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Lightning Strikes Again

When it comes to last-inning lightning striking where you traditionally don’t want to be standing during a regular-season Subway Series — under a tree in the middle of the Mets bullpen — I can remember the Yankees taking it to John Franco in 1997, Armando Benitez in 2002 and 2003, Braden Looper in 2005, Billy Wagner in 2006, Francisco Rodriguez (by way of freaking Luis Castillo) in 2009 and Jon Rauch in 2012. That’s a lot of relievers and a lot of heartbreak.

When it comes to the Mets turning the tables and finding a way to snatch victory from the clichéd jaws of crosstown defeat/deadlock over these past 17 seasons, I remember Mariano Rivera and little else.

Like the Yankees, Mariano Rivera is all I need.

You can point to his unmatched stack of saves and his drawerful of rings and his one pitch that is normally unhittable by mortals both mere and extraordinary and give him all the fire hoses he can carry home, but I can think of no greater tribute to the universally acknowledged greatest closer there ever was than noting that for a literal generation, if you wanted the Mets to beat the Yankees at a game’s end (give or take an odd Carlos Almanzar sighting [1]), you had to get past Rivera.

I can think of few greater joys than the Mets having done so now five different times. Rivera was the gatekeeper in 1999, when Matt Franco was the one who knocked; in 2001, when Mike Piazza and a bunch of buddies slipped by; in 2006 when David Wright barged in; in 2011 when Ronny Paulino broke on through to the other side; and in 2013 as Lucas Duda uncharacteristically refused to go quietly.

Rivera is supposed to be impenetrable. He usually is. One of his bleepity-bleep rings attests to the Mets’ failure to penetrate his borders. But now and then, whether because you’re gonna get lucky four or five times in 32 attempts or because the Subway Series is the kind of setting given over to sudden and unforeseen lightning strikes, the Mets made their way past the sport’s most vigilant gatekeeper.

It was historically sweet the first time, it’s plenty sweet the fifth time. No, the Subway Series ain’t quite what it used to be from the days of when Shea shook and Francos gleefully roamed its green earth, but even on a soggy Tuesday night in front of a generously reported three-quarters full house, when the Yankees feature few reliable names and the Mets hold no realistic hopes, it’s still Us vs. Them. And when Us is on the verge of losing to Them — especially after wasting eight magnificent Matt Harvey innings (Hiroki Kuroda probably pitched well, too, but who can tell from our lineup?) — and the gate is about to slam shut…

Ah, but it didn’t. It didn’t even come close to closing. This wasn’t a two-out rally along the lines of what arose on July 3, 2011, when Jason Bay crafted a last-gasp walk to set the stage for Duda and Paulino to forge a ninth-inning tie en route to a tenth-inning win…or July 7, 2001, when two outs into a nothing-nothing tenth, Desi Relaford singled and stole second in front of an Edgardo Alfonzo walk and successive singles from Piazza, Timo Perez and Todd Zeile to establish an unlikely 3-0 lead for Benitez to unpredictably preserve. This wasn’t Paul Lo Duca doubling with one out and Carlos Delgado being intentionally walked with two out to get to Wright and Wright, in turn, getting Lo Duca home on May 19, 2006. And this wasn’t exactly Rickey Henderson walking with one out and Fonzie doubling past Bernie Williams (who’s no Brett Gardner when it comes to patrolling center) and John Olerud grounding out and Piazza being passed to set up Matt Franco because nothing will ever be exactly like Mets 9 Yankees 8 from July 10, 1999 [2].

This one didn’t have two outs. This one didn’t have one out. This one had Rivera marching to the mound at the end of a day when the Mets joined the choir of opponents singing from the officially approved hymnal in praise of their staunchest executioner. Mariano Rivera had saved 20 regular-season games against the Mets since 1997 not to mention two more during the 2000 World Series. In the afternoon, Jeff Wilpon handed Rivera a couple of FDNY mementoes [3] and a baseball to throw during first-pitch ceremonies. Because he’s one of the game’s absolute all-time greats on his final go-round, this homage to an adversary was right, proper and classy. Because it was for the guy who symbolizes seemingly unending Yankee hegemony and the hell that’s represented to Mets fans in New York for nearly two decades, it couldn’t help but be a little sickening.

What was it Abe said to Peggy in the ambulance Sunday night after Peggy accidentally bayoneted Abe in the abdomen [4]?

“Your activities are offensive to my every waking moment. I’m sorry. But you’ll always be the enemy.”

Who among us didn’t guess that the ceremonial first pitch would represent a prelude for Rivera, to date enjoying yet another flawless season of closing at the age of 43, even after being inactive for most of the season when he couldn’t be 42 [5]? Of course he’d be entrusted by Joe Girardi to fire the last pitch. Of course the Mets would go down meekly to Hiroki Kuroda even as the Yankees would mostly flail against Matt Harvey; of course Brett Gardner would stick pins in his Daniel Murphy doll; and of course, as it all was about to reach its uncomfortable conclusion, the grim reaper would glide to the Citi Field rubber [6], throw a dozen or so magical, mystical cutters and turn away whatever weak siblings Terry Collins was forced to parade to the plate in another installment of Futility Theater.

Except, as rare Mets luck would have it when trailing 1-0, they somehow had their only three major league-caliber hitters due up in the bottom of the ninth: Murphy, whose Subway Series thus far had been trumped only by Gardner’s; Wright, who must wonder what he was thinking when he signed up for a lifetime pass to these rodeos; and Duda, who effectively keeps his thoughts to himself. Together, these three men, working in the aftermath of Harvey the Unsupported and Rice the Constant, represented the only conceivable combination the Mets could present for potential success.

Rivera threw all of nine pitches. Three of them went for base hits. Murphy placed a ground-rule double down the left field line. Wright singled to center and took crucial advantage of shoddy throwing, fielding and daydreaming by, respectively, Gardner, Chris Stewart and Rivera himself, who was too honored to back up home plate. Duda, the least confidence-inspiring of the trio (but still a better-bet bat than any Met not named Murphy or Wright) singled to right. David romped home with the second and winning run.

Wake up the echoes cheering Matt Franco’s name, for the Mets had done it again [7], tormenting their tormentor and reminding us that even if Mariano Rivera has inevitably gotten old, taking it to him with the game on the line never will.