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Big Score Hunting

Bill James recently tweeted, “Things happen in baseball every day of the season which haven’t happened before. It isn’t ‘History’ unless someone writing a history of baseball or a history of the franchise or some such would bother to mention it. Otherwise, it’s just an oddity, or trivia.” In that case, I’m here to mention the 15-11 Mets win from the other night [1] and its brush with history. Given my bent for tracking final scores of Met wins, it rated as more than an oddity or trivia to me.

The Mets beating an opponent by the score of 15-11 is something that had happened before — once before. That strikes me as fairly historic. By comparison, the next time the Mets won, on Wednesday by a relatively sedate 7-0 [2], they posted a score by which they’ve won 48 times. Uplifting, but not necessarily historic on its own numerical merit. Yet anytime a score has to be shaken awake from deep in the Metsian archives, I think that transcends trivia.

Erstwhile Unicorn Score 15-11 had lingered undisturbed in the annals of Met triumph since June 16, 1989, 32 years ago for all you kids out there. The Mets were in Philadelphia; came to bat in the top of the first; pounded base hits all over the Veterans Stadium turf; put an eight-spot on the board; handed the ball to David Cone; and…all hell that had broken loose offensively continued to ooze about the carpet regardless of which team was batting. The Phillies made it 8-5 after one, 9-7 after three and took a 10-9 lead heading to the fifth.

Despite having taken the measure of Cone and throttling Roger McDowell as well, the Phillies hadn’t won a damn thing or, for that matter The Damn Thing. No, 10-9 scores in Philadelphia don’t always tell the tale, especially when at least five innings remain.

The Mets tied the game in the sixth on a Kevin Elster single, gave back the lead on a Juan Samuel triple in the seventh, yet mounted one final comeback when Mackey Sasser doubled in two runs and Lenny Dykstra followed with a sac fly in the eighth. Ahead, 13-11, the Mets took no chances and insured their lead via the good hands (when he had them around a bat handle) of Gregg Jefferies, who hit the Mets’ only homer in the game, a two-run shot in the ninth. Randy Myers, who’d given up Samuel’s triple but hung in there for two-and-two-thirds, protected the lead that officially belonged to him, and the first 15-11 victory in Mets history was born.

I was in Boca Raton, Fla., that Friday night, preparing to serve as best man at a somewhat hastily arranged wedding. I’ll leave it to you to deduce the reasons a wedding is hastily arranged. At some point in the evening, I called home to check in on the Mets game. My mother, who was watching, tried her best to explain how an 8-0 first-inning lead had dissipated into chaos. She indicated she had never seen anything like it before, or at least hadn’t been awake for anything like it before. The Mets’ 16-13 outlasting of the Braves on July 4 and 5 of 1985 had taken place less than four years earlier, very much within the window of my mother’s sudden and fierce Mets fandom during the latter half of that decade, but the real action in Atlanta happened very late, and even if she was the parent from whom I inherited my nocturnal habits, she was nonetheless asleep as fireworks lit up the Fulton County Stadium sky.

I thought she had to be confused about David Cone being on the mound with an 8-0 lead and then proceeding to not hold an 8-0 lead. The same Coney who went 20-3 in ’88? When I spoke to my dad, I asked for confirmation, and he confirmed it. I still had a tough time believing it. Granted, David wasn’t off to stellar start in ’89 — his ERA coming in was 4.38 — but who blows an 8-0 lead?

Those guys, two of whom wouldn’t be those guys within a couple of days.

The 15-11 win that encompassed both an eight-run first and a stirring comeback was overshadowed come Sunday when McDowell and Dykstra were traded by the visitors to the home team for Samuel. Roger couldn’t have known on Friday that he’d just pitched his last innings as a Met in what oughta be a dark horse candidate for craziest game that never comes up in conversation the way four in the morning Fireworks Night in Atlanta or Bob Murphy’s indelibly called ninth inning at the Vet just a year later do. Dykstra pinch-ran and stayed in for defense late on Saturday night, a 1-0 route-going effort spun by Bobby Ojeda that restored order and reminded any doubters that momentum is only good as the next game’s starting pitcher. Then again, David Cone was a pretty good starting pitcher, so go figure.

Juan Samuel was a pretty great offensive weapon, provided you had an enormous bowl of a stadium whose artificial surface played to his strengths — and if you weren’t counting on him to master a new position in the midst of a divisional race. Samuel had made his name as a speedy second baseman between 1984 and 1988. The Phillies, who were going nowhere anyway, switched him to center in ’89. The Mets, who had aspirations of going all the way, viewed him as their on-the-fly center field savior at Shea, which had grass, fan expectations and didn’t particularly suit Samuel’s style. Dykstra had been slumping for about a month before the trade. Mookie Wilson was mired in a seasonlong hole. Together or separately, the 1989 version of Mookstra left something to be desired. Samuel, however, managed to be worse than either or both of them. McDowell, who was trudging a 1-5 record in relief around, probably would have been a more inspiring choice in the outfield. (He certainly was when he tried his hand at it in Cincinnati 35 years ago yesterday [3].)

It’s been more than two days since the second 15-11 Mets win in Mets history, the one that turned a Unicorn Score into a Uniclone Score, and the extent of the Mets’ transaction sheet, besides the usual whirlpool [4] of callups, options and IL-ings, has been trading DFA’d Billy McKinney [5] to the Dodgers for minor league outfielder Carlos Rincon; claiming reliever Roel Ramirez [6] off waivers from the Cardinals; releasing the injured Stephen Tarpley [7]; losing Johneshwy Fargas [8] on waivers to the Cubs; and picking up superveteran Rich Hill [9] (41 years old) from the Rays for Tommy Hunter [10] and Matt Dyer. Making this many moves in so short a span might be the equivalent of scoring fifteen runs. Or giving up eleven.

I can’t vouch for McKinney, about to play for his third legitimate contender of 2021, not coming back to haunt us at the worst juncture possible. He probably will, considering he helped us at the best junctures possible. I can’t say anything definitive about Rincon’s prospects. All I know about Dyer, who’s been at St. Lucie, is he’s a catcher, which experience teaches us all Dyers are [11]. I know Tarpley posted an earned run average of infinity in his lone Met appearance in April, so he has nowhere to go but up — while the opposite can be said for this ERA. I also know Hunter got himself a hit for us despite being a relief pitcher and enjoyed a well-earned laugh about it (“that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done in the big leagues — I got a knock in The Show!”) before an injury unfortunately shooed him from view. Roel, until he comes here and does something, is a headline pun waiting to happen. Fargas was fast and injured, and we have too few who fit in one of those categories. Hill, the big news in all of this, projects as a much-needed starter for a rotation depth eludes with a vengeance. Samuel projected as a much-needed catalyst. Different players, different times, but since 15-11 is in the air, let us hope whatever happened in Cincinnati this week doesn’t augur a spiritual Summer of Samuel in Flushing.

Precedent predicts little in this world. I’ll take my chances with a 15-11 win every 32 years.

While I always welcome a Met game won by a set of numbers worthy of history, I have to admit the score for which I was crossing my fingers hard (and not just from arthritis) as Monday night’s pinball tally flashed TILT! was 13-12. It certainly looked possible when the Mets and Reds tied at 9-9 in the ninth and 10-10 in the tenth. Nudging the action to an 11-10 final would have been noteworthy, too, because the only Met win of that precise nature put in the books across sixty seasons was in 1999, which is technically a while ago now. What should make it resonate in the windmills of our mind was that when the Mets won, 11-10, on May 20, 1999, the first game of a doubleheader, Robin Ventura had hit a grand slam. Robin Ventura would return to the lineup in the nightcap and hit a grand slam again. That sort of two-step slam dance hasn’t been replicated since, whether by a Met or anyone. But that score, when Jeff McNeil singled in Jose Peraza after Jose Peraza magically materialized on second base to begin the eleventh inning, had a real chance to repeat.

And that would have been somewhat satisfying, but I’d been gunning for 13-12 all night. Well, maybe not when the Mets were up, 9-8, in the ninth and I would have been happy with us notching what would have been the 28th 9-8 win in Mets history (our first since 2017). Edwin Diaz had other ideas, though. One other idea. A tying run was Edwin Diaz’s idea. Let’s be glad he didn’t have a second idea.

Trying to mentally choreograph an outcome other than “win” is dangerous, like the fan who has tickets for a playoff game that might not be played if his team clinches its round on the road being tempted to wish for a harmless loss en route to an ultimate win. Karma rarely sanctions harmless losses. You’d love to be in the house for history like that, but you have to sate yourself with “win,” wherever it takes place. You have to. Nevertheless, amid lower stakes presumably with which only I was concerned, I indeed tried to figure out how to put the dancers in place so the Mets could add two more runs and go up, 13-10, and, if it didn’t cause too much trouble, direct the Reds to score two — but no more than two — runs in the bottom of the eleventh and thus produce Mets 13 Reds 12.

Why was this my concern? Because on May 12, 1963, the Mets beat the Reds, 13-12. And the Mets haven’t beaten anybody, 13-12, since May 12, 1963. It’s not just that it’s a Unicorn Score. It’s the oldest Unicorn Score in Met captivity. Older than 16-13 in 1985. Older than 19-1 (the “did they win?” game) in 1964. It’s almost as old as me. I was all of 132 days old at the time, so I can’t say I remember watching it or even asking my mother about it. But ever since I combed Baseball-Reference to build my Met winning score database in 2015, I’ve looked longingly at 13-12 and wondered what it must’ve been like to experience. The box score is to die for.

Future Hall of Famer Frank Robinson is a Red. Future Hall of Famer Duke Snider is a Met.

Rookie Pete Rose is playing second and batting second for the Reds. Rookie Ron Hunt is playing second and batting second for the Mets. They would finish one-two in NL Rookie of the Year voting.

Eighteen-year-old Ed Kranepool is around in right, batting third and scoring thrice; he even triples!

Hot Rod Kanehl gets himself hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, perhaps earning the $50 bonus Casey Stengel promised to any batter heady enough to sacrifice his body for collective Metropolitan advancement.

Leo Cardenas and Vada Pinson homer for Cincinnati. The Duke and Jim Hickman homer for New York.

The Mets’ 5-0 third-inning lead is erased by the middle of the fifth.

The Mets break a 6-6 tie with five the bottom of the fifth.

The Reds score six in their half of the sixth to lead, 12-11.

Yet the Mets, who’d won only 53 games since coming into existence thirteen months earlier, cobble together a pair of runs in the bottom of the eighth. Kranepool walks. Snider walks. Harkness singles. Jim Hickman delivers a fly to left to tie it at twelve. Choo Choo Coleman singles to send Duke’s pinch-runner Al Moran home. It’s 13-12.

And the Mets don’t blow it. Tracy Stallard, in relief of Larry Bearnarth, pitches a scoreless ninth, and the Mets win their 54th game ever, their first by a score of 13-12. They’d play another game that day at the Polo Grounds (it was a Sunday doubleheader), they’d play the rest of the year at the Polo Grounds, they’d move to Shea Stadium, they’d play there for 45 seasons, they’d move to Citi Field where they’ve been for 13 more seasons, and between their home ball parks and the myriad road ballparks they’ve visited, they’d never again post a 13-12 win.

At least until this past Monday night, July 19, 2021. It had a chance to happen. It was 11-10, balls were flying, left, right and out of Great American Ball Park, and wouldn’t it be something if the second 13-12 win in Mets history emanated from another game against the Reds?

Sure would be. Except in the time it took me to breathe in the possibility of my beloved 13-12 Unicorn at last being cloned, Kevin Pillar launched a three-run homer, and the Mets were up, 14-10…and two pitches later, Michael Conforto went deep, and it was 15-10. A half-inning later, 15-11 became the winning score, which would have to do for history’s sake. Or something approximating history’s sake. It was only the sixth time the Mets had won a game in which they’d given up as many as eleven runs, and the first time they’d won a game in which they’d given up double-digit runs since outlasting the Nationals, 13-10, in 2008.

Historic enough for one night, I guess.