Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lost Classics: July 2, 2004

This was tied for the winner of the Choose the Lost Classic for 2004 Poll. I guess that means I have to write about all 3 games.

The 2004 Mets were, for the most part, a forgettable team. Led by Art Howe, the Mets featured what looked, on paper, to be a fairly formidable roster, featuring Mike Piazza, Mike Cameron, Cliff Floyd and a Japanese import playing at Shortstop, Kaz Matsui. A ballyhooed offseason acquisition, Matsui was so highly touted as a Shortstop that the Mets went so far as to move top prospect Jose Reyes to second base in order to make room for Matsui. Reyes relented, then proceeded to miss the first two and a half months of the season with a hamstring injury. Matsui homered on the first pitch he ever saw in the Major leagues, and went on to pop several more HRs, all of them leading off the game. But, for the most part, the Mets were pretty flat. But they hung tough in the NL East, and they stood merely 2 games out of first place, behind Florida and Philadelphia, when the Yankees came to Shea for the second half of the 2004 Subway Series. One weekend prior, the Mets took one of three from the Yankees in the Bronx. But the Mets didn't rate against the Yankees, it seemed. There was, in fact, such a lack of interest in the Subway Series this season, that tickets for all three games at Shea remained available up to a week prior to the game. I noticed this while looking at around that time, and immediately called El Guapo. The Guap had recently moved to New York, and jumped at the chance to go to a Subway Series game. So we snapped up a pair of Mezzanine seats for the Friday night game, July 2nd.

We would be in for one of the great surprise performances of the season.

It was a miserably humid day that Friday. We met in Union Square at around 5:15 and took the train out to Shea. The Stadium was moderately full when we arrived, close to 6pm, and fans continued to file in pretty regularly. All told, the attendance would be 55,068 for the game, impressive considering it wasn't sold out a week before. The Yankee contingent was certainly there, although, it seemed, they were mostly confined to the upper reaches of the stadium. In the Mezzanine, section 26, we were surrounded by mostly Mets fans. But where, at times, the crowd will get rowdy and nasty, tonight, for the most part, things seemed calm and harmonious, even before the game, when the rains came and delayed the start for almost 40 minutes. As the rain finally stopped and the tarp was removed, we were entertained by some horrendous singers from a Broadway Musical whose title escapes me. El Guapo and I took this opportunity to go and grab something to eat. Most of the concession stands were jammed, although we found a short line near our section. The pickings were rather slim. We each settled on the Cascarino's Pizza, which sounded like a good idea at the time. We expected a mini-pizza, like you used to be able to get at Shea. We returned to our seats and opened the box. There it was. A sorry, solitary pizza slice that appeared to be a relic from the Bobby Valentine era. It had all the consistency of a manhole cover and the box it came in probably had more flavor. "Here comes Botulism," I said, as I crunched into it. Following a discussion as to what would actually give you Botulism, we vowed never to make a similar mistake again.

Meanwhile, as the singers droned on, the fans began to get restless. "START THE GAME!" I screamed. "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!" The fans around me laughed in agreement. Finally, at 7:52, the game began, with Steve Trachsel taking the mound for the Mets against Mike Mussina. Clearly, a mismatch, though to that point in the season, Trachsel had been outperforming the dainty Mussina, boasting an ERA nearly a point lower. Trachsel started off strong, getting Bernie Williams to pop out, and Derek Jeter, his face all banged up following his signature intangible catch against the Red Sox the previous evening, grounded out. Gary Sheffield flied to left, and Trachsel had eased through the first. So far, so good.

The Mets came out ready to attack Mussina. Jose Reyes flied out and Kaz Matsui followed by grounding out. Piazza followed with a hard single to left, in between Jeter and A-Rod. Cliff Floyd followed by ripping a hard shot deep in the gap in left center. Hideki Matsui and Bernie Williams gave it chase, and it appeared Matsui would run it down. But as soon as Matsui got a glove on it, he slammed into the wall, and dropped the ball. Piazza, running all the way, scored from first, and Floyd was on second on Matsui's error. Richard Hidalgo, brought in in a June trade with the Astros, and enjoying a short-lived hot streak, followed by drilling one well over Williams' head for an RBI double, scoring Floyd and staking the Mets to an early 2-0 lead. Shane Spencer grounded out, but the Mets had broken the ice.

It would only get better.

Trachsel would cruise through the top of the 2nd, only allowing a 2-out single to Jorge Posada. A-Rod led off the inning by getting heckled by just about everyone in the section before grounding back to Trachsel. In the Mets half of the 2nd, the Mets would continue their attack.. Eric Valent poked a rare single to right with 1 out. Trachsel sacrificed Valent over to 2nd. Reyes would follow with a ground ball towards the middle. Miguel Cairo, playing second for the Yankees, made a valiant dive to come up with it, but had no play on the speedy Reyes, as Valent advanced to 3rd. Kaz Matsui followed. After Mussina threw to first a couple of times, and missed outside on the first pitch to Matsui, Kaz swung and lifted a high fly ball out to right. In the humid air, the ball continued to carry and carry, and Sheffield chased it back until he ran out of room, and the ball landed just over the 371 sign for a 3-run HR. Now, we're talking! Now, all the Mets fans are up and making noise. That's the kind of hit we were looking for out of Kaz.

Kaz's 2-out hit put the Mets up 5-0, and put pressure on the Yankees to come back. But with the lead, Trachsel went into lockdown mode, a form that he would exhibit from time to time, but would be all too fleeting when he would need it the most. But this evening, Trachsel cruises, setting down the Yankees in order in the 3rd and 5th, and only allowing a leadoff walk to Jeter in the 4th. On the other side, Mussina settled down as well, retiring the Mets in order in the 3rd and 4th.

But in the 5th, the Mets would extend their lead. Piazza led off with a hard single to left. After Floyd struck out, Richard Hidalgo, after falling behind 0-2, got a fastball from Mussina and absolutely parked it, a no-doubt HR that sailed into the Bleachers in Left. 7-0 Mets. Now, the Mets fans are jumping and dancing and randomly high-fiving everyone, the Yankee fans are shrugging and saying, "Oh, well," and everyone's having a grand old time. Even the lone transplanted bleacher bum sitting two sections over.

Finally, in the 6th, the Yankees break through, capitalizing on some sloppy Mets defense. Kenny Lofton led off, pinch hitting for Mussina, done after allowing 7 runs and 9 hits in his 5 innings, and hit a dinky dribbler in front of the plate. But Lofton, known for his speed, busts it down the line, and when Piazza's hurried throw sails wide and into the seats, Lofton takes second on the error. Williams follows by striking out, but Trachsel then walks Jeter. Sheffield follows by ripping a line shot towards Ty Wigginton at 3rd. It has all the makings of a DP ball, but it goes right through Wigginton's legs for another error. Lofton scores, Jeter goes to 3rd and Sheffield makes it all the way to 2nd. And, even though they trail 7-1, all the Yankee fans suddenly come to life. "WIGGLE MY BALLS!" screams the Bleacher Bum. "MEATHEAD!" we fire back. Still, knowing the Yankees and their propensity to score 7 runs in the blink of an eye, there's a moment of trepidation. Rodriguez follows by flying deep to right, a long drive that carries back to the warning track before Hidalgo runs it down, but Jeter tags and scores to make the score 7-2. Trachsel, however, gets Matsui to ground out to end the inning.

5 runs doesn't seem like enough against this team. We need some more.

Bret Prinz enters for the Yankees in the 6th inning, and with 1 out, he allows a clean single right back up the box by Trachsel. After Reyes strikes out, it's Kaz Matsui up again. Kaz works a 3-0 count, before taking a strike and fouling off a pitch. On 3-2, Kaz swings and blasts another drive, deep and high and out, and, unlike his first HR, there was no doubt about this one as it sails into the Mets bullpen.

There's those runs we needed. The fans are delirious. Cliff Floyd and Mike Cameron need to show Kaz how to take a curtain call, which he takes. A salute to an unlikely Subway Series hero.

With their 7-run lead back, the rest of the game seems more or less academic. Trachsel eases through the 7th, then departs. The Mets add two more runs in the 7th off Prinz, courtesy of a 2-out rally started by a Shane Spencer single, a long Ty Wigginton double to deep center, and a triple from Valent that very nearly goes out of the ballpark before bouncing around the Left Field corner. The Yankee fans give up and depart with an 11-2 score. Most of the Mets fans, and just about everyone in our section stick around, enjoying a rare moment when the Mets and their fans can sit back, relax and enjoy kicking the Yankees' asses. Williams, Jeter, Sheffield and Hideki Matsui are all pulled from the game in the 8th, and Jose Parra and Orber Moreno combine to keep the Yankees at bay in the 8th and 9th, Moreno finishing the game off with a strikeout of Miguel Cairo. We go home full of mirth and merriment, kicking off the Subway Series with a rousing 11-2 victory.

Late that night, El Guapo receives a phone call from Shirts vs. Blouses, who at the time was living in San Francisco. He's out drinking at around 10pm. El Guapo, in New York, is asleep at 1am. El Guapo answers his phone. "KAZ MATSUI!!! KAZ MATSUI!!!" Shirts screams.

The Mets will go on to beat the Yankees again on Saturday and close out their first ever sweep of the Yankees with a victory on Sunday. It's not only the first time they've swept the Yankees, it's the first time they've taken the season series from the Yanks. But although the mojo of this series carries them for a few weeks, ultimately the Mets weaknesses will be exposed after several questionable deadline deals are made. Pitching is brought in, when the Mets sit near the top of the league in ERA, and close to the bottom in offense. Reyes will get injured again, Matsui will struggle both offensively and defensively, and Hidalgo will eventually come back to earth.

But it can't take away the magic of this Friday night, where the Mets asserted themselves and kick started a glorious weekend for us all.

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