Archive: October 19th, 2006

Game Seven: Why Not?

After an unbelievable outing by John Maine to help extend the 2006 season, the Mets face the purest do-or-die game: Game Seven — the one that every young boy daydreams about in little league, whiffle ball, and the secrecy of their bedroom. You should be sleeping, but you’re awake, and you pick up an imaginary bat, take your stance in front of the mirror, you can hear the crowd roaring, and the radio announcer states “bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, down by three, in the seventh game of the World Series … here’s the pitch …”

OK, so it’s “only” the seventh game of the NLCS, but nonetheless the Mets’ entire season rests on the shoulders of Oliver Perez, an erratic 25-year-old who is simultaneously a has-been and an enigma. After entering 2006 as their Opening Day starter, Perez was demoted to the minors by the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates before being cast away as a throw-in in the deal moving Roberto Hernandez to New York for Xavier Nady. Perez stayed in the minors, reporting to Norfolk, and continued to put up awful numbers in AAA before back-to-back solid starts that made the Mets’ brass go “hmmmm…..”. He didn’t exactly pitch no-hitters in AAA, but he did seem to show progress, and with the Mets’ rotation in such a desperate state of affairs that Jose Lima was being kept in the organization, Omar Minaya wondered if maybe they had caught lightning in a bottle.

After his promotion to the Mets, Perez’s starts ran the gamut, from awful to ordinary to invincible. By the end of the season his record stood 3-13 with a 6.55 ERA … with one three-hit shutout against the loathesome Braves. In the postseason, his ERA ballooned to nearly 8, but he is 1-0. He will take his 7.94 ERA to the hill against the 0.00 held by the also-undefeated Jeff Suppan in what may be a more remarkable mismatch than the previous night’s Maine vs. Carpenter.

Anyone not emotionally involved with this contest can look at this objectively and see that the Cardinals have the advantage, and Oliver Perez has no business starting the most important game of the season for the Mets. However, those same people could have looked at Game Six and come to the same conclusion.

It’s true: Oliver Perez has no business starting Game Seven. Logical thinking would place 15-game winner Steve Trachsel on the mound. But this series raced from logic a long time ago. The Cardinals have won behind the bats of Yadier Molina, Scott Spiezio, and So Taguchi, while Albert Pujols battled “hamstring issues” and other excuse-finding missions. The Mets’ strength has been starting pitching, despite losing their top two starters and getting next to nothing from their 15-game winner. Anything can happen in Game Seven, and whatever does, will have nothing to do with past performance.

Yes, Jeff Suppan was nothing short of magnificent in his last game, holding the mighty Mets to three hits and no runs in eight innings. But that was last game. And he had a five-run lead — which changed the Mets’ approach. They had to take a strike, hope for a walk, wait for mistakes. If the Cardinals don’t come out of the box against Perez and demoralize the Mets early, it will be a very different game. The Mets will be more aggressive — the style that got them this far — and Suppan will not have the advantage of getting ahead 0-1 on every batter. Further, this won’t be Game 3 in quiet, comfy St. Louis — it will be Game 7, in rowdy, raucous Shea Stadium. The air will be different, the smell will be different, the sound will be different … a turbulent white noise known as New York City will be buzzing against him. Mightier men have crumpled in New York’s wake.

On the other hand, Oliver Perez could implode, as he’s done more often than not. But, he could also delight — it’s that three-hit shutout thread of hope that we’ve been holding onto since mid-September. In fact, we don’t even need a Koufax-like performance — something similar to his five-inning effort in Game 4 might just do the trick. As no one on the outside — logical thinkers — believes he has a chance to win the game, there is no pressure to perform. In addition, he doesn’t feel the pressure of this game on his shoulders, as his pregame comments have indicated that he knows it will take the entire team to win the game. He’s going into the game knowing that the potent Mets bats are finally catching fire, ready to explode for another four, five, six runs or more. He also knows he has Robert Hernandez, Aaron Heilman, Darren Oliver, Guillermo Mota, Billy Wagner, Pedro Feliciano, Chad Bradford, and maybe even Tom Glavine behind him should he falter. With those arms at the ready in the ‘pen, he’s well aware that Willie Randolph will not give him the opportunity to implode — he might very well be out of the game before the end of the first inning. So all he has to do is pitch his heart out, for as long as he can, and leave it all out on the field. It’s not a bad place to be in such an important game.

Can the Mets pull off a near miracle? Are the Amazins’ ready with their magic?

We’ve seen it before … and maybe, just maybe, we’ll see it again. Anything can happen.

Let’s go Mets!


Super Maine Carries the Mets

Mets 4 Cardinals 2

John Maine did not look like a Cy Young Award winner, nor a future Hall of Famer. However, he also did not look like Steve Trachsel. Rather, he was somewhere in between, and in the end it will be judged as a masterful perfomance, not far away from among the greatest postseason pitching performances in Mets history.

Maine’s 5 1/3 innings may be measly compared to, say, the Bobby Jones one-hit NLDS shutout in 2000. However — like the Jones game — it is the man and the story behind the performance that creates the legend.

Most fans remember Bobby J. Jones as a guy who had a hot streak early in his career, then fizzled into nothing more than an ordinary pitcher — a reliable but unspectacular fourth or fifth starter (though these days, his numbers would make him a $10M-a-year ace).

In 2000, it looked like Jones’ career might be finished. His fastball barely broke 85 MPH, and his curveball rarely broke at all. He spent a good portion of 1999 in the minors and early in the 2000 season, was demoted to Norfolk for a weeks, where he won two games but sported a 5.32 ERA. He eventually worked his way back to the big club, and despite an ERA over 5, was chosen as the Mets’ #4 starter — in the even they needed one.

Did they ever … Bobby Jones pitched the greatest game of his life in the deciding fifth contest of the NLDS — a one-hit, nine-inning shutout — propelling the Mets to the NLCS and eventually the World Series. As much as the game was about Jones’ skill that day and the goose-eggs, it was equally measured by Jones’ ability to re-emerge from the darkness, to come out of nowhere to be the unlikely postseason hero.

Unlikely is the key here. It is what we attach ourselves to, as fans and non-ballplayers. The unknown, the regular guy. The ordinary man who finds it within himself to rise against the seemingly insurmountable odds and overtake the opposing giant. For us, it is real-life “Rocky”, and the major reason why most Mets fans root for the Mets. Heck, if all we cared about was winning, we could easily follow baseball’s Goliath — the Yankees.

Instead, we follow the Mets, and therefore we immediately recognized no-name John Maine’s place in our Amazin’ history. A one-pitch pitcher who was a supposed throw-in in the Kris Benson deal, who barely hung around the team as a sixth starter, who only was able to make it to the Mets’ rotation because more highly touted prospects were either injured or not ready for prime time, pitched his heart out and extended the 2006 Mets season for at least one more game. And he did it after a mediocre, 4-inning outing in his last start against the same team. And against the reigning Cy Young winner, Chris Carpenter, who some believe to be one of the top 3 pitchers in the NL and the 2006 Cy Young winner as well. John Maine had the odds and the history stacked against him, and had no business throwing six-plus innings of shutout ball — especially with the so-so stuff he was serving to home plate.

That might have made the performance all more legendary — you could say Chris Carpenter outpitched Maine. From the first inning, Maine was in trouble, loading the bases and falling behind hitters, often unable to get a good rhythm going. Yet inning after inning, jam after jam, he gritted it out, weathering each storm and before you knew it, it was the sixth inning, the Cardinals had yet to score a run, and more than 55,000 fans were offering a standing ovation to an ordinary young man who had just struck out. The fact that he shut out the St. Louis hitters without dominating them — just getting it done — made it all the sweeter.