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A Banquet and Then a Food Fight

Pitchers’ duels are one of the earliest tests of budding baseball fandom — dull to the casual observer who wants action and doesn’t get why those around him are oohing and aahing over hitters swinging and missing or just looking flustered at balls zipping from hurlers’ hands to places they weren’t expected to wind up. It takes a certain amount of time watching the game to understand that there’s a whole lot of something underpinning what looks like nothing — a labor demanding incredible physical skill as well as tactical cunning and laser focus.

And when both starting pitchers are operating at that level, it’s something special. One of my fondest baseball memories is standing in a bar on a beautiful May night in Rockaway Beach watching Pedro Martinez [1] and Roger Clemens [2] battle it out at Yankee Stadium [3] — a pitchers’ duel so riveting that diehards and casual fans alike instinctively arranged themselves into perfect rows, as if the bar had become baseball church and we’d assigned ourselves to invisible pews.

But pitchers’ duels are premised on the promise that one of the combatants will yield, cruelly but inevitably. Someone will tire or make a lone inexplicable mistake or be done in by bad luck — two pitchers deserve to win, but only one can. That’s the classic template, but sometimes the game doesn’t cooperate.

Sometimes it’s a draw, which means the duel ends without a resolution, giving way to the anticlimax of middle relievers alternating to see who’ll draw the black spot. Which can be entertaining baseball but is lousy storytelling: Picture a showdown on a dusty western street where the guy in the white hat and the guy in the black hat stagger away, wounded but alive, allowing a parade of drunks to take turns blasting away at nothing in particular. Or a battle of the bands where the headliners never return for encores, leaving the opening acts to come on and say they guess they’ll play a few songs you’ve never heard of.

And sometimes the script gets torn up into little pieces and you get insanity.

Max Scherzer [4] — he of the chewing-up-glass intensity, terminal hat head and relentless dugout pacing — simply annihilated the Cardinals’ tough lineup, trotting up his ungodly array of pitches and looking like he could do whatever he wanted with them. His counterpart, Miles Mikolas [5], might not have been as flashy but was every bit as good, befuddling a tough Mets lineup. (I felt vaguely bad for knowing almost nothing about Mikolas, and a little better when I realized his track record against us consists of a single start two years ago — he won — and a lone inning long before that as a baby Padre.)

Both Mikolas and Scherzer were done after seven, meaning it was time for reliever roulette. The Cards’ Genesis Cabrera [6] — whose name I now know isn’t pronounced like the start of something — passed his test while Trevor May [7] did not, giving up a leadoff single to perpetual nemesis Yadier Molina [8] and another to lavishly locked Harrison Bader [9]. May is the Mets’ most Jekyll-and-Hyde reliever and this was one of his unfortunate transformations — the Mets scratched and clawed through various defensive and pitching strategies but to no avail, as May left an offspeed pitch in the middle of the plate for Tyler O’Neill [10] to whack into the outfield for a two-run single.

That looked fatal, particularly after Robinson Cano [11] flied out as the tying run in the ninth — perhaps when the team doctors get done poring over Jacob deGrom [12]‘s MRI they can evaluate Cano and what sure looks to me like a case of utensil-spinal impingement.

Mark Canha [13] was the Mets’ final chance against Giovanny Gallegos [14], whose pace on the mound makes one want to give Rob Manfred permission to institute the pitch clock a year early. Canha has been an intriguing player so far, an Olerud-like professional hitter with a calm demeanor and a sneakily ironic sensibility. (This bit of MVP deadpan [15] is from an interview as a A’s rookie.) He fell behind against two Gallegos sliders, refused to bite at three out of the strike zone, and then slapped Gallegos’s seventh pitch up the third-base line. That looked like a solid AB with an unfortunate outcome —  it was a tough play for many third basemen, but not typically for Nolan Arenado [16].

Arenado, though, couldn’t get the handle. He took extra steps searching for the grip, ran out of time and uncorked a high throw to first, making the score 2-1 and leaving the Mets still alive. Travis Jankowski [17] took over for Canha at first and took off when Jeff McNeil [18] laced a pitch down the right-field line. Jankowski flew around second and steamed into the neighborhood of third, the precinct of the so far famously aggressive Joey Cora [19]. Cora held him — which made me gasp in dismay, though the replay showed that to have been a good decision. And so the game would come down to Dom Smith [20], who’s been saying all the right things or rather not saying any of the wrong things despite finding playing time hard to come by.

Smith smacked a Gallegos fastball up the right-field line, where it was smothered behind the bag by one of the Cardinals’ many annoying Gold Glovers, in this case Paul Goldschmidt [21]. But Gallegos had been caught spectating. Dom hustled to first as Gallegos tried to close ground and then dove in safely — the one time in approximately 5,000 where diving into first is indeed the right play. Gallegos belatedly looked home, just in time to see McNeil diving across the plate in Jankowski’s wake as the go-ahead run.

That was it for Gallegos but not for the Mets; SNY wasn’t quite back from break when Brandon Nimmo [22] slammed T.J. McFarland [23]‘s first offering into the right-field stands for a two-run homer. The Mets led 5-2, and while the much-ballyhooed best fans in baseball weren’t booing, it was only because they were as shocked as everyone else. Edwin Diaz [24] navigated the bottom of the ninth with only minor fuss and they’d won somehow [25] — I mean, just look at this record scratch of a win-probability chart [26].

If the Mets make something of this season, we’ll tell Just So stories about this game and throw around words like fire and grit and heart. And even if they don’t, that was the kind of game that keeps you in your seat for dozens and dozens of grindingly dull non-comebacks, waiting for the karmic wheel to come back to that giddy, gleeful space that makes all the misfires worthwhile.