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Gold Stars

On Sunday afternoon a strange thing happened at Citi Field: The Mets won the kind of game that used to constantly go the Marlins’ way.

Seriously, if you’ve been a Mets fan for 10 years or so, look at this sequence out of context and tell me it doesn’t conjure up Soilmaster Stadium, Luis Castillo, Antonio Alfonseca and all matter of South Florida horrors: One-run lead, one out in ninth. Hit by pitch, single to short left, runner on first beats throw to third, trail runner takes second on throw, little bounder eludes third baseman, jubilation for home team.

Except this time we did it to them.

A win’s a win, but it’s also true that the Marlins have been stripped by Jeffrey Loria to the point that they barely resemble a major-league team — there’s Giancarlo Stanton, who’s either in an early-season slump or feeling the weight of carrying eight teammates, and nobody else of note. Worse than that, though, there are things that make you wonder what exactly is going on with this franchise beyond savage downsizing. Like why was the Marlins’ bullpen catcher jogging out to the bullpen on Saturday with a reliever desperately needed? Why were the Marlins insisting on playing the stone-legged Ruben Tejada like he was going to zip to first after bunting to third? And why in the world did Mike Redmond bring the infield in Sunday with one out, the tying run on third and the winning run on second?

The Marlins aren’t completely hopeless, as 20-year-old Jose Fernandez demonstrated — despite making the rather abrupt jump from Single-A, the rookie mixed an impressive fastball with an evil curve and cameos by a pretty fair change-up, striking out Mets in droves. He didn’t look raw or scared out there — if anything, he looked like he was having fun, chomping gum and going about his business with cool efficiency. The Mets made contact off Fernandez in the first but came up short, making you think they’d soon find the range and drive the rookie from the game. But in the second, Fernandez fanned Ike Davis, followed by Mike Baxter and Lucas Duda. (Granted, the first of those feats isn’t particularly noteworthy.) After that he was cruising. The fifth was particularly impressive: Duda went down again to start the inning, frozen by a nasty curve that caressed the outside corner. With a runner on first, Fernandez floated an errant curve to Anthony Recker for the Mets’ first run. He then went right back to that pitch, tearing up Marlon Byrd on another beautiful breaking ball and extracting a harmless pop-up from Collin Cowgill.

The Mets countered with Aaron Laffey, revealed as an unprepossessing ham-and-egger with an odd habit of seeming to genuflect in the direction of the plate after pitches and a broad face that beneath a baseball cap makes him look a bit like Charlie Brown. Laffey didn’t irreparably harm the cause, leaving the Mets down three with one out in the fifth, but 10 hits over 4 and 1/3 does not make for enthusiasm — he was a bit of bad luck (or a better lineup) away from resembling Charlie Brown after a barrage of line drives leaves him lying on the mound in his skivvies, surrounded by clothes and socks and those Peanuts shoes that (rather charmingly) resemble dinner rolls. Afterwards, Terry Collins was kind about Laffey’s performance, noting his lack of work in the spring and saying he’d start again, though when, exactly, is not clear. Personally, I’d rather see Collin McHugh given the next chance, but since we won let’s be charitable and hope the Mets brass sees something in Laffey beyond this not being his first rodeo.

The hurler I did not want and still do not want to see was Zack Wheeler. Wheeler was shaky in his Las Vegas debut, for one thing, and for another keeping him in Sin City until midsummer will give the Mets an extra year of his services and ensure his salary doesn’t escalate rapidly through arbitration. Even without the Wilpons’ woes, this seems like a no-brainer in a year when a postseason berth is highly unlikely, and service-time calculations are rapidly becoming part of baseball’s financial laws of physics. So then why was Jose Fernandez — drafted one pick after Brandon Nimmo — on the mound for the Marlins? If I had to guess, it’s because the Marlins no longer have any kind of philosophy whatsoever, beyond gaming the system. Player development? Salary structures? Oh come now: In Lorialand there is no long-term future for anybody except the owner, sulfurously a-slumber in his garish swindler’s fortress on a mound of pocketed revenue.

With Fernandez out of the game the Mets began a slow-motion comeback that was apparently doomed until the wacky ninth, helped by stalwart work from the bullpen and then by smart play from two players badly in need of a gold star or two.

After a Steve Cishek pitch just brushed Tejada’s jersey with one out in the ninth, Kirk Nieuwenhuis came to the plate. Nearly a year ago, Nieuwenhuis became a cult hero [1] by beating Heath Bell, then of these same Marlins. But that was before he began swinging at anything and everything, amassing strikeouts at a frightening rate and getting passed on the center-field depth chart by more or less everybody. With a 1-and-2 advantage on Kirk, Cishek tried to lure him into swinging at a breaking pitch slithering off the outside corner. Last summer it would almost certainly have worked; this time Nieuwenhuis took it for a ball. After a foul, Cishek took aim at that corner again, but this time the ball slithered the width of a mitt too far into the heart of the plate and Nieuwenhuis whacked it into left for a single.

Fielding the ball was Juan Pierre, who continues to be employed by general managers despite a complete lack of power, a failure to understand that one can also reach first base on a walk, and the worst arm in the big leagues. Tejada had held up thinking the ball might be caught, but alertly steamed from the near side of second all the way to third despite being in Pierre’s sights. Worse for the Marlins, Pierre’s throw to third was wide and handled indifferently by Chris Valaika, allowing the similarly alert Nieuwenhuis to streak into second. That prompted Redmond to inexplicably play the infield in, and two pitches later Byrd smacked a little bounder down the third-base line.

If Valaika had been playing back, he might have thrown Tejada out at home, or froze him and nipped Byrd at first, or trapped Kirk between second and third, or done something else to make us groan in dismay. (Or maybe everyone would have been safe. Hard to say.) As it was, the ball skipped down the line, banging off the stands while Nieuwenhuis followed Tejada home, and we had done unto the Marlins [2] as they have so often done unto us.