Monday, April 21, 2008

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

When we last saw Steroid Field II, late last August, it was for a miserable 4-game sweep that pretty much signaled the beginning of the end for the 2007 Mets.

Since then, the Mets blew their lead, Philly got swept out of the playoffs, the Mets got Santana, words were exchanged between fans and players on both sides, and these Mets/Phillies games began to take on the feel of a mini-war each time they played. The games may not necessarily be long, but, man, do they feel long. Especially as the game winds into the late innings, both teams continually get runners on, and the game is in the hands of both teams' suspect bullpens. Greg at Faith and Fear describes the kind of games that the Mets and Phils have played perfectly here. Basically, it's impossible to relax until the last out is recorded. Win or lose.

At least that's what it seemed like this weekend. Although the three games at Shea certainly held their own drama, things were mostly quiet in the stands, except for the three fistfights on Opening Day, which usually happens every Opening Day, no matter who the Mets are playing. But Philly, even going back to the days of The Vet, seems to have been a stomping ground for Mets fans to invade the opponent's home ballpark and wreak havoc. Yes, there were plenty of Philly fans in New York, particularly at the final game of the series, but it seems like Mets fans really seem to haunt Philly in droves. This year, it seemed to reach a new height, with Mets fans planning a major invasion on Saturday afternoon. Philly fans reacted with a planned counter-invasion in September. The question for the Mets was, could they continue to erase the ghosts from last year, go into Philly, and win? Would the rival factions in the stands kill each other first? Little of column A, little of column B.

We began on Friday night, with The Guap and I reassuming the same positions we held for the previous Friday night's game, ready to watch what shaped up as a dream matchup between Johan Santana and Cole Hamels.

They didn't disappoint.

If, perhaps, the Mets do move on to bigger and better things as the season progresses, I'd like to look at Santana's outing on Friday night in particular as a turning point. Through his first three games, Santana had been good, albeit prone to the longball, as was his habit back in the AL. But, for 7 innings on Friday night, all I could do was watch and think to myself, "This is why we got him."

What Santana basically did was deal as only he can, mixing in his fastball, slider and changeup like the Master Painter he is. El Guapo and I watched him make Burrell look silly in the 5th, one of his 10 Ks, in which he got ahead with the fastball, wasted a slider, and came back with a dead fish that Burrell didn't even come close to.

On the other side, the Mets 2-0 lead had an almost Pyrrhic feel to it, especially after Reyes appeared to knock himself silly on a stolen base in the 4th. The replays showed him sliding headfirst directly into Chase Utley's knee, which could have been particularly dangerous for both parties, but it appeared Reyes took the worst of it. With the game muted, and the captions bad, I had no idea that the Philly fans were, as they have been known to do, cheering Reyes' injury, thereby setting the stage for a weekend's worth of Met fan ire. We were pretty well convinced that Reyes was done for the game, but after a few minutes, he hopped up, dusted himself off and stayed in the game, scoring when Wright tripled on the next pitch.

The way Santana was rolling along, the game seemed pretty well in hand. Utley's solo HR in the 7th was countered by a prolonged Met rally in the 8th that plated 3 runs, extending the Mets lead to 5-1.

Foolish to think the game was anywhere close to over.

Santana emerged for the 8th, as well he should have, but quickly allowed 2 hits before departing in favor of Aaron Heilman, who would face Greg Dobbs, who seems to be one of these players that's nothing but a spare part, and anybody who can play 3rd Base for Philly is pretty much a spare part, but for some reason, he always kills the Mets. Damned if he didn't do it again, hitting what appeared to be a classic SF2 HR, a pop fly to right that just carried forever and landed a few rows in the seats. 5-4.

Well, why not?

This is where we all took a collective shit, I'm sure. Heilman on the ropes yet again (his split, something like .080 against right handed batters and .455 against lefties, should say enough) in a one-run game, in this house of horrors. This had all the makings of a pure, unadulterated disaster. But Heilman got Jenkins and Werth, Feliciano came in to get Utley, and all of a sudden my face returned to its normal color. The Mets manage to tack on an insurance run against Brad Lidge, albeit an unearned run, but an insurance run is an insurance run in a game like this, and Wagner worked a relatively drama-free 9th inning, giving the Mets the victory.

And about a minute or so later, the Rangers finished off the Devils in the 5th game of their series. Good night all around.

Saturday, I actually didn't see any of the game, being out most of the afternoon, and at a Seder in the evening. I could only rely on a late text message from El Guapo for the score, and even then, I didn't know what happened in the game until much later. Basically, from what I could gather, it went something like this:

David Wright, Jose Reyes, Bullpen, Heilman , Bullpen, major fistfight in the stands.

If I'm wrong on this, someone let me know.

The Mets jumped ahead thanks to David Wright, who seems to be just about the hottest player on the planet right now (or at least right up there with another 3rd Baseman in the same division who is apparently named after some sort of mulching device), Oliver Perez sweat his way through 5.2 innings, Jose Reyes hit a HR off Madson, the Phillies chipped away in the 7th and 8th, Heilman redeemed himself by getting out of a bases loaded jam in the 8th, replete with strikeouts of Jenkins and Werth, and Wagner pitched a drama-free 9th, giving the Mets the victory.

That's the short form of saying that the game was pretty well similar to Friday night.

The talk afterwards, however, had nothing to do with the game, but with the behavior of the fans at the game. Although I didn't know anyone who was there, I'm sure there are some readers who made the trip to Philly for Saturday's game. Whether it's true or not, I heard that several fistfights broke out between Mets fans and Philly fans, including a major rumble in the lower deck in the 9th inning that apparently delayed the game because it was either going to spill onto the field, or because the players were too entertained to continue playing. Either way, is anyone really surprised? The folks at the 700 Level didn't seem to be.

Most of the callers on WFAN seem to be condemning the whole thing. I'm certainly not in favor of it, but let's face it. I've been to enough games, and so have many of you reading this, and you get some loudmouths, and people who go out there with the intent to start trouble, combined with a healthy dose of alcohol, and these things happen. Last year, at the Sunday night Mets/Yankees game at Shea, several sections in the Upper Deck in Right Field erupted to the point where security guards were standing in front of each section from the 5th inning on. Fans of the road team in your home park can really get under your skin sometimes. I know from experience. The key is to keep a calm head. And keep your mouth shut.

Not that that will ever happen.

Sunday night brought the series finale, the ESPN game, or as I like to call it, "The Biggest Game in the Galaxy," with the Mets primed to pull off the revenge sweep. But Pelfrey didn't have his good stuff at all. He was OK through the first few innings, but he was missing all over the place with his sinker, giving up a few fly balls that were lucky to not go out of the ballpark, and a pair by Chase Utley that did. And with the Mets again unable to solve Adam Eaton (which I can't ever understand, because he's not good), it appeared the Mets would go quietly, which was fine, I was perfectly happy to take 2 out of 3 in Philly, enough to move the Mets into 1st place.

But the Mets came back. It was, once again, the quick strike offense doing the job. In the blink of an eye, a 4-0 deficit was immediately 4-3 (thanks to, who else, Reyes and Wright), and then 4-4 after a steal from Beltran and an RBI single from Church (no thanks to Delgado, who repeatedly yakked with men on base all weekend). And all of a sudden, I'm thinking sweep again. We've got them right where we want them.

But the Feliz HR off Feliciano was kind of a buzzkill. You can't argue the move, though. With Utley and Howard to follow, Feliciano was absolutely the guy to have in the game there. Feliz hit for Dobbs and burned him. It happens. I'd still keep running P-Fel out there in those spots so long as he continues to be successful.

Besides, the Mets had every opportunity to come back from the 5-4 deficit, particularly in the 9th against Lidge, who I guess has officially supplanted Flash Gordon as the closer. I don't think Lidge has ever really recovered from that mammoth bomb he gave up to Pujols in the 2005 NLCS. He used to be completely lights out. Now, he's basically been incredibly lucky as opposed to good. He walked Easley and basically knocked down a potential DP ball from Reyes, turning it into a single, and the Mets were right there, ready to strike.

But Castillo, who seems to only be able to bunt anymore, couldn't lay one down. Then he swung badly through a biting slider.

But Wright, who seemed to absolutely rake everything Philly threw at him this weekend, hit a foul pop that hung just long enough for the wind to blow it back onto the playing field, allowing Howard to make the catch.

But Beltran, whose 2-run single in the 6th was the key cog in the tying rally, hit a screamer directly in the same spot—but for Eric Bruntlett, who last week looked like he was playing with a cinder block for a glove making a game-saving stab and throw to get Beltran at first to close out the game, a game that played out much like the other two, only with the shoe coming out on the other foot.

The kind of games we can expect to see more than just a few more times out of these two teams.

Catch your breath yet? I haven't. These two teams are primed to treat us to a lot of second-rate first-class baseball over the course of this season. Get your Xanax ready.

Up next, a trip to the Windy City, where the Mets will blow through town in just about 24 hours and won't return again this season. Didn't there used to be a time when the Mets and Cubs would play 18 times a season? Now, if you blink, you'll miss them.

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