Saturday, May 06, 2006


Game 29 – Mets

Mets 8, Braves 7 (14 inn.)
Record: 20-9

That . . . was . . . awesome.

While Rocky’s domain is up in Philly (where the Phightin’s are starting to make a noticeable run, by the way) last night’s sensational bout at Shea certainly had a Creed-Balboa kind of feel to it. It’s debatable which team would be which fighter, whether it was a case of the longtime division title winner trying to stave off the sad-sack-for-so-long upstart or the heavily favored slugger battling the less talented but indefatigable scrapper comparison. The way the scoring progressed, with the seesaw never tilting the Mets’ way beyond sea level until the contest’s final pitch, it was reminiscent of a Rocky II result. Whatever the parallel with cinematic legend, it’s within the standard sports journalism hyperbole to label last night’s affair an “epic battle between longtime adversaries” and “one for the ages.”

Earlier this week Rob spoke of the playoff atmosphere at Fenway with the Bombers in town; this game had all the trimmings as well. While the Sox-Yanks match-up was rife with drama from the get-go (Damon, Mirabelli, etc.), the Mets-Braves showdown evolved into a high-intensity affair as it went on. The Braves would take leads of 1-0, 2-1, 6-2, and 7-6 before it was over, only to have the Mets almost instantaneously even it up at 1, 2, 6, and 7. There were big errors, crucial home runs, and an emptying of the benches the old-fashioned way – by using every player on the roster. (Darren Oliver was the only player on either club who did not play, not counting other members of the rotation . . . and Atlanta used one of those, too.) There was strategy, counter-strategy, and blind luck. What a game.

Meanwhile, for the folks in the stands and at home, there was an inordinate amount of tension and anxiety for an early May fixture. 14 innings of back-and-forth will do that to you, but there was more to it than that.

For starters, it was the Atlanta Braves the Mets were facing, and much like the backstory of any Yankees-Red Sox encounter, there’s simply more baggage involved with every game against the baseball version of America’s Team than needs rehashing here. For the fans more than the players, of course, this is so; as the Met-roster turns over and over in this age of mutual disloyalty, only we morons with our outdated jerseys, blaze orange parkas, frayed caps, balding pates, clownish facial hair, and elephantine . . . memories still carry the torch of passionate abhorrence for all things Braves – and sport the burn scars it has rendered. Still, there’s no way any Met player in possession of a heart and/or soul can be part of this endeavor and not feel the heat.

This rivalry may have lost some of its zeal in the last four or five years for Braves fans – or maybe that’s just what they say as a condescending dig towards a team that has averaged just 73 wins over the last three years. (And if so . . . touché, Atlantans. Touché.) The level of contention has been full-on down on the streets of the Township, that’s for sure. Just as a mere mention of the “Evil Empire” has Rob bristling and his venom overflowing, so it goes with me for the Braves, and I don’t stand alone in the Met blogosphere. (Please don’t get ECA Mike started on Larry or Andruw unless you’ve got some time on your hands.)

And so all of the ingredients were on the table last night: Shea Stadium, Friday night, Atlanta Braves, Cinqo de Mayo, three parts Patron, two parts Cointreau, one part Rose’s Lime Juice, ice, rock salt, a lime, a belly full of fish tacos, SportsNet New York with Gary and Keith, and five hours of intense baseball on the telly. What with it being the first week of May and all talk of pennants at this point referring to concession stand wares, this was about as good as it gets.

As for the game itself, Steve Trachsel endured a second pedestrian outing against Atlanta in a week, and Chad Bradford took the Mets out of the frying pan and into the toilet. Down 6-2 in the seventh, however, the New York nine began to come alive. A double by Paul LoDuca with Jose Reyes aboard would have scored him if it weren’t a ground-rule variety, so Carlos Beltran came up with second and third and none gone. In a pivotal moment that would turn the tide the Mets’ way, Beltran offered a fungo-equivalent 6-4-3 tailor-made special to Edgar “I Don’t Practice” Renteria. As the ball slid directly between his size 11’s, scoring Reyes and avoiding a sure rally-killer, that’s when it became apparent that this game had legs.

Three singles later, the score was tied. Decreasingly rare kudos to Kaz Matsui, who tied it up with his base-knock – he had a pair of stellar sacrifices later that should have led to game-winners, and he stood in there on a double-play ball earlier in the game as well. I’ll wait till he collects his 5th RBI of the year and raises his average above .260 before depositing too many words of praise on him, but being unable to mock him incessantly is actually a pleasant change.

So the game went extras, and Billy Wagner entered the game. Wagner had met with some difficulties in recent nights, but the tenth provided a nice salve to those concerned about the closer. The eleventh, however, was a whole other story, as pinch-hitter Wilson Betemit crushed a Wagner offering over the fence. 7-6, Braves. Wagner tried to overpower the underrated Betemit, ignoring the tequila-drenched pleas of a fan in the Virginia night, imploring him, “Billy, don’t be a hero.”

Last week I referenced Cliff Floyd’s plate-side conundrums in this embryonic stage of ’06. I hoped the problems would just work themselves out. Well, the woes have continued, yet one memorable blast such as last night’s rocket into the right field overhang to lead off the bottom of the eleventh – countering Betemit and rescuing Wagner – can earn back much of the faith in Floyd that might have begun to wane within the Flushing fanatics. For me, his bomb took me back a little more than a year: to a roadside dive on Route 17 in Orange County, NY, watching with extended family after my grandfather’s memorial as Cliff Floyd ended a wild game against the Angels with a long foul ball followed by a long fair ball. Evoking such memories with one swing has to mean good things for Floyd, so says this guy.

And on went the game after Floyd tied it, with benches and pens being depleted by the inning. Eventually, Bobby Cox had to use projected Sunday starter Jorge Sosa, while Willie Randolph was backed into bringing Jorge Julio into the game. When Willie & Cox go to their Jorges, you know the game will get interesting. And that it did.

Beltran walked with one out in Bottom 14, and after Delgado popped out, Carlos made one of the key plays of the game. A pitch to David Wright got away from Braves catcher Brian McCann, but only by about five or six feet. That was enough for an alert Beltran to make an extremely heads-up, gutsy dart towards second. It was a great instinct, a great result, and a great sign for those of us uneasy about the condition of the guy’s hamstring. When D-W’s line drive bounded over the fence and into the bleachers on one hop, the game was won and the place went crazy, but I’ve seen no recognition of the fact that without Beltran’s bold advancement, he’s held at third by another stingy ground rule.

At any rate, Wright did finish it off with his seventh hit in two nights (slump be damned), and there was another round of hushed frenzy in living rooms, dens, and bedrooms throughout Metville. The Mets picked up their 20th win to go with but nine losses. I don’t much like the looks of the next two games versus Atlanta [Victor Zambrano against Tim Hudson and John Maine (or Jose Lima) against . . . whomever], but I don’t much care, either. The Mets can pull either of those games out with the way this team is rolling now, and even if they don’t, it matters little. I’ve reaped more from this crop of New York Mets baseball in six weeks than I could have imagined. While I trust they won’t linger too long on these laurels, the team has us riding too high to worry right now.

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