With our old friends, the Atlanta Braves, coming into town for an NL East Showdown this week, I thought it good and proper to dig into the History Books for another instance when the Mets and Braves duked it out in a key Midseason series.
I dug deep into the annals of time.
Way back to the year 2005.
For me, 2005 almost seems like the season that time forgot. It was sort of this bizarre in-between year, when the last vestiges of the heroships of the late 90s were fading away, the dregs of the Jim Duquette era were moving on, and the groundwork was being laid for the Mets of today. Willie Randolph was in his first season managing the Mets, and after an alarming 0-5 start, the Mets had rebounded to play well, if a bit uneven, over the first half of the season. They carried a 44-44 record into the All-Star Break, sitting tepidly in last place, trailing the miracle Washington Nationals by 8 games and their opponent on this night, the Atlanta Braves, by 5.5 games. It's a Thursday night, the first game back from the All-Star Break, and the Mets and Braves are opening up a 4-game series. El Guapo and I are on hand, sitting in our regular perch in the fabled "Sack O' Nuts" section, Upper Deck, Section 1 as Kris Benson faces off against Horacio Ramirez.
It's mostly quiet early on, as Benson and Ramirez seem to be settling into a neat pitchers duel. The Braves go down 1-2-3 in the 1st. The Mets will threaten in their half of the first, with Mike Cameron drawing a walk and Carlos Beltran following with a single. It is a study in contrasts for these two. Both players were Center Fielders by trade, arriving via Free Agency. It is Beltran, though, who will be the future of the franchise. Although his 2005 season has and will continue to be marked with injuries and inconsistency and boos, he will prove his worth in a stellar 2006 season. Cameron's Mets career was also injury marred, and he will play his last game with the Mets in August of 2005; his season cut short in a gruesome collision with Beltran, and he will be subsequently dealt to San Diego in the offseason. A year later, Cameron's time with the Mets seems like a mere blip on the radar screen. Hard to believe it was only 2 years ago. The tandem will be stranded on the bases in the 1st.
Benson retires the Braves in order in the 2nd. In the Mets half, they break through against Ramirez. It's David Wright, emerging as the new Face of the Mets, off to a brilliant start to his first full season in the Majors, taking the first pitch from Ramirez and blasting a deep drive to dead center. Andro Jones chases it back to the wall and makes a futile leap, but it's gone. It's Wright's 13th HR of the season, on his way to a very solid 27 and a 1-0 Mets lead that will last until the top of the 4th, when the Braves break through against Benson.
Benson had, to this point, retired the first 10 Braves, when Pete Orr singles to center. One out later, with Andro Jones at the plate (and with Larry on the DL, Andro is the chief target of the jeers tonight), Orr steals second. Andro follows by dinking a single up the middle to score Orr to tie the game 1-1.
This tie will be short lived. In the bottom of the 4th, Wright steps to the plate again and belts another HR, this one a line shot into the bleachers in Left to put the Mets back on top, 2-1. The crowd, a surprisingly hearty 43,319 beckons Wright out for the curtain call. He's the new Darling of New York.
With the lead back, Benson again goes into cruise control. These were the kind of outings that the Mets had expected out of Benson when they dealt for him in 2004. At the time, I was a huge Benson fan, and I believed that he would surely thrive once he was playing on a better team than Pittsburgh, and on a team that would score runs for him. For a time, I was right, as Benson had a strong finish in 2004 and a good start in '05. But after this outing, Benson seemed to fizzle out. No Decisions and Losses began to mount, and consistency eluded him. He became a virtual unknown; identified more because of the antics of his trashy wife, Anna, who was more interested in showcasing her breasts than supporting her husband's efforts on the field. Whether she was the main cause or not, Benson would be dealt to Baltimore following the 2005 season for Jorge Julio and a Minor League throw-in who ended up turning out to be kind of OK for the Mets, while Benson would end up missing the entire 2007 season with Shoulder issues.
But tonight, Benson zips through the 5th and 6th innings with no problems. He's aided by some strong defense as well. In the 5th, a long drive foul by Ryan Langerhans is chased down by Cliff Floyd, who lumbers all the way down into the corner in left to make the catch, and then tumble over the wall into the plantings, in a spectacular scene. Fortunately, Floyd pops up OK, unscathed and with the ball. But Ramirez matches Benson on his side, and the score remains 2-1 Mets going into the 7th. But this is where Benson's luck would run out. With 1 out, Johnny Estrada bounced a grounder to Wright at 3rd. But his throw to first was high and wide and past Chris Woodward at 1st for an error. And Adam LaRoche would make that a costly miscue, lofting a 3-1 pitch from Benson high and deep and out into the Bleachers in left-center, over the 396 mark for a 2-run HR to give the Braves their first lead at 3-2.
But the Mets weren't done.
In their half of the 7th, the Mets would rally back. Wright would lead off by drawing a walk. Chris Woodward would follow by grounding out to second, just far enough over to be able to move Wright to 2nd base (the popular "Productive Out"). Ramirez will then attempt to pick off Wright at second, but his throw is high and into Center Field, and Wright scampers to 3rd. Now, all Miguel Cairo has to do is just get that ball in the air deep enough to bring Wright home.
He can't. Swinging as if he were trying to blast the ball off the Whitestone Bridge, Cairo meekly grounds to short, and Wright can't advance. 2 outs. Pitcher's spot up. We look at the on-deck circle.
"Who's #35?" El Guapo asks me.
"#35? That's Jose Offerman." I reply. Then, I notice that #35 is heading to the plate, bat in hand. I'm incredulous. "Good God! It's Jose Awfulman!" I yell. I'm convinced that Willie had just taken his stupid pill by sending up Offerman, 0 for forever, it seemed.
Of course, Offerman shut me up by pounding a 2-1 pitch through the hole into left field for the game-tying hit.
On to the 8th, where it would be The Past and The Future that would steal the show for the Mets. Roberto Hernandez would come on in the top of the inning, and he got into a quick jam. Hernandez starts by walking Andy Marte, pinch hitting for Ramirez. Rafael Furcal followed with a sacrifice bunt. Pete Orr will hit a slow chopper that Reyes can only knock down, allowing Orr to reach and Marte to go to 3rd. Kelly Johnson is next. As Hernandez begins his motion, Marte begins his mad dash towards home as Johnson squares to bunt. Seeing this, David Wright flies in from third as Johnson makes contact...
...And pops the ball straight up in the air. Wright dives in to make the catch. Marte has already crossed the plate. He's a dead duck. As the crowd roars with delight, Wright pops up and jogs back to third to complete the unassisted DP to end the threat, preserve the tie and end the inning.
And in the bottom of the 8th, the Mets would provide more drama. Cameron leads off by striking out against Jim Brower. Beltran follows by ripping a double off the base of the right field wall, his 4th hit of the game. Cox, as is his habit, immediately goes to his bullpen, calling in lefty John Foster to pitch to the Lefty, Cliff Floyd.
Foster walks Floyd on 4 pitches. Plan does not work. Cox again goes to the mound, bringing in righty Blaine Boyer to pitch to The Man himself, Mike Piazza.
And it will be Piazza, the Greatest Hero in Mets History, with his best days behind him, in his final year with the Mets, coming up with one more huge hit, the kind of hit he has delivered so many times before. Piazza takes an 0-2 pitch from Boyer and rips it, one of his big, inside-out swings that produces a long fly ball that seems to hang in the air forever. We can see Langerhans in right dashing back helplessly, but this ball is too high, too far, and gone, off the side of the Loge and into the Mets Bullpen for a 3-run HR, giving the Mets a 6-3 lead. As Piazza rounds the bases, the crowd is deafening. And as he goes back into the dugout, the crowd continues to roar and chant his name, until he comes out for a curtain call.
And it becomes clear that this is the beginning of Mike's Half-Season long Farewell Party, one that will end with a grand sendoff on the final day of the season, and will be complete upon his retirement, and the posting of his #31 along with the Retired Numbers in Left Field.
The Rest of the game seems academic. Braden Looper comes on for the 9th and, in a rare effort from him, retires the side in order, finishing with a strikeout of LaRoche to finish out the 6-3 victory that will pull the Mets out of last place.
The rest of the season will play itself out rather frustratingly. The Mets will continue to battle and draw themselves close to contention in late August. But just as it seems the Mets are ready to take the leap, the bottom drops out, and the Mets are doomed to another season of obscurity, finishing 83-79, well off the pace. Piazza will leave via Free Agency in the offseason. Players like Offerman, Cairo and Looper will be dismissed. Benson and his wife will be dealt. But the Mets will turn a corner in that offseason, and moves will be made that will make the Mets into a dominant force, one that will run away with the Divison in 2006.