José Valverde is the latest player ESNY examines as we travel back to 2014 for a trip down New York Mets memory lane.
Do you remember when it became clear that the losing was over, and the New York Mets were going to buckle down and put a competitive team on the field? And did you know that it involved José Valverde?
Let me explain.
It was May 26, 2014. Memorial Day. At Citi Field, the Mets were playing the Pirates. Overall, the 2014 Mets bullpen was actually shockingly competent. Jenrry Mejia, Carlos Torres, Vic Black, Josh Edgin, Jeurys Familia, Buddy Carlyle, and Dana Eveland all put together quality seasons. But early on in the year, the Mets were leaning heavily on two veteran bullpen arms: Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth. Valverde was 36, and Farnsworth was 38.
On the mound against the Pirates, the Mets had a 26-year-old right-hander making the third start of his career. But Jacob deGrom looked like a veteran. He pitched into the seventh and didn’t allow a run. The future Cy Young winner also singled in the fifth. Up next, Juan Lagares walked. Then Daniel Murphy singled to left. DeGrom scored, and when Josh Harrison tried to throw Lagares out at third, the throw got away and Lagares scored too.
DeGrom came out with two outs in the seventh. Familia struck out Andrew McCutchen to end the inning. The Mets led 2-0.
In the eighth, things went wrong.
The Pirates had recent Mets’ cast-off Ike Davis playing first. But manager Clint Hurdle didn’t want Davis to bat against a lefty. So leading off the eighth, when Terry Collins inserted Scott Rice to pitch, Hurdle countered with Gaby Sanchez. It was a move that Terry probably should have anticipated and avoided. In Rice’s career, lefties batted .196/.285/.282 against him. Righties hit .368/.517/.485. Sanchez, meanwhile, had a .691 OPS against righties. Against lefties, it rose to .863.
So it was no surprise when Sanchez homered against Rice leading off the eighth. Rice settled down, though, and got the next two outs. But then Starling Marte, another right-handed batter, came up, and Terry wasn’t taking any chances. Rice came out. José Valverde entered the game.
At age 36, Valverde was no longer good. But he was still intimidating. He still threw fairly hard, and had tattoos and a beard. He was 6-foot-4 and weighed 265 pounds. He was imposing, even if his ERA was over 5.00.
Valverde was a prototypical bad Met. Memories of his best years gave fans hope, even though the pitches he was throwing didn’t. Like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jason Isringhausen, or Gary Sheffield, Valverde was there for what he’d done in the past as much as what he could do in the present.
Actually, compared to Valverde, Matsuzaka and Isringhausen looked like Tom Seaver. Valverde was clearly on his last legs. By giving the Mets a well-known name in the bullpen, he lent them a vague air of competence. He wasn’t good for much else.
Valverde promptly gave up a double and a single, and the Pirates tied the game.
Anyone can give up a run. The real head-scratcher came in the ninth, when Terry left Valverde in the game. It was one of those Terry Collins moves that was obviously, glaringly wrong. Valverde secured one out.
Then he allowed a single, a walk, and another single. Carlos Torres finally came in and, after allowing an RBI double, managed to pitch his way out of the inning, but the three runs were more than the Mets could come back from. The Pirates won 5-3.
It was a game the Mets should have won. But the Mets had been losing games they should have won for years. That was no surprise. The surprise came a few minutes later when Sandy Alderson made an announcement.
The Mets had released Valverde. They’d also fired hitting coach Dave Hudgens.
To a 17-year-old Mets fan walking through Riverside Park listening to the postgame show on a transistor radio, it was a revelation. For years, the Mets had foisted bad relievers upon their fans, so much so that it seemed like normal baseball operations. Now, suddenly, failure was unacceptable? They were cutting loose an established, well-known reliever just because he couldn’t really pitch anymore?
“Wait a minute,” Mets fans thought to themselves as they absorbed the news. “Are we…are we actually trying to get better?”
Everyone knows how this story ends: the Mets were assembling a team that, by the following year, would storm away from the pack and dominate the National League. Mets fans remember the 2015 team: the surge in July and August, the dominant September, the back-and-forth NLDS, the cruise past the Cubs, etc.
But not many people remember what came before. No one talks about that warm May afternoon in 2014, when the Mets, simply by releasing a pitcher who couldn’t pitch anymore, convinced a 17-year-old superfan that magic was just around the corner.