Friday, December 26, 2008

Lost Classics: May 5, 2006

This was the winner of the Choose The Lost Classic for 2006 poll.

The 2006 Mets broke from the gate like a house afire and didn't look back for the rest of the regular season. Having found a solid foundation in 2005, the Willie Randolph-led Mets filled some of the missing pieces and put it all together in '06, becoming a team that would never be out of a game, and at times just flat-out dominate. But early in the season, many of us weren't sure just how good these Mets could be. We saw that they were a much more cohesive unit, with the addition of players like Carlos Delgado, Paul LoDuca, Billy Wagner and Xavier Nady, and they charged out to a 16-8 record at the end of April. But would it last? Was it just a hot start? Would they come back to Earth?

These were the questions I asked myself as I headed out to Shea on a warm Friday night, May 5th, to see the Mets take on the Atlanta Braves, the team that had been the Mets nemesis for so long, the team that had finished 1st 15 years in a row. This was my 6th game of the season; the Mets had won the first 5. One of those games was against the Braves, on April 17th. I suspected that there might have been better things for me to do with myself on a Friday, but I did want to go to the game, it was Shea Stadium tin night, and I had my ticket, UR1, Row V, seat 5. I was ready for a nice, crisp game, featuring a pitching matchup of Steve Trachsel and Kyle Davies.

Little did I know the marathon I was in for.

The game began briskly at 7:10. Trachsel began by giving up a leadoff double to Marcus Giles, a ball that sailed by Xavier Nady in right. Giles moved to 3rd on a Edgar Renteria groundout, and up stepped Larry. It had been 7 years since Larry had become so reviled by Mets fans, but even after all this time, the venom had not died down. The chants and the boos filled the air, but Larry got the last laugh as his grounder to Delgado at 1st was able to score Giles with the game's first run. Andruw Jones struck out, eliciting the famed Strikeout chant from the row of old men who generally inhabited UR1.

The Mets appeared poised to fire right back against Davies. Jose Reyes led off by poking a single through the hole into left, but he was immediately erased when Paul LoDuca hit into a 6-4-3 DP. Carlos Beltran followed, and he took a 1-2 pitch and socked it over the 371 mark in right-center and off the base of the scoreboard for a game-tying HR.

Trachsel got right back to work in the 2nd, getting Francoeur to ground out before Brian Jordan singled and Brian McCann doubled down into the right field corner, scoring Jordan to give the Braves the lead once again. . With men on base, Trachsel slowed down to a snail's pace on the mound, fidgeting, rubbing his cap and stepping off. It slowly became maddening. "A three-hour game! a three-hour game!" sang one of the men in front of me, mocking the Gilligan's Island theme song. Meanwhile, the section filled in. To my left, 3 very large, broad-shouldered men who appeared to be rooting for Atlanta. Just my luck. They were up for McCann's double, but quieted down as Matt Diaz grounded out and Davies flew out to Beltran in center to end the 2nd.

The Mets mounted a thinly veiled threat in the bottom of the 2nd. David Wright led off with a single and Cliff Floyd followed with a walk, but neither would go any further, as Nady flew out, and Kaz Matsui and Trachsel both struck out, eliciting cheers from the gentlemen to my left, and squeals from a group of 4 young folks, one man and three women of Asian persuasion, all of whom were all decked out in a nauseating array of Atlanta hats, Francoeur and Larry shirts and the like.

"Man," I thought. "This could be a long night."

Trachsel continued at his molasses pace in the 3rd. Though he did not allow a run, he did walk Renteria with 1 out. Larry batted, and with the group of girls screaming and chanting, he lifted a drive to center. The girls all started going crazy until the ball died in medium-deep center, in Beltran's glove. Andruw Jones followed.

"Andruw Jones, you need to get a hit NOW!!!" yelled one of the girls.

Jones struck out. The girls sat down. Were I a meaner person, I might have told them where to take their chanting.

The Mets would rally in the bottom of the 3rd. Reyes led off with his 2nd hit of the game, a beauty of a drag bunt up the first base line. He would advance to 2nd on a Wild Pitch from Davies. LoDuca walked. Beltran followed with a golden chance, but could only manage a chopper at Giles at 2nd, who tossed to Renteria to force out LoDuca. But Davies then lost the plate, walking Delgado on 4 pitches, and then doing the same to Wright to force in a run and tie the game, 2-2. The crowd, 47,720, was up as Cliff Floyd stepped to the plate. After a monster 2005 season, Floyd had struggled early on in '06. But certainly he'd get it going before too long. It wouldn't be here, though. After Davies had thrown 8 straight balls, Floyd went up and hacked the first pitch right at Giles, who turned an easy 4-6-3 DP to end the inning. The Braves fans around me were going wild.

Francoeur led off the 4th by lining a double down the left field line, thus ensuring that Trachsel would be working slower and slower. Jordan came to the plate, and was booed loudly. One of the gentlemen to my left turned to me and asked why Mets fans hate Jordan so much. I replied that he was on the Braves team that beat the Mets in 1999, and also hit a pair of killer HRs against the Mets in 2001. He accepted it.

Then, he decided to carry on the conversation. He had said that he really hadn't been paying attention to Baseball all that long. He was from Sweden. I was floored. "So, how do you get to be a Braves fan from Sweden?" I wondered.

"TBS." he replied.

TBS indeed. When you're on a Superstation, I guess your exposure is truly Worldwide.

Little of consequence happened after Francoeur's double, on either side of the ball. Trachsel struck out Jordan and Diaz to get out of the 4th, and allowed only a Renteria single with 2 out in the 5th. The Mets didn't do much of anything against Davies in the 4th, 5th or 6th.

But it was the top of the 6th where the Braves finally broke through. Andruw Jones singled to lead off, but he was forced at 2nd when Francoeur hit a comebacker back to Trachsel. Francoeur then was caught stealing with Jordan at the plate, and it seemed like Trachsel was going to get out of it. But Jordan hit a ground-rule double, and Brian McCann followed with an RBI single to give the Braves the lead once again. "That Trachsel is like Randy Johnson!" one of the old men yelled. "You tie the game and he gives it right back!" Another continued his "Three Hour Game" chant. With the count 0-1 to Diaz, McCann ran. Trachsel threw a splitter in the dirt that momentarily squirted away from LoDuca. McCann slid in easily with a rare stolen base, one which loomed large when Diaz poked the next pitch into right field to score McCann and give the Braves a 4-2 lead. Trachsel set down Davies and that would be it for him on this night, leaving after 6 innings, allowing 9 hits, 4 runs, 1 walk and 4 strikeouts over his 95 pitches.

Chad Bradford took over in the 7th and promptly made a bad game worse. Giles led off with his 2nd double of the game, and moved over to 3rd when Renteria bunted out to LoDuca. Larry was walked intentionally. Andruw Jones then hit a screamer up the middle. Kaz Matsui dove and made a fine stop, but had no play anywhere as Giles scored. Francoeur followed with a clean single to right to score Larry and move Andruw to 3rd. The Braves fans were standing. The old men were growling. I was texting El Guapo telling him that this game had officially become a debacle. I was ready to move, or worse, leave. But Bradford got out of it when Jordan hit into a nifty fielder's choice where Matsui got Andruw in a pickle at 3rd, and then LoDuca tagged him out at home, and then Pedro Feliciano came in to get McCann to end the inning. Still, a 6-2 deficit going to the bottom of the 7th didn't seem too promising.

But these were the 2006 Mets coming to the plate in the bottom of the 7th inning. Jose Reyes led off with a flare single to center, his 4th single of the game. LoDuca followed by drilling a fly ball down the line in Left that took a bounce off the warning track over the wall, a fortuitous bounce for Atlanta as Reyes certainly would have scored. This would be the end for Davies, replaced by lefty Macay McBride as Beltran came to the plate. It looked as though McBride got the job done when Beltran slapped a hard grounder at Renteria. But the ball took a funny hop and went right through Renteria's legs. Reyes scored on the error and LoDuca went to 3rd. Delgado followed by pulling a single to right to score LoDuca. With the score now 6-4, and still none out, McBride departed for Ken Ray. Wright's flyout to right moved Beltran to 3rd, but the Mets continued, as Floyd grounded a single past Giles to score Beltran and draw the Mets to 6-5. Nady followed, and on Ray's 2-0 pitch, the ball ticked off McCann's mitt and rolled away, allowing Delgado and Floyd to move up, putting the tying run on 3rd. Nady was subsequently walked intentionally. Kaz Matsui followed by working a 2-1 count before hitting a sharp single back up the middle to score Delgado, tie the game, and send Shea Stadium into a frenzy. Now, the Brave fans to my left and right were quiet, and I was up. Julio Franco hit next, batting for Feliciano. But almost as a buzzkill, Franco hit into a 6-4-3 DP on the first pitch he saw. The Swede to my left got up and jeered Franco, which I thought a little classless, but whatever. For swinging at the first pitch at that particular spot, he deserved it. Nonetheless, the damage was done, the game was now tied 6-6, moving to the 8th.

Aaron Heilman came on for the 8th and was stellar. He allowed nothing to Atlanta in the 8th, and only a 1-out single in the 9th, helped out in between by a brilliant lunging catch by David Wright on an Edgar Renteria liner in the 9th.

In the bottom of the 8th, though, the Mets would have a golden opportunity. Jose Reyes, already 4 for 4, led off the bottom of the 8th against Oscar Villarreal by lining a hard shot inside the first base line and down into the right field corner. Though Francoeur is known for his great arm, Reyes kept running and steamed into 3rd fairly easily with a triple, putting the potential winning run on 3rd with no outs. The girls got up and left. The Swedes were sticking around until the bitter end. LoDuca checked his swing, but only managed a harmless grounder in front of the plate and was thrown out. Beltran would be walked intentionally, before Villarreal departed for Mike Remlinger, who came in, and got Delgado to line out to Renteria at Short, walked Wright, and got Floyd to roll weakly to Adam LaRoche at 1st. Threat over, Game still tied.

In the last of the 9th, Chuck James entered the game, the 6th Atlanta pitcher. He started off walking Nady, who was bunted over to 2nd by Matsui. But on the bunt, James charged off the mound and stopped awkwardly as Larry picked the ball up. He could not continue and Bobby Cox disgustedly removed him from the game, barking at him all the way off. Peter Moylan, a sidearming Australian, came in and got the Braves out of the jam, sandwiching a Reyes walk between a Chris Woodward strikeout and a LoDuca groundout. Off to Extra Innings we go.

"A Four-Hour Game! A Four-Hour Game!" sang the old man.

"We'll be fine, so long as they don't bring in Reitsma," said the Swede.

Meanwhile, the Mets countered with Billy Wagner in the 10th, who worked an effortless 7-pitch inning. Moylan continued for Atlanta in the last of the 10th and was similarly strong, with strikeouts of Beltran and Wright.

Wagner came out for the 11th, and worked to Wilson Betemit, hitting for Moylan. Mismatch, I figured, but Betemit worked the count to 2-2 and then drilled a shot high and deep to center, sailing towards the Home Run Apple and over the wall for a long, long HR, and giving the Braves the lead once again at 7-6. The Swedes were cheering. The Old Men appeared to be snoring, though few had left this game on a Friday night. Ambush. Wagner walked Andruw Jones with 2 outs before setting the Braves down and departing to a smattering of boos.

In came Reitsma for the Braves. The Swede turned to me and said, "Oh, Jeez, he has to bring this guy in. You'll probably come back."

Nice that he had such faith in his team.

But I realized what he meant when Cliff Floyd led off the 11th, got a hold of a 1-0 Fastball and smoked it, deep and high and straight down the Right Field line, landing just fair, in the Loge Seats for a tying HR. It was the 4th time the Mets had come back to tie the game. The Swede could only shake his head. I, of course, was right back in the game, for however long it was going to last. Reitsma rebounded to get the next 3 batters, sending the game on to the 12th.

Duaner Sanchez and his 0.00 ERA came into the game in the 12th, and promptly walked Adam LaRoche. No worries, however. Sanchez was pitching out of his mind, and quickly got Brian McCann to ground into a 4-6-3 DP. Ryan Langerhans grounded out, and the Braves were done in the 12th.

Two nights earlier, I was at a Mets/Pirates game that had run late, into the 12th inning, before Carlos Delgado hit a Walk-Off HR to end things. Reitsma remained on for the Braves and promptly got Reyes and LoDuca to ground out. But Beltran hit a ringing double down the right field line, and here was Delgado again in the 12th. Predictably, however, he was intentionally walked. Wright followed, and he walked as well. Floyd came up, and got a large ovation following his heroics of the previous inning, But he couldn't repeat these heroics, popping out to Giles at 2nd, sending the game to the 13th inning, and further on into the night.

Sanchez remained in for the Mets in the 13th and did as he did in the 12th, which was allow the Braves nothing. In the last of the 13th, Jorge Sosa took over for Atlanta, their 9th pitcher of the game. I had officially run out of room for pitchers on my scorecard, I now had to create a new column on the other side of the page. Never mind that the Shea Scorecard only went to the 11th inning. Nady walked to lead off and was sacrificed to 2nd by Matsui, in a carbon copy of the bottom of the 9th inning. Ramon Castro followed, batting for Sanchez, and hit a high drive to left that died at the track. Reyes popped out to short, and the game continued, to an inning I'd only seen twice before, and not at all since a memorable night in June, 1999, the 14th.

Jorge Julio came on for the Mets in the 14th. Julio hadn't inspired much confidence in anyone around the Mets to this point, and I mentioned this to the Swede. "You were worried about Reitsma? Well, this is the guy we're worried about," I said. The Swede still didn't seem too confident. Larry led off with a sharp single to left, and I was prepared for the worst. But Julio didn't bend. He struck out Andruw, got Francoeur to pop out to 3rd, and LaRoche grounded weakly to 2nd. Go figure. We continued, standing up for the 14th inning stretch. Many still remained, though the Old Men had mostly left by this point, the game well over 4 hours long, the clock nearing midnight.

Sosa continued for Atlanta in the 14th. LoDuca led off by flying out meekly to Center. Beltran was able to work out a walk, and the crowd was once again up for Delgado. But Sosa jammed Delgado, and he could only pop out to Larry. Things figured to continue, or at least that was how it felt, as Wright came to the plate. Sosa's first pitch was a slider, low and outside, and, similar to what had happened earlier in the game, the ball just nicked off the side of McCann's glove and rolled away, not very far. McCann didn't appear to get up after it too quickly. Noting this, Beltran alertly took off for 2nd, arriving just ahead of McCann's dashed throw. This particular play would be overlooked when Wright drilled the 1-1 pitch over Andruw Jones' head for the game-winning double. But Wright's ball bounced over the fence for a Ground-Rule double. Had Beltran not advanced, he would have had to stop at 3rd, and the game would have continued on. But, instead, Beltran scored, the crowd cheered, the Mets raced from the dugout and pounded Wright to pieces in the middle of the infield, the Swede, gracious in defeat, shook my hand and went on his way. At 11:59pm, the Mets had pulled out an exhilirating, exhausting, logic-defying 4 hour, 47 minute 8-7 victory, in which they trailed 4 separate times and never led until they had won the game.

The kind of game that would come to typify the spirit of the 2006 Mets. Never say die. Never out of a game.

This win moved them to 20-9 on the season, with a 5-game lead over Philadelphia and an 8-game lead over Atlanta. The Mets would continue to charge ahead and not look back until the 2006 Division Title was theirs.

Coming Sunday, Classic Ballclub examines the 2006 Mets.

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