From Carlos Gomez to Wilmer Flores to Yoenis Cespedes, the New York Mets offered high drama in a week that ended in euphoria.
By Bryan Pol
Since Citi Field opened for business in 2009, very few moments jolted the building the way it was trembling Sunday night, when the New York Mets capped off a sweep of the Washington Nationals to pull even for first place in the NL East.
While Johan Santana’s no-hitter and R.A. Dickey’s 20th victory in the midst of his Cy Young campaign did their part to rock Citi Field from the Jackie Robinson Rotunda to the Pepsi Porch, both incidents occurred while the Mets were in the middle of a losing season in 2012.
Sunday night marked the night the Mets were back.
“It’s so much fun to be a Met right now,” hurler Noah Syndergaard remarked after pitching eight masterful innings, the second start in a row in which Thor, as he is aptly called, was able to reach eight frames. His efforts lowered his sparkling ERA to 2.66, and pulled his club dead even with a team picked by many not only to win the division, but reach, if not win, the World Series.
Look back to where the Mets were only a week and a half ago: on July 22, Syndergaard, Hansel Robles, and Jenrry Mejia, now suspended 162 games for his second PED-related incident, worked seven innings of one run ball against the Nationals in Washington, handing pitching duties over to reliever Bobby Parnell, who subsequently surrendered three runs in the eighth en route to a 4-3 loss that put the Mets three back in the division.
Although he hit three home runs in a Sunday matinee a few weeks earlier, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, hitting .161, was filling in that day for Michael Cuddeyer, an expensive bat (in both salary and compensation: New York had to relinquish a future number one draft pick to get him) who headed to the DL earlier in the week. In light of Travis d’Arnaud’s stint on the DL, New York was forced to rely on a poor-hitting tandem of Kevin Plawecki and Anthony Recker at catcher. Matters were looking bleak a week out from the trade deadline, no matter what the likes of Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Steven Matz, the latter, another player depleted by the disabled list, could muster. The club was hitting .233, good for the worst mark in the both the NL and the majors.
From the Cardinals to Nationals, two division leaders, the Mets would go on to face a third, the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Clayton Kershaw leading the series off with a 3-0 win. The Mets would go on to lose that Friday, July 24, to the Dodgers again 7-2, despite Los Angeles being without Zach Greinke, who left the club to be with his wife for the birth of their first child. In spite of their trials, the Mets did not lose ground to Washington, and even acquired two bats from Atlanta in the process: Kelly Johnson and Juan Uribe, both of whom were hitting over .270, a mark no Met had managed this year.
News surfaced that Greinke, the NL ERA leader (by a ton) in the middle of an historic scoreless innings streak, would return to pitch Sunday. No matter. The Mets scored 15 runs on Saturday, Harvey Day, to best the Dodgers (Lucas Duda, looking to turn a corner, hit two homers, while Kelly Johnson added another in his Mets’ debut), and ended Greinke’s scoreless streak en route to an extra innings win on Sunday capped off by a Juan Uribe walk-off single. Syndergaard then factored mightily into a 4-0 win against the Padres, and the Mets, now winners of three straight, days after losing six of their last eight, were one game back of Washington. In the midst of their run, the Mets would then turn to the Athletics to acquire Tyler Clippard, shoring up their bullpen and saving face from the Mejia suspension.
Alas, New York would soon embarrass themselves on a national level on a night, in the thick of a 7-2 loss to San Diego, that put general manager Sandy Alderson to shame, manager Terry Collins to fits of rage and doubt, and second baseman Wilmer Flores to tears. The trade that never was–Flores and Zach Wheeler for Carlos Gomez–made the Mets look incompetent, foolish, and rudderless, and forced Alderson to make a deal to appease the fanbase more so than to better his club. Never mind that the Mets would lose another game to San Diego 8-7 the next day despite being up 7-1 at one point. The Mets sputtered to the trade deadline losing two in a row, in dire need of winning a series, again, against the Nationals, to avoid falling as far back as six games in the division.
On July 31, the Astros made the deal the Mets could not, acquiring Gomez and Mike Fier to put them in position to win the AL West and battle the Royals, Yankees, Angels, and Blue Jays for AL supremacy, while Mets’ fans were frantically groping for the panic button. News broke that the Mets were working “through the night” prior to the deadline to acquire outfielder Jay Bruce, a Lucas Duda-like player who would be under team control for two years beyond 2015, but whose numbers were largely the byproduct of raking in a hitter-friendly ballpark in Cincinnati. Dealing for Bruce, with Wheeler dangled yet again as bait, did not appear desperate so much as it appeared like the Mets would be settling.
When the Bruce deal “lost momentum,” and the Mets were heading to the deadline’s eleventh hour, the fanbase was facing the likelihood of ending the day empty-handed.
Then, lightning struck in the form of Detroit Tiger outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, just as it had when the Cuban phenom won the 2013 Home Run Derby at Citi Field, wearing blue and orange, of all colors.
For the price of minor leaguers Luis Cessa and Michael Fulmer, whose command and velocity may earn him a spot in Detroit’s rotation in 2016, the Mets landed an impact bat who, when paired with the return of Travis d’Arnaud on Friday night, would be the tidal wave that consumed the Nationals over the course of a three-game sweep at Citi Field.
If the Cespedes deal would be the right move to incite a tidal wave, then it was Wilmer Flores who was at the crest of it. From a diving grab, to countless ovations from the Mets’ crowd, embracing a young man they knew loved their ball club, and had the tears to prove it, Flores accentuated a 2-1 win on Friday night with a glorious walk-off home run that sent Citi Field into a state of complete and utter euphoria.
A moment like Flores’s game winner, Earth-shattering enough to make Friday night “Wilmer Flores Day” as opposed to “Harvey Day,” has everything to do with why we love the national pastime, this beautiful game that is poetry played out on a diamond, like John Updike “bidding The Kid adieu” on one October day at Fenway Park in 1960. Listening to Gary Cohen’s emphatic call was all fans needed to hear in recognizing the resplendence of Flores’s huge moment.
As Brad Pitt, playing the role of Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the film Moneyball, quipped, “How can you not be romantic about baseball?” Flores’s moment at Citi Field was all romance, all drama, all Met fans needed to will their club to a sweep that got the ballpark rocking like it was the 2006 NLCS at Shea Stadium all over again.
So many wish to be a part of the magic, Zach Wheeler included. Recovering from Tommy John surgery, Wheeler sat back all last week, flummoxed over being named in one trade rumor after another. Reportedly, Wheeler himself reached out to Sandy Alderson, desperate to be a part of a team that traded fan favorite Carlos Beltran for him several seasons ago. While rehabbing at Port St. Lucie, Wheeler was urged by his agent to reach out to Alderson. The pitcher recalled, “I’m happy to be part of this organization still. We’re moving in the right way, obviously. It’s been a lot of fun to watch this year. I wish I could be up here and pitch with these guys and play with them. An unfortunate thing happened. It’s fun watching at least.”
One can hear not only Wheeler’s genuine desire to stay aboard with New York, but also his sheer disappointment in missing out on the ride the Mets and their fanbase have enjoyed this past week, one that continues with Michael Conforto’s first home run as a Met and Cespedes’s best night with New York in a 12-1 rout of the Marlins that puts the Mets alone atop the NL East. Fitting that before Monday night’s contest in Miami, Syndergaard and Duda, given their recent dominance, were both named NL Players of the Week.
While the Yankees have maintained a comfortable lead in the AL East, the Mets are the story for the time being in New York, and perhaps for the foreseeable future, given how special the Mets’ rotation is, can, and will be beyond a run that promises meaningful games for the Mets in September.
And to think: the deal that never was, the one that retained Wilmer Flores, may be the most pivotal of them all in a season that is bound to be full of them.
The Amazin’s are here to entertain and impress for what remains of 2015.
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