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All’s Wall That Ends Well

Jon Matlack [1] believes we know what we’re talking about. I know that’s what he believes because I asked him and that’s what he told me. And who’s not gonna believe Jon Matlack, essential starting pitcher for the 1973 National League Champion New York Mets?

At the press conference preceding Saturday night’s Mets Hall of Fame ceremonies, which I covered as “media” (and what is a blog if not a medium?), I asked Matlack, along with his HOF classmates Ron Darling [2] and Edgardo Alfonzo [3], what stood out from all those seasons of performing in front of Mets fans.

“I think they’re fair and knowledgeable,” the silver southpaw said. “I found that as long as they thought you put a good effort forth, you weren’t necessarily in a position where you had to win all the time. As long as you weren’t slighting the job, you were treated fairly, and I respect that tremendously. I do think the knowledgeable fan is here in New York more so than in some other places. There were people telling me statistics I had to look up to remember, and they knew ’em off the top of their head, so it was pretty incredible.”

On behalf of Mets fans, Jon, I say a) thank you; and b) right backatcha, because you, sir, showed some genuine foresight about a game from 2021 as you recalled a game from 1973 in answer to another reporter’s question regarding the immortal You Gotta Believe pennant rush.

“It all started for me,” Matlack recounted, “when we were playing Pittsburgh one night, and the ball got hit to left field that didn’t go out. It hit on the corner of the fence and came back in. We made a play at the plate, threw a guy out, turned that game around, we started playing better — no matter what happened from there on, seemed like somebody was equal to the task, they were gonna do whatever it took to put us in the right spot to win. We weren’t supposed to get past the Reds…”

You don’t have to be a certified Metsologist to know Jon was referring to the signature play of the 1973 stretch drive, wherein, with Richie Zisk on first base in the top of the thirteenth inning of a 3-3 duel, Dave Augustine at bat, and the Pirates nursing a dwindling divisional lead in the penultimate week of the season, Augustine indeed hit a ball that was clearly going over Shea Stadium’s left field wall. Instead, it struck the very top of the fence, bounced directly back to Cleon Jones, and Jones fired it instantly to shortstop Wayne Garrett. Garrett wasted no time in relaying the ball to Ron Hodges, and the rookie catcher indeed made a play at the plate. That 8-6-2 thing of beauty ended one half-inning and set the stage for the next half-inning, when Hodges drove in the run that beat the Pirates and cut the rampaging Mets’ deficit to a half-game.

Jon Matlack, it should be noted, didn’t pitch in that game, but he cherishes it nonetheless. When a team is winning as those Mets were, it doesn’t matter who’s the hero. Everybody’s the hero.

[4]

Matlack, Darling, Alfonzo: Mets greats meet the press, get their due.

As for that bit about the Mets not having been supposed to get past the Reds, you know darn well that in 1973 the 82-79 Mets absolutely weren’t favored to overcome the 99-63 Reds in the National League Championship Series, yet they did. In Game Two, a young Met lefty from Pennsylvania gummed up the Big Red Machine so effectively that Cincinnati’s vaunted manufacturing apparatus could spew out only two hits. That part was Matlack’s doing, with some help from some teammates who drove in some runs for him and made some plays behind him, because, again, everybody’s the hero in years like that.

Forty-eight years later, on the night of Matlack’s, Darling’s and Alfonzo’s overdue enshrinement — and the presentation of the franchise’s Hall of Fame Achievement Award to the family of the late Al Jackson [5] — the Mets weren’t supposed to beat the Reds, either. Maybe not going in, but once you got kind of deep into Saturday’s game, it didn’t seem plausible that the Cincinnatians would return to their Manhattan hotel on anything less than a Red hot high.

True, the Mets briefly held a 1-0 lead, but that hard-earned third-inning edge — built on a Brandon Drury [6] double, a Rich Hill [7] sacrifice bunt (welcome back to real baseball, chief) and a Jonathan Villar [8] single — was wiped out by a Eugenio Suarez three-run no-doubter. When the glorious on-field Hall of Fame ceremonies ended, I’d noticed Suarez embracing one of Alfonzo’s special guests, Carlos Baerga. I’d hate to think Baerga, a teammate of Fonzie’s from 1996 to 1998, gave Suarez a tip on how to hit Hill. While Baerga was spending his final year in the majors as a Washington National in 2005, Hill was breaking in as a rookie with the Cubs.

What — did you think Rich Hill was born old?

Kyle Farmer added to the Red advantage in the fifth with a solo homer. A 4-1 lead shouldn’t have seemed insurmountable, but after the two previous games, in which the Mets scored not enough, then hardly at all, it was easy to get the feeling the Mets weren’t supposed to beat the Reds. Or, for that matter, an egg.

We develop certain senses for what’s going to go wrong from having rooted for the Mets for so long. Mind you, I wasn’t outwardly rooting for the Mets on Saturday because of press box decorum — no cheering there — but in my notebook and sotto voce to the spiritual co-conspirator who sat to my right and joined me in donning a mask of indifference, I came up with many reasons why this game was not going to go the Mets’ way. One of them was that Javier Baez [9] was going to have a massively disappointing debut. I based this on expectations being raised by a crowd that couldn’t get enough of his first at-bat until it ended in a routine out. He’s gonna get pumped up by the volume, he’s gonna press, he’s gonna strike out, it’s such a Mets thing to happen — just like Hideo Nomo in 1998, never mind that he was a pitcher. My mind does a lot of this.

All that experience we have garnered from watching the Mets. All that knowledge we Mets fans have accumulated. Meanwhile, Baez, who had been a Met for about five minutes and had presumably never slipped into his school library to check out Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? knew better. Or knew enough to not know better. Or wasn’t susceptible to incubating hunches that he wasn’t gonna come through because that’s not how a talent of his caliber rolls. What I’m trying to tell you is in the bottom of the sixth, with two out (one of them notched after Villar had been picked off second), Baez absolutely walloped a two-run homer.

So maybe a lack of familiarity with supposed Met ways is the best knowledge a new Met can display. However you explain it, the imported superstar shortstop had just cut the Reds’ lead to 4-3 and responded to his rapturous public with a curtain call. How could we lose now?

The answer, one guessed, was on a Joey Votto home run in the eighth inning. How poetic that would be, right? Votto had homered in seven consecutive games. Eight would tie the major league record. And, lookie there: with Farmer on first and nobody out, Votto lined a ball to very deep right off Seth Lugo [10]. Oh, that baby is going, going…I haven’t been as sure of a ball leaving our park since a Thursday night in September of 1973 when Dave Augustine connected off Ray Sadecki.

Attention literalists: I’m using poetic license here. I’ve been plenty sure of plenty of home runs since September 20, 1973, but so much about Votto is poetic, just allow me my parallel, OK? Better yet, give me the wall this ball couldn’t quite clear. It went to right rather than left, and was hit inside of Citi Field rather than Shea Stadium, and it didn’t so much bounce off the very apex of the fence as hit a couple of inches below it, but it was close enough to going out without going out to make a prophet out of Jon Matlack.

“It hit on the corner of the fence and came back in.”

Sure did then. Sure did again. Votto had himself a long single (played expertly by Drury) and the Reds had him on first and Farmer on third and still nobody out. All the good vibes of Baez’s homer and the Augustinean echo of an enemy fly ball falling short of four bases notwithstanding, the Reds were still poised to extend their lead. The Mets, it should be noted, remained stuck on three runs and the Reds were one hit from having five, one extra-base hit from maybe having six. In a situation of that nature, who’s supposed to win?

Yet a situation like that isn’t fully formed until it fully plays out. Jeremy Hefner paid Lugo a visit, imparted words of wisdom à la Baerga to Suarez (albeit in my imagination) and Seth got back to being Seth. He struck out Tyler Naquin. He struck out the previously powerful Suarez. Then he departed in favor of Aaron Loup [11], the lefty who wears No. 32 as an obvious tribute to Matlack (albeit also in my imagination).

The pinch-hitter called on by Reds manager David Bell was Tyler Stephenson. What would Stephenson do with runners on first and third and two out versus Loup? Damned if I know. Damned if anybody knows. Votto, you see, was picked off first base, which got Farmer taking off from third base. Farmer, quite obviously, was the priority. Hence, after Loup threw to Pete Alonso [12], Alonso deduced the potential calamity unfolding across the diamond and threw to Villar at third. Villar threw to James McCann [13], who tagged out Farmer. Score it 1-3-5-2 (they announce that sort of thing in the press box so I make a point of jotting it down). Somehow, the Reds did not push any more runs across.

It was therefore getting a little 1973 up in here, microcosmically speaking. Just a little, though, because in the bottom of the eighth, three Mets did nothing. But in the top of the ninth, three Reds also did nothing. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets doing something — anything — was paramount.

Jeff McNeil [14] walked. That was something.

And Luis Guillorme [15] pinch-ran for him. That could be something if something else happened.

A wild pitch happened! Guillorme was on second. He was a tying run just waiting to happen.

Javier Baez could happen for a second time in his first Met night. We’d seen him happen just a few innings earlier. Though my press box companion and I agreed Javy has the potential to be one of the all-time free swingers in Mets history (eat your heart out, Shawon Dunston), Baez worked the count versus Heath Hembree to three-and-oh. That’s a hitter’s count. Three pitches later, the hitter had struck out. James McCann immediately did the same.

Still waiting on the happening. It was gonna take some kind of divine intervention.

It was gonna take Sean Doolittle. Yes, Sean Doolittle! The same Sean Doolittle who gave up a game-tying three-run homer to Todd Frazier and the game-winning (or –losing, depending on your perspective) single to Michael Conforto almost two years ago at Citi Field, the last time I sat in the press box pretending not to care who won or lost. I try not to assume that because something happened once before that it’s guaranteed to happen again. Except there were two outs in the bottom of the ninth, we were losing by one, and precedent is the last refuge of the desperate fan masquerading as disinterested observer.

Dom Smith [16], whom Bell brought in Doolittle to face in an attempt at lefty-lefty alchemy, continued to be disinterested in labels. The lefty hit the lefty, singling to center to bring home Guillorme and knot the score at four. We were en route to an extra inning.

Jonathan India was on second base when the tenth started. Don’t ask me how he got there. I don’t even remember him batting. Crazy, huh? However he came to be standing on second, he zipped to third on an Edwin Diaz [17] wild pitch.

Oh, that’s right, Diaz was pitching with a runner on second, nobody out and no save situation in sight. Feeling cocky yet?

Edwin walked Jesse Winker, then received one of those inspiring mound visits from Hefner. What worked on Lugo worked, too, on Diaz. Our closer morphed into Sammy Slam, as in the door. Struck out Farmer. Struck out Votto (sorry, pal, no eighth homer). Got Naquin to line out directly to Kevin Pillar [18].

Next thing I knew, Pillar was on second base when the tenth continued. Don’t ask me how he got there. I don’t even remember him batting. Still crazy, huh? However he came to be standing on second, however, he didn’t stay long.

Drury the Magnificent was the first batter in the bottom of the tenth. The pitcher was Luis Cessa, best known to us as the “other” pitcher we gave Detroit to obtain Yoenis Cespedes six years ago. We gave the Tigers Michael Fulmer and Cessa, the Tigers gave us the bat we needed to dislodge John Mayberry, Jr., from the middle of our lineup. Fulmer won the AL Rookie of the Year Award in 2016, which we were OK with because Cespedes won us the National League East in 2015. Cessa was agate type in the retelling.

But who doesn’t love a good, knowledge-driven detail? Thus, on the sixth anniversary of the day of the legendary Yoenis Cespedes deal — a day capped by Wilmer Flores’s even more legendary walkoff home run versus Washington two days after Wilmer Flores shed equally legendary tears — and on the very night that Jon Matlack invoked images of another pennant-winning year (and Javier Baez made like Yo homerwise), Luis Cessa gave up a walkoff single to Brandon Drury, and the everybody’s-the-hero Mets defeated the Reds, 5-4 [19]. Mets fans, I can report with accuracy, went nuts with appreciation. It didn’t appear we were “supposed” to win, but what was Brandon Drury supposed to do other than record yet another humongous hit? After all, Drury’s OPS in July was infinity.

I could look up the real number, but I’m a Mets fan. I know pretty incredible statistics off the top of my head.