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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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A One and A Two...

They scheduled a baseball game in the northeastern United States for March 29 and snow was on the ground within a week of its first pitch. Imagine that. You’ll have a harder time imagining the baseball being played under climate conditions ideally associated with the sport in question, but bundle up and begin picturing the game that’s coming. Barring snowout, rainout, chillout or (shiver) blowout of a vital ligament à la what’s happened to Rafael Montero, we know that somewhere within the shadows frosting Citi Field on Thursday, March 29, Noah Syndergaard will throw the first pitch of the 2018 season.

And he’s “super jacked” to do it, according to himself and his own sense of occasion, which I heartily applaud. The hell with “it’s an honor, but it’s just another game” or bland words to that effect. Thor embraces being Thor, and Thor embraces being the Opening Day starter: “It’s just a great feeling, second year, starting Opening Day and coming out of the gates hot.”

Noah also offered up some blandness so nobody handing him the ball would regret the choice: “It kind of benefits me to just go out there and pretend it’s another game. I feel like we kind of put it on this pedestal,” he said upon accepting his assignment, before throwing together the best of both attitudes: “The hype gets a little overwhelming, the same thing with playoff games, Wild Card games. It’s just another game of baseball.”

Thor would know, for he has pitched all of the above, generally living up to the hype. He is the only pitcher in Mets history to start a Wild Card game. He is the first starting pitcher in Mets history since Al Leiter to have pitched in multiple Met postseasons. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Steven Matz, his compadres from 2015, were all on the shelf by the fall of 2016. Had the Mets won that 2016 Wild Card game of his and moved on, he’d have been blending his talents with an entirely different cast (as Bartolo Colon was a bullpen inhabitant during the ’15 postseason). The Mets didn’t advance, but there is no blaming Thor. He was The Man in that game, particularly if you watched only the tops of innings and then turned the whole thing off after eight. Even given his team’s eventual bottoming out versus Madison Bumgarner, Thor etched his name into the annals of Mets big name pitchers for the ages that night and, after largely carrying the Mets rotation from April to October, totally deserved the Opening Day start that followed in 2017.

One year later…sure, why not? In one of those facts that’s repeated so often that it’s no longer fun to invoke, no Mets pitcher has started consecutive Opening Days since Johan Santana in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Because Johan was recovering from anterior capsule surgery, Mike Pelfrey emerged from the All Other pile to toss the first horsehide of 2011. Pelfrey, who has lately slipped into MLB retirement and taken up college coaching, was coming off a 15-9 season, which certainly looks Opening Dayworthy in a vacuum. No chance he would have gotten near the ball on the night the Mets began 2011 had Johan been healthy, because Johan was Johan, very much The Man, and even if Johan hadn’t thrown a single major league inning the year before, you’d give Johan the ball to start the next season.

That’s exactly what Terry Collins did in 2012. Santana was out all of 2011, but it didn’t matter. Johan was an ace deluxe and resumed his reign in style on April 5, 2012, throwing five shutout innings against the Braves at Citi Field. He didn’t get the decision — it went to the immortal Ramon Ramirez — but the Mets won, 1-0, thanks to David Wright’s sixth-inning RBI single.

Santana starting, Wright hitting, the Mets winning on Opening Day. Talk about Baseball Like It Oughta Be. As midseason Wrigley Field attendee Ferris Bueller once reminded us, life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Eventually we’d be missing Wright (the missing still in progress) and very soon we’d be missing Santana, who would be done pitching as a major leaguer by August and hence be unavailable on April 1, 2013, when his traditional first turn in the rotation came up. Thus began the parade of Ones who were soon done as Opening Day starters: Niese, Gee, Colon, Harvey. They all made a certain kind of sense in context, though none was a fella you’d automatically tab after pitching no innings the year before. (Harvey missed all of 2014 and had to wait for the third game of 2015 to make his next start.)

The closest the Mets have had to that kind of Johanian presence since Santana, apparently, is Syndergaard, because Mickey Callaway is giving the ball to a guy who threw all of thirty-and-a-third innings last year. Next to Santana in 2012, that looms as the fewest innings a Mets Opening Day starter has come off of from the previous year. Prior to Johan setting a standard that can not be undersold — try pitching fewer than 0.0 IP — the record was held by 1982 Opening Day starter Randy Jones, who threw a scant 59.1 innings in 1981. A 1981 sighting should always set off your sensors, given the strike that split what is normally a 162-game season into two chunks of barely more than fifty apiece. There’s more to the Jones aberration than the strike, though. Even with the ruptured asterisk glued to the Humpty Dumpty of baseball years, understand that Jones missed time to injury in 1981 (cruelly and ironically spraining an ankle during a hastily arranged exhibition game in Toronto to prepare for the second half), and he wasn’t supposed to be the 1982 Opening Day starter.

“Supposed to” is a loaded phrase when it comes to the Mets and pitching.

Nineteen Eighty-Two was the year snow fell in spring, not near the baseball season, but on the baseball season. New manager George Bamberger’s best laid plans to go with Pat Zachry wound up buried under a cold, white blanket. Not that Zachry was the perfect choice to lift the lid on 1982, either. Pat hadn’t thrown as many innings as Bambi would have preferred during Spring Training, but he was slotted for Opening Day. Then it snowed a ton in the Northeast, which not only postponed the Mets’ Opener in Philadelphia twice (the last time the Mets had their first game kiboshed by anything but labor strife), but kept the Mets stuck in New York while confining Zachry to his home in Greenwich. Try getting your throwing in in Connecticut. Explained Bamberger with impeccable logic, “You can’t tell somebody from Connecticut to drive here in a snowstorm and work out.”

So George went with Jones (the Cy Young winner from six years earlier). Jones pitched a solid six innings and the Mets beat the Phillies in front of 15,000 at the Vet some 48 hours beyond the season’s projected starting time, providing fodder for the killjoy camp that likes to remind you it doesn’t matter who starts Opening Day, it’s just one game, it’s forgotten the next day, yada cubed.

The very next year, Bamberger was in something of a similar pickle. He had his Opening Day starter chosen, but a fly circled the ointment, and a last-minute replacement simply wouldn’t have jibed with the desired aesthetics. It wasn’t snow messing with Bambi, but a potential injury. The slated starter had pulled a quad muscle in his left thigh during Spring Training and Bamberger couldn’t be certain the guy was going to be ready to throw that first pitch. He had Ed Lynch ready in reserve, and Ed Lynch was no doubt capable of throwing six solid innings à la Randy Jones, and perhaps the Mets could have beaten Philadelphia again.

Except this game was at sold-out Shea Stadium, and the Greenwich-residing starter Lynch would have been subbing for was not Pat Zachry, but the pitcher for whom Zachry was traded in the first place: Tom Seaver, back in a Mets uniform for the first time since (shiver again) June 15, 1977.

“All these people were here to see him pitch,” Lynch said, “and if I’d had to start, I could just hear the boos. No, actually, I’d have heard a lot of whos: ‘Who the hell is Ed Lynch?’”

The question never needed to be asked. Seaver — The Man, if ever there was one — decided he was fine, Bambi gave him the ball, the fans exulted, and the Mets won by shutout, 2-0. As with Santana generations later (and Syndergaard last year), the decision went to a reliever. Also as with Santana in 2012 and Syndergaard presumably in 2017, nobody held it against Seaver in 1983 that he was coming off a light previous year’s workload. The 111.1 innings pitched by Tom as a miscast Red in 1982 ranked as the fewest by the next year’s Mets Opening Day starter since Jones’s 59.1 in 1981 until Santana’s nada in 2011.

One inning per team game qualifies a pitcher for the league ERA title. In Mets history, only six Opening Day starters to date haven’t been mathematical qualifiers the year before: Santana, Jones and Seaver in the seasons mentioned, along with Dwight Gooden in 1990 (118.1 IP in a 1989 interrupted by a shoulder injury); Roger Craig in 1962 (112.2 IP for the Dodgers in 1961, when there were no Mets and therefore no ace in place); and Don Cardwell in 1967 (101.2 IP for the Pirates in 1966, when there was not yet a Seaver on the Mets; Wes Westrum reportedly wanted to start Tom on Opening Day ’67, but couldn’t bring himself to give the ball to a nominally raw rookie). Syndergaard, barring bad weather or darkness of the soul, will make it seven.

In the yin-and-yang or what have you of figuring out who is an Opening Day pitcher by birthright and who makes for a decent contingency plan, Syndergaard rates as close enough to Seaver and Santana so that you don’t have to check his totals before trusting him with Opening Day, the game that transcends, at least for a few inherent first-inning jitters, Just Another Game status. Thing is, unlike your peak Mike Pelfreys, your latter-career Randy Joneses and your “Who the hell is Ed Lynch?” substitutes, it’s not like the Mets don’t have a worthy alternative to Noah as 2018 approaches.

More than worthy.

Jacob deGrom could very well be our Opening Day starter. If you’d asked me when 2017 ended who we would, could and should look forward to striding to the mound to begin 2018, I would have said Jacob deGrom. When 2017 ended, Noah had been mostly inactive for months (though he did start the final game of last year, making it four years in a row now that the final starter from the season before — Colon, Harvey in Game Five of the World Series, Syndergaard in the Wild Card Game and tentatively Syndergaard again — is the first starter in the season at hand). DeGrom won Cy Young votes last season. He won Faith and Fear’s Richie Ashburn MVM award. The only thing of note he lost was some hair, and those locks were shorn of his own choosing.

But then deGrom went and had his lower back tighten up on him for a bit in February, and Callaway’s wheels of progress moved forward, and Thor was clearly healthier than Jake, and there you have the beginning of your 2018 rotation, unless there’s a blizzard or goodness knows what. It’s Thor one, Jake two.

I can live with that. In my heart, based on the lone consistently positive aspect of 2017, I’d go with Jake one and Thor two, but by Game Three, we’re supposed to be on to Matz, then Harvey, then (if his shaky Spring hasn’t utterly expended his goodwill with the new regime) Wheeler, which itself will be a milestone development in the history of Metkind should it really and truly happen. The Mets make plans, the fates have their own ideas. We’ll see if the five-phenom rotation that never was actually is. It would be fun to behold at least once before Vargas returns and/or the rest of us disappear.

Jacob has looked swell all Spring. His Spring just hasn’t encompassed as many reps as Noah’s. But you’re not losing an ounce of credibility starting Syndergaard before deGrom. In the optics department, it’s all pretty much equal. Jacob would likely be more on message about the Just Another Gameness of Opening Day, but his relative lack of flair (and hair) would be made up for by everything he did to cement ace status in 2017: 15-10, 239 strikeouts, 201.1 innings, staying in one piece when each of his staring pitching colleagues shattered into multiple fragments.

No matter. Jake will start Game Two. Jake has started Game Two before. He started Game Two in 2015 and 2017 (the pending Syndergaard-deGrom consecutive-year One-Two combo will be the first of its kind since Gooden-Viola in 1990 and 1991; now that’s fun to invoke). He started the home version of Opening Day in 2016, which was the third game of the season. He started Game Two of the World Series in 2015. He also threw the Mets’ first postseason pitch in nine years when he started the first game of the 2015 NLDS. He was quite wonderful that night.

You’d think there’d be some order to who starts a season’s second game. You’d think that if you have Tom Seaver starting Opening Day ten consecutive seasons as the Mets did between 1968 and 1977, that the guy who is considered the ultimate No. 2 pitcher in franchise history, Jerry Koosman, must have started most of the Game Twos that directly followed. Koosman was a rookie the year after Seaver. Koosman stayed with the Mets beyond Seaver. Other than Gooden, nobody really gets between Seaver and Koosman when it comes to appraisal of all-time Mets starters.

Surprise, surprise, as Gomer Pyle liked to say when Tom and Jerry were young. A dive into Baseball-Reference reveals Koosman didn’t get that many Game Two starts. In 1968, as the Mets doubled down on brilliant young starting, yes, it was Seaver (who let a win get away) on Opening Day, then Koosman (who evened the Mets at 1-1) in Game Two. Jerry went on to outwin Tom in ’68, 19 to 16. Still, Tom was The Man, and Gil Hodges didn’t mess with the natural flow of Met things. Of course Seaver started Opening Day 1969 (and, not of course, got blasted by the brand new Montreal Expos at Shea Stadium). Just as naturally, the second game’s start went to…

Jim McAndrew? Yup, Jim McAndrew, a flashy rookie himself in 1968. It was by no means a disavowal of Jerry Koosman. Kooz’s left elbow had given him trouble in Spring Training. Sort of like deGrom’s lower back. Hodges had his own wheels of progress to attend to. Thus, McAndrew got Game Two (which the Mets won, 9-5, thanks to a lot of long relief from Tug McGraw once McAndrew imploded), and Koosman had to wait until Game Four for his season debut. Kooz was back in the secondary saddle in 1970, yet would not pitch immediately behind Seaver again until 1977. In ’71 and ’72, Gary Gentry followed Seaver. From ’73 through ’76, the role belonged to Jon Matlack, who was having a heckuva prime in those days. Koosman wasn’t forgotten, just slotted a bit further down the line. When Seaver was no longer available to start Opening Day for the New York Mets, in 1978, Jerry finally got to throw a season’s first pitch (and notch that season’s first win, via complete game, no less).

While Opening Day assignments often come down to obvious aces or something going awry, second games are mostly if not always a function of Just Anotherness. Sure, you will get your de facto rotation vice presidents locked into place sometimes. Witness Ron Darling starting the season’s second game five consecutive years from 1984 through 1988 (the best five-year period in Mets history). Witness imported virtuosos Frank Viola (1990 and 1991) and Bret Saberhagen (1992 and 1993) being asked to play second fiddle to maestro-in-residence Gooden most of the time (in 1992, when Doc was still recovering from his 1991 rotator cuff injury and was held back a few days, nobody’s afterthought David Cone started Opening Night in St. Louis ahead of KC Sabes). Those were pretty good bananas to bring out behind your top ones.

But some years a manager simply goes with who he has ready, whether in the first game or the second game or, as we saw in 2017, most of 162 games. A little rain here, a little soreness there, suddenly you’re going with Braves castoff Pete Smith as your No. 2 starter in the first series of 1994 (Gooden went first and Saberhagen was serving his leftover firecracker suspension from 1993). A year later, coming off the winter’s long labor layoff, Dallas Green skipped his biggest name, Saberhagen, and opted for Bobby Jones for Openers and Jason Jacome for the game after. Jones would pitch two more Opening Days for the Mets in the ’90s; Jacome would pitch for them four more times altogether. It looks weirder now than it did then. The Mets had two lefty aces up their sleeves to commence the current millennium in 2000, having brought in former Astro Mike Hampton to join born Met Al Leiter. One and Two, you’d assume. Ah, but the first two games were in Tokyo, and Bobby Valentine figured leaving Leiter home to prepare for the next week’s US opener at Shea made better sense, thus Rick Reed — not a slouch on any continent — became the second Met to start a game in Japan (and the first to start a game the Mets won there).

Mets history is dotted with “huh?” second-game starters, names that slotted in rationally in their day, but read strange from a distance. Mark Clark in 1997; Kevin Appier in 2001; Brian Bannister in 2006, a year the Mets went on to run roughshod over the National League East mostly without Brian Bannister, who hurt himself running the bases in San Francisco in late April. Bannister, making his major league debut, started second in ’06 mostly because nobody else who would have could have. Pedro Martinez was nursing a malady and had to miss Opening Day. T#m Gl@v!ne, who started behind Martinez to get 2005 off on a future Hall of Fame footing, took Pedro’s slot, and everybody else seemed to be aching.

Of such arrangement is the honor of second start of the year constructed.

You can look up Opening Day starters with ease. You have to dig to identify second game starters. The first of them, in 1962, was Sherman “Roadblock” Jones, who had about as much Mets longevity ahead of him as Jason “Rhymes With Block-a-Me” Jacome. Rain had disturbed the first week of the Mets’ first season, so Roadblock provided access to the Mets’ Home Opener. Three years later, in the final second game of Casey Stengel’s illustrious managing career, the Ol’ Perfesser went with new Met Warren Spahn. That was all that was new about Spahn, who famously said of Stengel that he pitched for Casey before and after he was a genius. Spahnnie was 44 by then. Neither he, who was sold to the Giants, nor Stengel, who retired, would make it to the end of the 1965 season at Shea, but boy were those four-year-old Mets experienced.

Two men who recently passed on were second game starters in the early days: Tracy Stallard in 1964 and Jack Hamilton in 1966. Stallard is known mostly for surrendering Roger Maris’s 61st home run on the final regular season day when the Mets didn’t exist, October 1, 1961. Hamilton, sadly, is tagged as the pitcher who beaned Tony Conigliaro in the horrible 1967 incident that derailed a promising career. We remember them here late this snowy spring for getting our seasons going in fairly mundane fashion. Stallard lost his Game Two, but gave Stengel a complete eight innings at Connie Mack Stadium. Hamilton went all the way in beating the newly transplanted Atlanta Braves at Shea and evening the Mets’ record at 1-1. That was no small feat, for it positioned the Mets, for the first time in their history — and the last time until 1969 — to rise above .500. The Mets won their third game of 1966 and briefly brandished a winning rather than a losing percentage.

When the 1980s began, the Mets’ ace of record was Craig Swan, and Zachry was, when well, the back half of a decent one-two punch. Alas, in April 1980, Pat was not well, so the Magic is Back cards fell of their own volition. Ray Burris, better remembered as a Cub, was Joe Torre’s next in line at the dawn of that decade. Two years prior, after Kooz, Torre went with neither the emerging Swannie nor Zachry, but Nino Espinosa, who had a sound arm and a ’fro you couldn’t miss. Other second-gamers who it might not occur to you ranked in a given Met rotation’s Top Two at the top of a season included Mike Scott in snow-delayed 1982 (he also started the second season’s Opening Day in 1981), Steve Trachsel in 2002 and 2004 (no, wise guy, those games are not still going on) and John Maine in 2010 (bet you totally forgot that John Maine was a key Met pitcher in the past ten or so years). Bobby Ojeda, who filled in for Gooden when Doc had a sudden appointment at Smithers on Opening Day 1987, took what had become the Darling start in 1989, essentially ending Ronnie’s vice presidency. In addition to pitching the second game of the 21st century in Tokyo, Reed got the ball for the final second game of the 20th century, at Joe Robbie Stadium in 1999. Orlando Hernandez, a.k.a. El Duque, was starting pitcher dos in 2007, at Busch Stadium. And R.A. Dickey, who was about to embark on a Cy Young season, got going with a second game start in 2012, right after Santana’s encouraging return.

For the most part, any pretty to very good pitcher in Mets history has started either the first or second game of a Mets season…with a couple of noteworthy exceptions. First among non-first/non-seconds is Jay Hook. Stengel didn’t start hook until Game Five of the 1962 season. The Mets lost. Hook’s second start was the Mets’ first win, in Game Ten. Obviously Casey forgot to pack his genius-period crystal ball when he took the Mets job. Then, in far more successful Met times, there was Sid Fernandez, who never got the ball any earlier than in a season’s third game. His managers had so many options that they could peer past El Sid, who is right — or left — up there among the greatest southpaw starters the Mets have ever thrown at any point on their schedule. As Fernandez taught us amid his indelible championship-preserving relief outing in Game Seven of the 1986 World Series, it’s not where you start, and it’s not only where you finish. Sometimes it’s where you middle.

In whatever order they appear, please bring on the pitchers. And get rid of the snow.

10 comments to A One and A Two…

  • Dave

    Well, that breaks my likely decade-long streak of never thinking of Pete Smith, Mark Clark or Ray Burris. Sometimes second fiddle on the Mets has been a very distant second.

    • Last night I heard mention of the comic strip “Little Iodine,” and conjured an image that had stayed outside my head since before Ray Burris. So I feel ya.

  • Ken K. in NJ

    This was fascinating, especially the “Second Gamers”. Thank you!

    Re: Jay Hook vs. Roadblock Jones. I can’t find any box scores from the ’62 exhibition season (are they out there??) but I actually sort of remember that Jones had an excellent start in his final exhibition game or two and that was why he started Game Two. It was always a given that Roger Craig would start Game One.

    I decided to do a little research myself to see if I could support my recollection and found this, which I’m guessing you have seen.

    Oh, and ah yes, he pitched a complete exhibition game shutout against the Cardinals on 3/31/62.

    • Thanks for the supplemental info. Roadblock lives on every time SNY shows the 1982 highlight film and we see him throwing out the first pitch in commemoration of the franchise’s 20th anniversary.

  • Bill Slocum

    Mark Clark used to be called “The General” by one personality on WFAN-AM, after that famous second-front U. S. general of the same name in World War II. That guy knew about #2, pitching as it were behind Ike.

    • I do remember the honorific now that you mention it. Clark was the best starting pitcher on the 1996 Mets, which was like being the best starting pitcher on the 1996 Mets…which’ll get you in the Top Two to start ’97, I suppose.

  • Left Coast Jerry

    The mention of Mark Clark brings back a particular memory. I was at Shea in 1997 with my two sons, my brother, and his son. The Mets were playing the Red Sox in their first ever regular season series against an AL team. Clark hit a Tim Wakefield knuckle ball off the left field foul pole. It was his only home run in a career in which he had a lifetime batting average of .058.

  • Kevin from Flushing

    I was hoping Jake would get the nod this year, but if this becomes routine and deGrom is constantly playing Koosman to Thor’s Seaver, that’s a splendid problem to have.