Friday, April 21, 2006

My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)

Game 15 - Mets

Mets 7, Padres 2
Record: 11-4

The Mets played a doubleheader of sorts last night in San Diego. Game 1, if you will, was Jake Peavy's seven innings of lockdown baseball in which the Mets only scored on . . . you guessed it . . . Kaz Matsui's inside-the-park-homer in his first at-bat of the year. (More on that in a sec.) Other than that freakish play, it seemed the Mets had brought west the "C" game they'd been sporting at Shea for a couple of days, much to Steve Trashel's chagrin. As with Tim Hudson, and to a lesser degree Kyle Davies, you have to give Peavy credit for being a brilliant pitcher throwing a brilliant game, but this successive futility was starting to look less like the opponent had three aces and more like we had a hand of unmatched garbage.

Game 2, of course, consisted of the 8th and 9th innings of the same contest. Down 2-1, Xavier Nady doubled to lead off, but Matsui -- returning to form ever so predictably -- flubbed the ball to the left side, failing to advance Nady. At that point, it looked like "Game 1" all over again. I cursed everyone and everything -- Kaz Matsui; the foundering, floundering Mets; myself for staying up well past midnight to watch this rubbish; and Kaz Matsui. Even the omni-stoic Willie Randolph seemed on the verge of losing his composure, though his version of a Lou Piniella tantrum is to clench his jaw, purse his lips, step back away from the dugout steps, and run his fingers down the bill of his cap emphatically. Seeing him in "Serenity Now" mode made his grinning exhalation 30 seconds later that much more gratifying.

It was almost as if Julio Franco took a look around, shook his head, and said, "I do it myself." Father Time Franco cracked one high and deep to right, took full advantage of the quirky right-field configuration, and dropped one into the "jury box" jutting out from the wall. It was a two-run, game-altering, historic, and clutch as all get-out home run to take the lead. There was muted bedlam in my house and the kind of joy in Metville only available after the tiniest seeds of doubt had started to take root.

Any fears we had about a gut-wrenching letdown by the bullpen were assuaged immediately after Franco's shot, for the Metmen seemed to be instantly roused from their three-game slumber. Reyes singled, stole second and moved to third on a flyout. Endy Chavez, subbing in after Carlos Beltran's hamstring and an entire Township were freshly aggravated, knocked a bunt single to bring home Reyes, and the other Carlos belted one that skipped off the top of the fence in right-center for a four-bagger. I feel very good about the Mets' pen -- they were super-sharp again this night -- but I felt even better after David Wright walked, stole second, and came home on a Cliff Floyd single.

7-2, sitting comfortably, everyone hitting, energy restored, going from sputtering to overdrive in an instant. A thousand thank-yous, Julio Franco. That he went into the books as the oldest player (47) ever to homer is just gravy. Notable is the fact that Kaz Matsui's wild, uncanny, just silly inside-the-park job could not muster the same rally-ability as Franco's. The Matsui play, which also drew ink in the annals for being the third homer he's hit in the first at-bat of his three years here, was certainly a stand-up-and-cheer affair for his teammates, but that's where the invigoration ended. Perhaps it was the fact that it was only the third inning; perhaps it was that it only tied the game and didn't take the lead; or perhaps nothing Kaz Matsui or players like him ever accomplish can be done with same gravity and lead-by-example influence that a man as respected as Julio Franco can with a single opposite-field swing of the bat.

I'd been neither ecstatic nor critical about the arrival of Franco on this team, appreciative of the elder statesman clubhouse influence and mildly dubious of his accounting for a roster spot with steady but limited on-field upside. You can spend plenty of time with Rob Neyer and his ilk calculating guys like Franco's win shares, VORP, and relative value on the team, and I don't discount that stuff, but in my mind, last night's jack carries some serious weight, and here's hoping there is more momentum to be garnered from it yet.

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