Monday, September 8, 2008

Prime Time Players

Sunday began as a rather important day for the Mets, in which they would play two huge games against their closest rival.

By the time 6pm rolled around and I was heading out to Shea, the Biggest Game in the Galaxy had become the Biggest Game of the Season for the Mets. A loss, and certain doom appeared imminent, even if it were just in the head of the media and the fans. But still, a team with playoff aspirations, a team that has been playing virtually unconscious ball for the past two months cannot, simply cannot allow their closest rival to sweep them in their own park in September. We already know what that can lead to. We didn't need to see it again. After a flat, uninspiring effort in the day game, another loss to Philadelphia in which the Phillies just flat-out beat the Mets, that ride to Shea was tense, and that's being kind.

I was sitting in UR 16, Row U. A birds-eye view of everything. Fear and loathing as what felt to me like far too many people in Philly gear filed in around me. A family in which the two sons wore a giant green Philly fanatic hat and the other son wore a Cheesesteak hat. New on me. Philly fans with Flags. Mets fans with nerves. A bad combination for a game that had all the atmosphere of Game 7 of the World Series.

And it may as well have been Game 7 of the World Series if you look at the way the Mets played the game last night.

After a near-catastrophic 1st inning that nearly sent me up and over Row V and off the side of the Stadium, the Mets bats came back and made Cole Hamels look rather pedestrian. I took to chewing gum to allay the tension somewhat, and by the time Jose Reyes stepped up to the plate in the last of the 1st, my jaw was sore. But a couple of hits and hit catcher's mitts, followed by an irrational shit-fit from Charlie Manuel and capped off by Carlos Delgado stepping up and all of a sudden, I felt a little better. So did the rest of the crowd. It's rare that I've been to a regular season game where fans were up with every 2-strike pitch. And as Santana settled down and slowed down the tempo of the game, and the Philly bats, it became clear that things would be OK, at least as long as he remained sharp and kept his pitch count down. After a sweaty, 25-pitch 1st inning, it wasn't exactly clear how long he could hold out. Or if the Mets could get him some more runs.

It was an intense back-and forth, moreso in the stands than on the field. Ryan Howard, who appears to swing completely flat-footed, reached Santana for an out-of-nowhere HR in the 3rd, especially considering that Santana would otherwise strike out the side. Again, tension in a 3-2 game. But Carlos Delgado has a habit of coming up big in big games. The first of his two HRs, in the 3rd inning, opened the lead back to two runs and relaxed us some more. The second HR simply stole the show. It wasn't the typical Delgado HR, a high, parabolic fly that hangs forever and lands over the wall, it was more of a line drive. But it was one of those line drives that kept sailing, off into the night, far beyond the eyesight of anyone in attendance, perhaps interrupting the Tennis going on across the street.

The previous game I attended, against the Astros, Delgado similarly hit two HRs, and appeared to be thrown out of the dugout for a curtain call. It seemed as if the same thing happened last night, but a closer look revealed that Delgado went up on his own. And with the crowd screaming MVP! MVP! MVP! why not?

But, still, with a 5-2 lead, things still seemed up to chance. Things also got progressively rowdier and rowdier. Several sections to my left, arguments between a large, flag waving pocket of Philly fans and Mets fans got more and more heated, and people began to get thrown out. Things would continue to escalate into fisticuffs by the 7th inning, the entire lot of Philly fans ejected in the 8th inning, and a lone Philly straggler attacking a security guard and presumably getting thrown down several rows of seats in the 9th inning. It makes me glad I was in the no-alcohol section.

On the field, the Mets continued. Manuel managed the game as if it were his last. Santana kept mowing down Philly hitters, working over 100 pitches in the 7th, and then taking it a little further, into the 8th. This was the must-win, ace effort the Mets needed out of him, and Santana proved to be every bit up to the task. By the time he finished, after a double by Jayson Spiezio Werth-Less that appeared more misjudged by Beltran than well-struck, Santana had gutted it out for 116 pitches, 2 runs on 5 hits, 6 strikeouts, 1 walk and 1 gigantic Standing Ovation as he departed. His 13th win of the season, and it couldn't possibly have come at a better time.

Feliciano and Stokes efficiently did their job in the 8th and Ayala made it rather hairy in the 9th, to the point where I was chomping down on my gum and my jaw was beginning to stiffen up. How the hell he managed to give up an infield single to Matt Stairs is beyond me, and Andy Tracy hit a screamer that nearly gave everyone in the stadium a heart attack before Endy played the part of Endy and ran the ball down, turning certain doom into an academic Sacrifice Fly. Ayala got Rollins to meekly wave at strike 3, and thus, the Mets staved off the Phillies, prevented the sweep, maintained a 2-game lead with 19 games to play, and saved the sanity of their entire fan base ove the course of, perhaps, the most intense 2 hours and 49 minutes of baseball they've played to this point of the season.

Following the game, and following the ride back on the crowded, exhausted, yet mirthful 7 train, I was ready to collapse. Yet, somehow, I was too wired to fall asleep. I wonder if anyone else felt that way. The energy of games like this doesn't exactly wear off quickly.


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