gil Hodges wasn’t shy about trusting his starters in 1969, even as he cultivated a clutch bullpen led by Ron Taylor from the right side and Tug McGraw from the left. The Mets posted 51 complete games. Sometimes they were complete game losses. On three occasions, they were countered by complete game wins.

• Dave Giusti, later a Pirate closer but then a Cardinal starter, outdueled former Pirate Don Cardwell, 1-0, at Shea on April 12.

• As Neil Armstrong prepared to take one small step on the moon on July 20, Gary Waslewski and Gary Gentry weren’t going anywhere in Montreal. They each pitched complete games in the first game of a twinbill at Jarry Park, their Gary besting our Gary, 3-2.

• Reds manager Dave Bristol did not see the merit in removing Jim Merritt on August 6 at Crosley Field, and his faith was rewarded as Merritt bested Jim McAndrew in a complete game battle, 3-2.

Two of the most famous games of 1969 — two of the most famous Mets games in franchise history, really — were dual CGs that were put in the books as truly glorious triumphs of the human spirit. On July 8, Leo Durocher stuck with Ferguson Jenkins even as Don Young’s inability to track two fly balls in center [4] extended Fergie’s ninth inning. Eventually, Ed Kranepool made Jenkins pay with what we would now call a walkoff RBI single. By capping that three-run ninth, Kranepool transformed Jerry Koosman (9 IP) from hard-luck loser to most deserving winner.

It would be Kooz at the center of the action two months hence, September 8, when he and Bill Hands exchanged knockdown pitches early — Hands trying to intimidate Tommie Agee, Koosman retaliating against Ron Santo — but with neither ever knocked out of the game. The decisive and instantly legendary play was at the plate, Agee (who had gone deep in the third) sliding home under Randy Hundley’s too-late tag on a Wayne Garrett single, putting the Mets up 3-2 in the sixth. From there, it was all starting pitching, particularly New York’s. Jerry Koosman struck out 13 en route to preserving that 3-2 lead and cutting the Cubs’ incredible shrinking first-place margin to a game-and-a-half.

Relief pitchers existed in 1969 in form if not quite in the substance and numbers we are used to nowadays. But they were an important part of the game already — closers may have been called firemen but the saves rule was officially instituted that year. Relievers were becoming widely accepted as assets and bullpens weren’t regarded as simply a repository for failed starters. In a bit of foreshadowing as to how the sport would evolve, Cincinnati reliever Wayne Granger led the National League with 90 appearances, two more than allegedly perpetual Pedro Feliciano posted forty years later in leading the Senior Circuit. Of course there was a difference in usage. Pedro’s 88 games encompassed 59.1 specialized innings; Granger’s 90 games encompassed 144.2 innings — and 27 saves, tied for second in the N.L. behind Fred Gladding of the Astros, who registered 29.

In 2009, ex-Met Heath Bell led the National League with 42 saves, accumulated across 69.2 innings. For comparison’s sake, the only member of the ten-man Met pitching staff that Gil Hodges took to the postseason who threw fewer innings than the Padres’ Bell was Jack DiLauro, clearly the tenth man on that staff. DiLauro pitched 63.2 innings in 1969, starting four times and relieving nineteen.

In 1969, National League starters averaged 6.5 innings per game, meaning you were unlikely to see a relief pitcher until the seventh on any given night. The Mets’ starters averaged 6.8 innings. Tom Seaver averaged 7.8, Jerry Koosman 7.5. Forty years later, the league average per start was 5.8 innings, the Mets’ (in, granted, a lousy Met year) was 5.7.

The bullpens are deeper these days. Jerry Manuel generally has seven relievers at his disposal (some would say overdisposal) to go with his five-man rotation. Hodges took ten pitchers to the postseason and never found cause to use three of them: DiLauro, McAndrew or Cal Koonce. Davey Johnson dressed only nine pitchers in October of ’86 when 24-man rosters were the fashion. Current bullpen coach Randy Niemann was just along for the ride, while Doug Sisk made only a pair of ninth-inning cameos in relatively hopeless situations.

These days — and by these days, I mean for a very long time now — bullpens are deployed and depleted on a regular basis. In the last postseason series the Mets won, their sweep of the Dodgers in the 2006 NLDS, only one starter, T#m Gl@v!ne, qualified for a win. Gl@v!ne lasted six solid innings in Game Two before Willie Randolph opted for a pinch-hitter amid a Met rally. John Maine didn’t make it out of the fifth in Game One; Steve Trachsel didn’t get out of the fourth in Game Three. Feliciano, Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner were used in all three games, while Chad Bradford and Guillermo Mota were used in two and Darren Oliver pitched once. It worked, so nobody complained.

That’s the thing. Today’s reliance on relievers works. Or it seems to. Almost nobody gives the alternative, letting starters go as long as they can when they’re going well, much of a chance. Over in the DH league, Texas Rangers president Nolan Ryan — who came through as Hodges’ long man in the deciding game of the ’69 NLCS and recorded a 2.1-inning save in Game Three of the World Series — has been recognized recently for attempting to shatter the pitch count glass ceiling [5] and put an end to “robot baseball”. His pitchers are going longer and the Rangers are clinging to first place in the A.L. West. Maybe what he and his pitching coach, ex-Met Mike Maddux, are doing in Texas will work, and we’ll see more pitches from starters and fewer pitchers coming to their rescue.

Maybe we’ll see more games like Friday night’s in Milwaukee that was, for 8½ innings a true throwback to the days of Seaver vs. Gibson, Koosman vs. Jenkins, even Waslewski vs. Gentry. If it wasn’t a standard sight to see complete games exchanged in 1969, it wasn’t all that uncommon. It happened to the Mets roughly every twenty contests.

You know how often it’s happened to the Mets in the past fifteen years? As far as I can divine (with the help of Baseball-Reference [6] and a hopefully keen eye on my part), four times.

Four times in fifteen years has a Met starter and the opponents’ starter gone to the mound and stayed there for the duration, not counting rain-shortened affairs. Just four times have the Mets’ manager and the other team’s manager resisted the temptation to pick up that phone and make that call to the bullpen. Just four times have the managers maintained confidence in their starters to go all the way. Just four times has the adage “dance with them what brung you” been adhered to in both dugouts.

Twice we as Mets fans were rewarded with wins. All four times we were enriched by drama. I guess I’d prefer wins by any means necessary, but I do love complete games. I even love the other team’s starter getting a complete game…as long as it’s a complete game loss.

Here are capsule recollections of the last four confirmed sightings of what is a sadly vanishing breed in the Met nature preserve, the dual complete game.

May 3, 1996. Paul Wilson carried a two-hitter into the bottom of the ninth at Wrigley Field, leading Jaime Navarro and the Cubs 2-1. Wilson had been hailed as the second coming of Tom Seaver from the instant he was drafted No. 1 in the nation in 1994 and now we were seeing why. Scott Bullett, pinch-hitting for Navarro (9 K’s, 1 ER in 9 IP), led off the home ninth with a single. As Brian McRae went down for Wilson’s ninth strikeout, a speeding Bullett took off for second…safely. Paul stayed focused on the next batter, Ryne Sandberg, getting him to swing past a 3-2 pitch for his tenth strikeout of the afternoon. Dallas Green ordered Mark Grace, who had driven in the only Chicago run, intentionally walked. It was Wilson, not John Franco, who would face Sammy Sosa in an attempt to close it out. Alas, it was Sosa who ended things on the first pitch, which was last seen flying somewhere over Waveland Avenue. Final: Cubs 4 Mets 2. I wanted to throw a fit but I was at work and had just thrown an unrelated fit literally minutes earlier, so I, like Paul Wilson, simply had to suck up the complete game loss and go about the rest of my career not fulfilling lofty expectations.

June 23, 1997. The story of this game has its roots in the game of the day before. Bobby Valentine was shy a starter on June 22 (Armando Reynoso couldn’t go after absorbing a liner off his kneecap from some obscure cretin named Luis Sojo during the first Subway Series), so he gambled on his bullpen stringing together all the outs he would need at home against Pittsburgh. His first arm belonged to righty Cory Lidle, who had been a mild revelation as a reliever, but didn’t have it that Sunday as a starter. Lidle gave up six runs (four earned) in four-plus innings and gave way to two relievers (Juan Acevedo and Ricardo Jordan) who did not distinguish themselves and one who did (Greg McMichael). Meanwhile, the Mets bats were pounding the Pirates all day, so it looked as if Valentine’s plan was a no harm, no foul proposition. But believe it or not, Franco — replacing McMichael even though McMichael was fine in the eighth — couldn’t hold a 9-7 lead in the ninth, which meant a tenth inning, and the use of yet another Met reliever, Japanese trailblazer Takashi Kashiwada. All was well that ended well when Kash held the Buccos scoreless in the top of the tenth and Carl Everett jacked a three-run homer to left to send us home very happy. So anyway, the parade of six relievers (in the rapidly disappearing days of the six-man bullpen) each pitching at least one inning meant Bobby V. required length out of his starter the next night against the Braves, also at Shea. And he got it. Rick Reed took the ball and went to work, beating John Smoltz, 3-2, in an inspiring dual complete game duel. Neither man was brilliant, but both were enduring. The Mets, in particular, needed endurance above all, and Reed gave it to them.

April 26, 2002. Shawn Estes was a Met for less than one season and is remembered by Mets fans for only one thing, and it’s for the one thing he didn’t do — or hit. But forget about his not having very good aim when it came to Roger Clemens’ enormous ass. Even put aside, in case you remember all the details of his Saturday in the uncomfortable spotlight, that Estes beat the Yankees and homered off Clemens on June 15. That may stand as Estes’s most memorable outing as a Met, but this one, from the end of April, was Estes’s best. Going up against ex-Met Glendon Rusch and the Brewers at Shea, Shawn wasn’t just brilliant for six innings. He was perfect. Your bloggers were at this game and they were sensing history in the making. Jay Payton had homered off Rusch for a 1-0 lead in the third, and Estes was making it stand tall. We got to the seventh, smelling that first no-hitter — and it was going to be a perfect game! Was going to be. Eric Young (who grew up a Mets fan in New Jersey) singled to lead off the seventh. Oh well, so much for history. But Shawn Estes kept bringing it nonetheless. Young was erased stealing and, save for a Jose Hernandez walk, no other Brewer reached base. Rusch was good in completing his loss (1 run, 3 hits, 6 strikeouts), but Estes pitched the game of his Met life: a one-hit shutout with 8 K’s and nobody mad that he didn’t hit anybody.

August 14, 2005. More than three years had passed since Shawn Estes didn’t no-hit Milwaukee. In the interim, every Met didn’t no-hit somebody, though several had come close. Trachsel came close against the Rockies in 2003 (curse you, Chin-hui Tsao!). Gl@v!ne appeared on the verge of doing it against the same club in 2004 (curse you, Kit Pellow!). And Pedro Martinez made our eyes pop out in June of 2005, toting a no-no against the Astros at Shea into the seventh. No offense to the previous pretenders, but who better to do it than Pedro, our new ace, one of the premier pitchers of his generation? As Mets fans everywhere totaled up the reasons why this was going to be the one, Chris Burke (curse him!) undid our calculations [7] by launching his very first major league home run for Houston’s very first hit of the night. So much for that fantasy. But the fantasy had legs, and it ran clear across the continent in August, for another rendezvous with destiny. The setting this time was Dodger Stadium, where it all began for Pedro. He was once again in rare form (or rare for others, typical for him). In June, Martinez got to one out in the seventh before Burke ruined his bid for super immortality. In L.A. he entered the eighth inning without having surrendered a base hit. Pedro struck out Ricky Ledee to begin the eighth. Great! Only five outs to go! And in the time it took to realize one should never count no-hit chickens before a Met can hatch them, some person nobody would ever hear of again — Antonio Perez — tripled past Gerald Williams in center field. Gerald Williams? This was a few days after Carlos Beltran had collided with Mike Cameron in San Diego, and maybe a Gold Glove center fielder could have done something with Perez’s drive, but ultimately it was a clean triple that soiled our moment in the sun. Even dirtier was the next batter, some Dodger named Jayson Werth, homering to put Los Angeles in the lead. For you see, while Pedro was carrying the weight of the Mets on his shoulders that Sunday [8], the Mets were leaving the balance of their batting order on base. They touched Brad Penny for ten hits, but only one run…driven in by Williams of all people. Penny went all the way for the 2-1 win. Pedro went all the way, too, but all he got for his Herculean effort was what Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver and every other Met who came close to a no-hitter received — nothin’ (curse everybody! [9]).

Of course I can’t believe the Mets have yet to capture a no-hitter. But I’m stunned that they’ve gone nearly five years since participating in a dual complete game. I wonder which will appear on our horizon first — or if we’ll ever see either.